By Benjamin Nobel, June 2, 2016
This post is prompted by a discussion I was having with a friend about which comic book version (direct edition or newsstand) is preferable to collect by year, from 1979 onward (’79 being the year comic shop direct edition comics came into existence — 1977 if you count Whitman multi-packs from Western Publishing). As I talked about in my post entitled Comic Book Newsstand Editions: Understanding The Difference, an industry insider recently (in 2013) published estimates for Marvel’s newsstand/direct percentages for certain years throughout history, giving us a picture of the relative percentages of each type over the course of time and how direct sales took over the market. [This revealing of information happened to coincide with Marvel’s decision to end newsstand sales altogether].
Newsstand vs. Direct: What’s The Most Rare Version To Collect By Year?
For 1979, the published estimate was 6% direct edition to 94% newsstand sales. It makes sense that the direct-sold percentage would be so low in this first year, because this was a brand-new sales channel that was just getting off the ground. A prominent eBay seller I discussed this phenomenon with revealed to me that in their own sales online, when they list a direct edition copy with the bar code strike-through and they point out the tiny print run percentage in the listing, they get a higher priced sale (their words: “I always get better money when I list them as such”).
A premium market price is a compelling reason to prefer one version over the other, although amazingly, even at 6% of sales originally, when you search for graded copies of some of these today, you notice that there sure seems to be plenty of CGC graded strike-through copies out there in relation to regular-bar-code newsstand copies. Because when you think about it, that tiny 6% fraction in 1979 that were direct edition copies, were handled with great care by the comic shops themselves and then from there wound up concentrated into the hands of collectors who preserved them extremely well… compared to their newsstand counterparts which suffered such a high destruction rate, ending up mostly in the hands of readers. But, with such a small initial distribution percentage, and with that fact driving a market price premium, arguably these very early direct edition copies with the bar code strike-through (before the Spider-Man rectangle was introduced) are the preferable version to collect.
So that’s 1979… Then what? Well, let me first skip ahead from 1979 to late 1982. Because from October of 1982 to August of 1986 (and even later for D.C.), the clear version to collect for any given comic are the rare cover price variants, which I talked about in my post entitled 75 Cent Variants (Canadian Newsstand Editions), where the cover price variants were also a single digit percentage of the total distribution (starting with the comics that were sold into Canada you then divide that already-small market by direct/newsstand, with the price variants being only the newsstand portion of that market — a market which by population size was 9.8% of the total as a starting point, with that percentage figure then getting further lowered when you divide it up by direct/newsstand because only the newsstand copies were the price variants).
After the cover price variant window of the 80’s closed at Marvel we are left more than half way through the year 1986. And in 1986, the published discussions and estimates by Marvel insiders shows this was the time-frame when direct edition sales would surpass newsstand sales… making newsstand the clear winner to collect as the more rare version from that point forward.
So by percentage rarity, if direct editions are clearly favorable to collect in 1979, if the cover price variants are clearly favorable to collect from late 1982 to 1986 (during the window when they existed at Marvel), and if the newsstand versions are clearly favorable to collect thereafter, that leaves a period of time just before the cover price variants started in 1982, that is open to some debate…
Let’s consider 1982, shall we? Following 1979, that’s the next year we have published information to look at, for the estimated percentage… and it was revealed to be 20% direct edition to 80% newsstand. There were less direct edition copies sold… does this mean the direct edition is more favorable to collect? Maybe on paper from the starting point distribution percentage one would think so, but when it comes to high grade survivors I’m not so sure (read on and you’ll see why)! Which brings me to Wolverine Limited Series #1, a key issue which was published in 1982, making it a perfect example comic to examine.
Wolverine Limited Series #1 (1982) — Let’s Actually Look For It!
If the distribution split was 20% direct to 80% newsstand, then “on paper” we should be able to find plenty of newsstand copies of this comic, should we not? I went looking for a CGC 9.6 copy. I want to share with you what I found, with screen-captures for posterity. The captures will be long but scroll through if you will, and count how many UPC codes you see (newsstand copies), versus how many Spider-Man rectangle copies you see (direct edition). Are 2 out of every 10 direct edition, and 8 out of every 10 newsstand edition? First, below, I have a screen-capture of the copies offered in the upcoming June ComicLink auction (all but one has a picture listed). As you can see, every copy pictured is the direct edition.
Only seven results here so this is not a huge sample size… but not a single newsstand copy is pictured. If direct edition copies were only 20% of Marvel’s sales that year, and newsstand copies were a full 80% then shouldn’t we see some newsstand copies? Maybe at a larger source, like eBay… There, the sample size is so large that to make a reasonably-sized screen capture you need to narrow the results with a search term.
