By Benjamin Nobel, June 21, 2016
In my separate post about CGC-recognized “Canadian Edition” comic books of the 1980’s — entitled 75 Cent Variants (Canadian Newsstand Editions) — I examined the Amazing Spider-Man and Uncanny X-Men titles, published by Marvel Comics, and found that Marvel ended separately priced Canadian newsstand copies in September of 1986 (the last variant being 8/1986, after which newsstand copies simply carried both prices, U.S. price in large type and Canadian price underneath, from September of 1986 onward).
[Note: “Canadian Edition” is what CGC presently calls these on census, even though “Type 1A Cover Price Variant” or “Canadian Price Variant” arguably would have been a better labeling choice; I’m going to be using the term “Canadian Edition” throughout the post because of CGC’s notation and my reference to CGC census information, but readers should please know that my personal feeling on the matter is that Jon McClure’s notation “Type 1A” is really the proper notation that CGC should have used; more on the subject of this terminology here.]
In that post I had mentioned that D.C.’s window went on for longer… This post is a follow-up to that remark about D.C. I encourage readers to look at my other post for more of the background on CGC-recognized “Canadian Edition” variant comics, but I’ll touch upon the background basics here too in this post… you basically need to know these three things, in order to understand why “Canadian Edition” comic books have a higher cover price and would have been only a tiny percentage of the overall distribution:
- In the 1980’s the currency exchange rate between the US and Canadian dollar moved substantially, causing publishers to need to demand a higher price when the buyer was paying in Canadian dollars, instead of charging the same price across both countries as they had been doing immediately before the price variants of this time-frame begin to exist (for the decade prior, the US to Canadian dollar had bumped around near parity). Publishers begin demanding a higher price from Canadians in late 1982 (October).
- Starting toward the end of the 1970’s, there are differences between newsstand vs. direct edition comics, one difference being in estimated distribution percentages, another being that during the window in question in the 1980’s, the direct edition copies carried both US and Canadian prices on them (also UK), while the newsstand copies were two separate batches, one batch for each country, each batch with just one price shown (just one price for our price variant window, that is… after that window closes, it is back to one newsstand batch with prices for both the US and Canada). [So the cover price variants — the “Canadian Edition” labeled comics — are only the newsstand copies sent to Canada].
- Although Canada has 1.6% more geographical area than the United States as measured in square kilometers, by population Canada is actually very small relative to the U.S., roughly the size of California, meaning that by population it was only 9.8% of the North American market for comic books in the 1980’s when these price variants occurred.
The Population Difference
To really “get” just how big a disparity we’re talking about, below is a chart from the “public data” section of Google, showing the 1985 population of the US versus Canada. And the population difference is of course important because the higher cover price copies were the kind sent to Canada, priced for Canadian currency.
So as a percentage of the North American market for comic books, by population, Canada was 9.8% in 1985. This would already be an interesting situation if all comics sold in Canada were the “Canadian Edition” type with the higher cover price, but that is not the case… because as I’m about to show you below, D.C. placed both prices on direct edition copies, i.e. there was one giant batch of direct edition copies that covered the comic shops across the U.S. and Canada (and the UK). So the price variants were a newsstand-only phenomenon!
Direct Edition Copies — The Same Across Both Countries
To determine the date of the last D.C. “Canadian Edition”, I examined the Batman title. Below is a Direct Edition copy of Batman #423, with the price box enlarged to show that such copies have a 75¢ price at the top (for the U.S.), and then $1.00 underneath as the price in Canadian dollars (also 40 pence for the UK).
Newsstand Copies — Where Cover Price Variants Occurred
The newsstand copies, at issue #423, were still divided by country. I.e. the copies sold on US newsstands are priced at 75 cents, while the copies sold on Canadian newsstands are priced at $1.00:
And then to zoom in on the prices to point out more clearly (especially for those readers using smaller devices) that the Canadian newsstand copy is $1.00 while the US newsstand copy is 75¢:
It turns out that this issue, Batman #423, from September of 1988, marks the last separately priced newsstand issue. Because at #424 (October of 1988), newsstand copies now show both prices, to serve both countries with one large batch:
And then to zoom in on that price box for anyone reading on a smaller device — as you can see, they have merged the two newsstand batches, and now just have one batch of newsstand copies with both prices on them:
Newsstand Distribution Disparity
Because our price variants were a newsstand-only phenomenon, to arrive at an understanding of their rarity, we have to divide that 9.8% of the North American comic book market that Canada’s population represented — divide it into direct edition versus newsstand sales. And then only the newsstand portion of that market represents our variants.
So: what was happening in comic book distribution during our price variant window of the 1980’s? In the book Economics of Digital Comics by Todd Allen and Mark Waid, the “mid-1980’s” is the time-frame pegged as the point where direct edition sales would surpass newsstand sales for the traditional publishers (like Marvel and DC):
Particularly excellent estimations and discussions about the state of comic book distribution in the 1980’s have been published by Jim Shooter and also Chuck Rozanski — Rozanski is cited by Jim Shooter as follows:
“In the mid to late 1970’s, the comic book Direct Market started to evolve. The story of its origins is told better than I could ever tell it, starting here: [ this links out ]. I differ from Chuck Rozanski’s accounts only in details, which are in the big picture, of no consequence. To wit, I believe that I was present for his first meeting with President Jim Galton and, in fact, played a part in making that meeting happen. … ”
— Jim Shooter, Comic Book Distribution Part III
The above link shared by Shooter is a great read presented in multiple parts, and one of the parts contains estimates of newsstand versus direct edition break-down by year during the 1980’s (I’ll share the pertinent quote with those numbers in a moment). And then Shooter’s own accounts of the situation in the mid-1980’s also corroborates how direct edition sales were taking over and Marvel was becoming completely dependent on them… taking over to such a large degree that Shooter would battle to try and save the ailing newsstand channel. A battle he would lose. Here is one of his pertinent discussions of this effort:
“I felt that we needed the newsstand market. That, if we became completely dependent on the Direct Market, we’d wind up in the same position as when we’d been entirely dependent on the newsstand market. Up the creek without a paddle. Screwed. Helpless. At their mercy. I spoke with Marvel’s newsstand sales manager, Denise Bové. Denise was in charge of our dealings with Curtis. Like me, she felt the pendulum had swung too far. So did our Curtis account people. We came up with a number of support-the-newsstand-distribution ideas. I suggested, for instance, doing a newsstand exclusive. Why not? You know the Direct Market shops would go to their local ID’s and buy copies anyway. It would be a big hit for the ID’s, and maybe the retailers they served. And great PR in that market. Maybe get them interested in comics again. A little. That would have been in 1986. At that point, I was engaged in daily battles with the President and the other owners of Marvel.”
— Jim Shooter, Comic Book Distribution Part III
In the quote above, Jim Shooter is discussing his efforts to save the ailing newsstand distribution channel, with the pendulum having swung so far in the direction of direct edition sales that he was concerned Marvel would become completely dependent on that distribution channel. Sometime during that 1985/1986 time-frame, is when it looks like direct edition sales would overtake newsstand sales (Rozanski’s estimates, which I’ll quote in a moment, peg 1985 as the 50/50 point). By the later 1980’s it is pretty clear that the pendulum continued to swing in the direct edition direction… which is very interesting to consider in the context of our price variants and the fact that DC’s cover price variant window stayed open against this backdrop.
“With sales of comics melting away into the much more efficient Direct Market specialty stores, only the most dedicated newsstands chose to keep comics available after 1987.”
– Chuck Rozanski, Modifications to the Distribution System
I find it so interesting that D.C. maintained two distinct newsstand batches until September of 1988 — about two years longer than Marvel did — against this backdrop. Although I have not read specific discussions about D.C. in the kind of depth that Shooter and Rozanski have gone into about Marvel, it seems highly likely that the two industry “heavyweights” would both be subject to the same market forces — forces which were shifting comic book distribution so heavily towards direct edition and away from newsstand, to such a degree that over at Marvel, Jim Shooter was fighting (and losing) his battles to support the ailing newsstand market, because the “brass” loved the direct sales model calling it “shooting fish in a barrel,” and shot down any ideas to help support the newsstand channel.
“The Direct Market was easy money, quick money, sure money to the brass — not that any of them had ever set foot in a comics shop or even opened a comic book. To them it was about moving the units and collecting the cash. Might as well have been widgets we were selling. But, they knew the Direct Market was shooting fish in a barrel. Why jeopardize that? Circulation V.P. Ed Shukin, both Kalish and Denise’s boss, kept his head low and his mouth shut. He knew which way the wind was blowing upstairs. So, Denise and I lost and Kalish won. I was gone from Marvel not too long afterwards, so, it was my problem no longer. Kalish passed away in 1991, but ultimately Marvel arrived where she wanted it. And that’s where we are now.”
— Jim Shooter, Comic Book Distribution Part III
Below, here’s that quote I mentioned earlier with Rozanski’s estimates of the 1980’s distribution statistics, quoted from one of the sections of Rozanski’s accounts of the evolution of the direct sales channel (which Shooter had linked to), to illustrate this trend:
“Because I had such a personal vested interest in the growth trends of the Direct Market, during the early 1980’s I quizzed everyone at Marvel who would give me figures as to what impact comics shops were having on the sales at company. I derived the following estimated numbers specifically from conversations with Jim Shooter, Ed Shukin, Michael Hobson, and Carol Kalish:
1979 Direct Market 6% of Marvel’s gross sales
1982 Direct Market 20% of Marvel’s gross sales
1985 Direct Market 50% of Marvel’s gross sales
1987 Direct Market 70% of Marvel’s gross sales
While the exact figures may vary slightly from my derived estimates, the fact remains that Marvel’s choosing to open up their distribution system to new entrants in 1979, and providing working capital at the same time, turned out to be the turning point in the history of the company. In fact, if you consider that the expansion in market share by the Direct Market was paralleled by the simultaneous collapse of the newsstand business, it becomes clear that Marvel Comics would not have survived the 1980’s without the robust growth in comics specialty shops.”
– Chuck Rozanski, “Modifications to the Distribution System” by Chuck Rozanski
A few things I want to note about the above quote: (1) It is specifically about Marvel. (2) Another article about Marvel’s direct edition to newsstand distribution pegs 1986, not 1985, as the year direct would surpass newsstand (illustrating that this is all very much estimation, even by industry insiders). (3) If you take that 1982 number and increase the direct edition percentage by 10% each year, it “fills in” perfectly, allowing us to extrapolate the years in between, i.e.:
Above, my “fill-ins” are in italics, but as you can see it lines up perfectly to assume a steady direct edition rise in this way, so I’m going to use those year-by-year numbers — within a 10% range — to build out my next table of estimates. Also: these are the numbers for Marvel so even though it is safe to assume that the same trend of direct edition sales taking over the market was happening at both comic industry heavyweights, I am not aware of direct-vs-newsstand statistics like this having been published for D.C… So while I’m going to use these numbers — because that’s what I have — I want to make clear the caveat that it is possible D.C.’s experience differed from that of Marvel. But this is all for purposes of estimates anyway so let’s proceed:
If Canada was 9.8% of the North American market for comic books (as established earlier looking at the population disparity), and if we then divide that 9.8% into direct edition vs. newsstand using the year-by-year percentages just discussed, then we can arrive at a ballpark percentage of comics sold in North America that would have been our cover price variants:
|Year||Est. Price Variant Distribution Percentage|
|1983||6.86 – 7.84% (using ~20-30% direct edition assumption)|
|1984||5.88 – 6.86% (using ~30-40% direct edition assumption)|
|1985||4.90 – 5.88% (using ~40-50% direct edition assumption)|
|1986||3.92 – 4.90% (using ~50-60% direct edition assumption)|
|1987||2.94 – 3.92% (using ~60-70% direct edition assumption)|
|1988||1.96 – 2.94% (using ~70-80% direct edition assumption)|
Hence the title of this post: D.C. Comics Canadian Editions — Likely Only 2-7%, where by these estimates we would have been as low as ~2% by 1988 (down from about ~7% in 1983). That 2-7% being the estimated percentage of total comics sold in North America that would have been our Canadian cover price variants, based first upon the market size Canada represented by population, and then from there based on the division of the Canadian market into newsstand vs. direct edition sales, by year, using the distribution statistics discussed earlier. [I’ll point out at this point, that estimates are one thing, cold hard CGC census data is another… because fortunately, CGC keeps track of how many copies they have graded of these, with “Canadian Edition” being the variant name used on the census for our low distribution cover price variants.]
And as you can see, as we move later chronologically, the scarcity should become more and more pronounced, all else equal. As anecdotal evidence of this: It took me this long to put up this post on D.C. (having already made the other about Marvel months earlier), because I wanted to actually verify with my own eyes that the $1.00 priced Batman #423 really exists out there, and it took me a ridiculously long time to actually come across one!
Some Keys To Consider
Some especially interesting D.C. keys to consider during the price variant window include the Crisis on Infinite Earths mini-series which was published in 1985/1986, and the Legends mini-series published in 1986/1987. Batman #423 — the last of the price variants — is collectible in its own right, with what I consider to be a modern classic cover by Todd McFarlane, and another nearby Batman issue considered a “key” is issue #404, published in 1987 (not to mention the rest of the “Year 1” storyline). Other keys in the Batman title with price variants include issue #357 (1st appearance of Jason Todd and 1st Killer Croc in cameo), and #366 (1st Jason Todd in Robin costume). Tales of the Teen Titans #44 is another key within the price variant window, where Dick Grayson becomes Nightwing. Two other interesting contenders to collect are Detective Comics #577 and #578, also featuring art by Todd McFarlane. These are just a handful of ideas that only scratch the surface of this large variant “window” and for a ton more DC examples see this page. [Of note: when the variants were priced at 75 cents, DC included the word “Canadian” under the price… but when the price increased, that changed; see my separate post 95¢ and $1.00 DC Price Variants: How Do We Know What They Are? for details].
With Legends #3 I want to walk through an exercise in estimating the number of price variant copies out there — this key features the 1st appearance of the new Suicide Squad, so I’ll use this as my choice of a specific example comic to examine, given that it is an important and timely example (because of the Suicide Squad movie).
According to this source, Legends #3 had a total print run of 225,000 copies. Published in 1987, if we then apply our distribution estimates (from our table from earlier) against that total 225K number, we can estimate as few as 6,620 price variant copies with the $1.00 cover price would likely have been sold. That’s an exceptionally low number of copies for a key first appearance, especially considering that the price variant was newsstand-only distribution — the typical newsstand buyer was a reader, so price variants surviving in high grade are few and far between.
Collectors meanwhile, were concentrated into comic shops, i.e. taking home and carefully preserving direct edition copies, not taking home these price variants as a generalization. Because the two different distribution channels “sorted” comic buyers into a mostly-collectors group (direct edition), and a mostly-readers-group (newsstand), the percentage of “CGC-worthy” survivor copies of our cover price variants (these variants being a newsstand-only phenomenon) is a different discussion than the already-tiny percentage of variant sales at the original time of distribution. As of this writing, the CGC census shows just three copies have been graded that are denoted Canadian Edition:
This 0.29% census rarity certainly underscores how exceptionally scarce these “Canadian Edition” price variants really are, especially those in the later years of 1987-1988 when newsstand distribution would have dwindled to such a small percentage. In fact, I performed a CGC census lookup for the other comics mentioned before — Crisis on Infinite Earths mini-series, Batman #404, Batman #423, Detective Comics #577 and Detective Comics #578 and there are zero price variant copies on census for any of those at the time of this writing.
Comic Book History Sure Does Rhyme
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— A quote often attributed to Mark Twain
In the 1970’s we had “test market” cover price variants, where a small percentage of total copies were produced with a higher cover price (30 and 35 cent variants). History sure has “rhymed” with these “Canadian Edition” variants, having a higher cover price and representing such a small percentage of the total copies out there. And amazingly, history “rhymed” yet again with late modern price variants (2006-2013 era) with rarity numbers that are equally mind-blowing and which CGC denotes as “$3.99 Newsstand Edition” — read more about those here: Newsstand Variants, $3.99 Newsstand Editions, and The Doc Collection.
Happy Collecting! 🙂