Direct Edition vs. Newsstand Edition Comic Books

Amazing Spider-Man / Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man / Sensational Spider-Man

By Benjamin Nobel, June 10, 2016

With newsstand copies of Amazing Spider-Man around the 600’s, there is quite an interesting and “post-worthy” phenomenon… one having to do with the UPC codes.  To set the stage:  Not all collectors know that the comics sold in comic shops were “direct edition” copies while meanwhile there was a second “variation” sent only to newsstands that can be told apart.  There is an interesting history there, which I covered in my post entitled Comic Book Newsstand Editions: Understanding The Difference.  But the “cliff notes” version of that history as relates to this post and the specific “phenomenon” I am about to go into, is to know that direct edition comics didn’t always have UPC codes on them the way current ones do…  But after a certain point they were added, because retailers were requesting them from publishers (with codes on them it would be much easier to scan items at check-out).  And so for what I’ll refer to as “late modern” comics, the distinction between the Direct Edition (non-returnable) copies, and the returnable newsstand ones, is pretty darn subtle at a glance.  In fact, I wonder how many readers will even notice there’s a difference before I go ahead and point it out?  Consider Amazing Spider-Man #599 below:

One of these is the "direct edition" version, the other is the "newsstand" version...  Can you tell which is which?

One of these is the “direct edition” version, the other is the “newsstand” version… Can you tell which is which?

Maybe it will help if I zoom in on the important spot…  Now take another look below, this time with the picture showing just the two UPC code boxes side by side.  Can you tell which is the direct edition and which is the newsstand edition?  (Hint: helpfully, the direct edition actually says “Direct Edition” on it).

ASM-599-newsstand-vs-direct

Zooming in on the UPC code boxes for two copies of ASM 599… Spot the direct edition copy (helpfully, the Direct Edition copy says “Direct Edition” on it).

Observant readers will notice there are actually several differences… (including another key difference — that the cover price is different — that I will delve into in future posts)…  But for this post I’m just going to talk about what appears on the side of the code box (for this issue the right-hand side):  “Amazing Spider-Man” for the ASM #599 copy at the left (the newsstand copy) and “Direct Edition” for the ASM #599 copy at the right.  Next, below, I’ll picture the subsequent issue, #600 (and this time for anyone who didn’t spot the words to look for, I’ll point them out with arrows):

ASM-600-titles

For Amazing Spider-Man #600, instead of “Amazing Spider-Man” it reads “Frndly Nbhd Spider-Man” on the newsstand copy.  (Sharp eyed readers will also notice another important difference, at the very bottom — the cover price is different).

As you can see, the title above the code for the newsstand copy of ASM #600 at the left identifies the comic as “Frndly Nbhd Spider-Man” (short for Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man).  But this is Amazing Spider-Man #600 we’re looking at, not Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.  And this phenomenon is what I want to talk about in this post.  Now that you have seen the newsstand/direct-edition distinction, I’m just going to be looking at newsstand copies for the remainder of this post.  (And now that you know what we’re looking for, I’ll make the pictures smaller and easier to scroll through).  Let’s now look at a newsstand copy of issue #601, the next issue chronologically…

ASM #601 newsstand copy... The title reads "Sensational Spider-Man" to the left of the code box.

ASM #601 newsstand copy… The title reads “Sensational Spider-Man” to the left of the code box.

For this one, above, look at the left and you’ll see it identifies this comic as “Sensational Spider-Man” (but this is Amazing Spider-Man #601 we’re looking at).  And as a side note, from issue to issue the orientation of the codes is sometimes different and the title is sometimes on a different side of the box, but the important thing to notice is that these are three different UPC codes we’ve now seen, for newsstand copies of ASM #599, 600, and 601, being the codes for Amazing Spider-Man, Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, and Sensational Spider-Man.  Let’s see what’s on issue #602, shall we?  Here it is below:

Amazing Spider-Man 602... for this one it is "Amazing Spider-Man"...

Amazing Spider-Man 602… for this one it is “Amazing Spider-Man”…

“Amazing Spider-Man” on that one.  Let me now present a few more in succession:

ASM #603... Friendly.

ASM #603… Friendly.

ASM #604... Sensational.

ASM #604… Sensational.

ASM #605... Amazing.

ASM #605… Amazing.

ASM #606... Friendly.

ASM #606… Friendly.

ASM #607... Sensational.

ASM #607… Sensational.

And now to make the “phenomenon” I’m pointing out here all the more clear, let me list out below all the newsstand ASM issues we’ve just looked at, and I will color code the names along the UPC codes as I list them to make crystal clear what’s going on here:

599 – amazing
600 – friendly
601 – sensational
602 – amazing
603 – friendly
604 – sensational
605 – amazing
606 – friendly
607 – sensational

Do you see the pattern emerging?  Marvel is “cycling” these three different codes, alternating them in a predictable pattern.   Exactly how far back this goes (and how far forward) is another question…  one that is not easily answered because these newsstand copies are so incredibly difficult to find, so to “confirm” each and every issue with a picture is not something I will even bother to attempt.  But if this pattern holds, we should be able to extrapolate it backwards and forwards, and make a prediction about which code would be on which issue.  I will do that now, backwards to issue #579 (where I have a picture and can confirm) and forward to issue #616 (where I also have a picture and can confirm).  Here is the extrapolated list, with my confirmed examples from above in bold and my guesses (all based on the established pattern) in italics:


579 – friendly
580 – sensational
581 – amazing
582 – friendly
583 – sensational
584 – amazing
585 – friendly
586 – sensational
587 – amazing
588 – friendly
589 – sensational
590 – amazing
591 – friendly
592 – sensational
593 – amazing
594 – friendly
595 – sensational
596 – amazing
597 – friendly
598 – sensational
599 – amazing
600 – friendly
601 – sensational
602 – amazing
603 – friendly
604 – sensational
605 – amazing
606 – friendly
607 – sensational
608 – amazing
609 – friendly
610 – sensational
611 – amazing
612 – friendly
613 – sensational
614 – amazing
615 – friendly
616 – sensational

So let’s see if these predictions hold…  We guessed going backwards, based on the pattern, that ASM #579 would have the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man code.  Does it?  Here it is:

ASM #579... Friendly.

ASM #579… Friendly.

It does!  We also guessed going forwards, based on the pattern, that ASM #616 would have the Sensational Spider-Man code.  Does it?  Here it is:

ASM #616... Sensational.

ASM #616… Sensational.

It does!  Readers may be wondering at this point, does any of this matter?  Or is it just an interesting bit of trivia?  The answer is developing and I will be posting more about this in the future, but it is fairly clear to me that yes it matters [8/31/2016 update: it absolutely matters… please read Newsstand Variants, $3.99 Newsstand Editions, and The Doc Collection].  One reason it seemed to matter: the distribution was different depending on the code.  I know this because of “The Doc Collection” (which too will be the topic of a future post).  This collection, quite possibly the largest late modern newsstand collection in existence, is in the process of being sold off, at auction, one comic at a time.  But a very interesting pattern emerged in the Amazing Spider-Man run… this collection was missing every third issue.  It wasn’t that the collector “held back” every third issue from being auctioned, they simply never bought it in the first place.  And it wasn’t that it was there on the newsstand but they purposely skipped buying it, but rather, the store this collector bought their comics from (a drugstore) didn’t get them.  What’s the same about those missed copies?  They were the ones with the Sensational Spider-Man codes.  The store simply wasn’t distributed any of the ASM copies with Sensational on them!  A pretty fascinating phenomenon, wouldn’t you agree?  And it reminds me of a Jim Shooter quote:

“The newsstand cast a wide net. It funneled wannabe collectors into the comics shops. In a way, the spotty, unreliable, inconsistent nature of newsstand distribution was a good thing, because someone who just had to have every issue was more or less forced to seek out a comics shop.”  — Jim Shooter

Spotty… inconsistent…  Definitely describes this situation where the largest late modern newsstand collection out there, covering 50,000 newsstand comics, missed every third Amazing Spider-Man issue.  The ones with the Sensational Spider-Man code on them… which traces back to this phenomenon where Marvel “cycled” these three different codes.

If you picture how a “typical” newsstand buyer (a reader) might react to this phenomenon — this “hole” in the story line — it might pretty much be what Jim Shooter said, i.e. this forced them into a comic shop to buy the issue they missed and see what happened in the story.  At that point, they might very well become a regular customer of the comic shop, finding it to be reliable and consistent.  Enough readers making this switch from newsstand purchases to comic shops, and you can start to see how it really snowballed to the point where by 2013, by Rozanski’s estimates, direct edition comics were a full 99% of the total sold by Marvel, meaning newsstand comics were a mere 1%.  Marvel actually shut down its newsstand sales to the last remaining bookstore outlets in 2013 and Marvel’s David Gabriel revealed that newsstand sales to all other newsstand outlets had ended two years prior (which would have been circa 2010-2011).   By Comichron’s estimates, industry-wide 2013 newsstand comic book sales were only $25 million versus comic store orders (direct edition) of $340 million — that’s 6.8% newsstand vs. direct edition at 93.2%.

No matter how you slice it up, it looks like that newsstand slice in later years is a single-digit percentage of the total… and then from there, newsstand comics also suffer the typical high destruction rate inflicted by readers, that newsstand comics are pretty much notorious for… making high grade survivors all the more rare.

There is such a lower percentage of these as to nearly make many of these late modern newsstand copies “effectively invisible.”  But CGC has decided to “break out” newsstand comics with UPC codes mis-identifying the comics as another title — which would be two out of three ASM’s in the period discussed in this post — and they have also decided to “break out” $3.99/$4.99 newsstand cover price variants, as separately recognized census variants.  This will mean that over the years as data is accumulated, we’ll be able to see the relative newsstand-vs-direct edition rarity numbers self-express in the census data for these later years of Marvel’s newsstand distribution.

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4 thoughts on “Amazing Spider-Man / Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man / Sensational Spider-Man

  1. Steve says:

    Excellent information here. I hadn’t picked up on the cycle or the implications of the “missing” issues. This helps to explain why some ASM newsstands are so much harder to find (e.g 694). Great stuff ☺

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  2. elmer says:

    I am not sure if this is the explanation for the rarity of 694. The phenomenon that Ben describes runs from issue 538 u/i 622. I have to admit though that before I (nearly) completed my newsstand run, I could deduct the UPC codes by looking at the patterns. But I can’t see regular patterns in the UPC Codes of the last ASM v2 books. Therefore I am also not sure of the UPC code of ASM694

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  3. Elmer says:

    It will be of interest to very few people, but I have to correct my previous post. Marvel UPC-codes for newsstand copies consisted of 5 parts from January 1987 onwards. For example, ASM545 had UPC code 0-09281-02457-6-02. For this discussion only the third segment is of importance. This segment is related to the specific title. Since the introduction of UPC-codes in February 1977, ASM had always been 02457.

    Starting with ASM538 (January 2007), the UPC-box was embellished with a black bar containing the name of the title. Ben showed us examples of that. Obviously, from 538 u/i 545 this box contained the name ‘Amazing Spider-Man’.

    Then, in January 2008, the One More Time storyline was concluded with ASM545 and the three Spidey-titles – Amazing Spider-Man, Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man and Sensation Spider-Man – were all combined in one Amazing Spider-Man title, which was released not once but three times per month. Probably to limit administrative effort and cost, nothing was changed from logistic point of view: Sensational Spider-man and Friendly Neighborhood were continued to be ordered at the printing companies, although the design of the covers happened to mention ASM. That is why from ASM546 onwards, the black boxes next to the UPC-box switch from Friendly to Sensational to Amazing and back again, as Ben mentioned. Of course, this means that the third segment of the UPC-codes also switches between the three former titles, with 02199 being Friendly Neighborhood, 03503 being Sensational Spider-Man and 02457 still being Amazing Spider-Man.

    So for example, ASM546 (Friendly) = 0-09281-02199-5-02, ASM547 (Sensational) = 0-09281-03503-9-02 and ASM548 (Amazing) = 0-09281-02457-6-03.

    Ben told us about the newsstand collection that missed every third book. My guess is that this collection was built from a store that never ordered Sensational Spider-Man or Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man to begin with, and didn’t rectify this after the three titles were combined in one.

    The black boxes with the confusing names disappeared after ASM622 (April 2010), but the system of UPC-coding continued for another year until ASM653 (April 2011). ASM654 did not have the expected 02199 code: it was dropped by Marvel and from then on the codes switched between 02457 and 03503.

    To make things complete, after ASM689 (September 2012) Marvel abandoned the codes 02457 and 03503. I am not sure, but could this coincide with the moment that Marvel ended its newsstand distribution, with the exception of BAM and B&N? First the codes were changed into 61541 and 61540 (4 isses) and then – starting with the notoriously difficult to find ASM694 – to 61542 and 61543 (7 issues).

    Superior Spider-Man switched between 61544 and 61545 for 20 issues before the newsstand distribution was finally ended with SS20 (December 2013).

    Hope I haven’t bored you to death 🙂 Distribution history can actually be quite interesting in case you are not only interested in the stories, but in the comics industry as well.

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  4. Mike Duke says:

    The different UPC titles started showing up on Amazing Spider-Man in the Civil War issues in the 530s range!! I know because I’ve been selling the largest newsstand collection I’ve ever heard!! Mike Duke Owner Hi River Comics and Exclusive Dealer of the Doc Collection

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