I searched for CGC 9.6 copies (a nice grade point where the copy is going to be in stunning shape but you don’t have to pay 9.8 premium prices). Here is a screen-capture for posterity, of the search results querying for CGC 9.6 copies on eBay, on the date of this writing, June 2, 2016 (even this result makes for a long screenshot so my apologies if you are on a smartphone, this will require some scrolling!), please count how many UPC codes (newsstand copies) you see:
Did you spot the one newsstand copy (with a UPC code)? It wasn’t a #1… it was in the listing that pictured a 1-4 set, with the newsstand copy being issue #2 (a CGC 9.4 copy). So between these 24 eBay copies and the 7 ComicLink copies we’re up to 31 we’ve looked at and haven’t yet seen a single newsstand copy of Wolverine Limited Series #1. But maybe that newsstand #2 provides a clue — it is a 9.4, a notch below what I searched eBay for…
Newsstand comics are pretty much notorious for getting beaten up, between the fact that the typical buyer was a reader (whereas collectors meanwhile were buying direct edition copies from their local comic shop), and the fact that the staff of newsstands treated them just like magazines (i.e. a publication meant to be read, with no thought of preserving condition — by definition with this distribution channel they were not handled with any semblance of care and were simply tossed into those metal spin racks, inflicting damage pretty much immediately for all but the lucky “sandwiched” copies protected by outer ones or the rare staff member who was gentle with them).
So maybe 9.6 is too lofty a goal for newsstand copies? I repeated the same eBay search but notched down to 9.4. Out of 19 listings, still no newsstand copies! So 31+19… that’s up to 50 copies now that we’ve reviewed that are all direct edition examples. I next notched the grade down again, to CGC 9.2. This time, among the 12 listings, there was one newsstand copy! Finally! Here it is:
So that’s 1 out of 62 copies… 1.6%. Today is just one moment in time and I’ve only looked in two places but any time I’ve looked — and no matter how wide my search of online and offline comic shops — my own experience with Wolverine Limited Series #1 is consistently that high grade CGC newsstand copies are the exception, while high grade direct edition copies are the norm out there.
How is this possible, when the published statistics show that fully 80% of Marvel’s comics would have been newsstand in 1982, versus 20% direct edition? How do we get this kind of opposite observed newsstand rarity in high grade surviving copies in 2016, from that original 1982 distribution percentage which should on paper argue that the direct edition would be harder to find?
I want to comment at this point that it is a real shame that CGC did not elect to break out newsstand versus direct editions as separate versions on census broadly… had they done so instead of lumping them both together, at this point we could look at some actual census data and know how many copies of each version were turned in for grading, and what grades they were given. Alas, that information does not exist. Which leaves us with observation about availability in the market as the only way to get a sense of what the relative rarity of surviving high grade copies likely looks like today.
From my observations about this and other comics published around 1982 — such as the exercise I shared above of actually looking for a high grade copy — I have to conclude that although the direct edition copies may have only been 20% of the total sold at time of distribution, those direct edition copies were then concentrated into the hands of shops whose owners knew to preserve their condition, and then the typical buyer at those shops was concerned about collecting the comic and preserving its condition as well. Over at the newsstands meanwhile, how many of those copies were actually handled with care and then stored away in a bag with board by a collector? Unfortunately because of CGC’s decision to simply lump both versions together on the census, we have no official census tally to reach a definitive conclusion based on hard numbers of existing graded copies…
But my own conclusion is that even with comics published back in 1982, a year when the answer isn’t crystal clear from the distribution data which version should be preferable to collect, I for one cannot resist wanting to own a high grade newsstand copy because they just seem to be so much harder to find out there… The “sorting” of the comic book market into a mostly-collector group taking home and preserving direct edition copies, versus a mostly-reader group buying newsstand copies, produces relative survivorship effect that appears to overwhelm the original distribution percentage.
So for me, high grade newsstand is my collecting preference from the point strike-through copies end (the point the Spider-Man rectangle was introduced), because that seems to be a good cut-off point: I’ll collect direct edition as my preference if it is early enough that it has a strike-through (even though those early direct edition copies were so well preserved, if nothing else it is such an interesting part of comic book history and adds to the “story” behind the comic… “and see that weird strike-through on the bar code, only 6% of the copies sold that year had that, and the really interesting reason that is there is…” [by the way, for anyone reading this who does not know what that really interesting reason is, the answer to that question can be found in my separate post entitled Comic Book Newsstand Editions: Understanding The Difference]), after that strike-through ends and the Spider-Man rectangle begins my collecting preference becomes newsstand, and then if the comic in question has a newsstand cover price variant (if it was published during that window in the 1980’s where they exist), then I’ll go after the price variant as my preference.
Happy Collecting! 🙂
July 18, 2016 addendum — I was just reviewing the July ComicLink auction and couldn’t help but notice that the Wolverine Limited Series #1 listings are all direct edition copies yet again this month. In fact, out of the entire mini-series there’s just one newsstand copy (a #2). I screen-captured all the listings for #1-4 below for posterity: