By Benjamin Nobel, June 28, 2016
A practical guide for how to actually find/identify these variants out there in the marketplace.
Although you’ll often see the term “75 cent variants” used for this “class” of comic book rarities (here’s how that phrase may have originated), they differ from earlier price variant windows (for example the earlier “35 cent variants”) in that the window in this case was fairly large by contrast — spanning multiple years in fact — and because ‘regular’ prices for comics varied (and rose over time) over that multi-year period, the higher cover price copies (i.e. the ultra-rare ones) aren’t always going to be priced at 75 cents, all depending on the comic in question and the publication year.
So: collectors can’t just assume any comic published during our window of 10/1982 to 8/1986 for Marvel (and out to 9/1988 for D.C.) priced at 75 cents and having a barcode on it is one of the rare price variants… collectors instead need to understand how to determine and spot the variant prices for any given issue, and consider them case by case to be certain! Here’s my foolproof 3-step technique for figuring out the variant cover price for any comic published during our variant window, and spotting them listed for sale.
Step 1 — Find a direct edition copy online
This step is actually quite easy, because direct edition copies (the type sold in specialty comic shops) are both extremely prevalent and extremely easy to spot. The reason we’re looking for one, is because once we’ve found one it will give us the critical information we need for steps 2 and 3. An easy way to find a direct edition copy online is to do an eBay search. We want a good scan where we can zoom in, so we’ll search for a CGC graded copy (which tend to have high quality scans, but any good picture will do).
Suppose for example we want to find the rare Canadian price variant for X-Factor #6… Our first step is to find a direct edition copy so let’s search eBay for “x-factor 6 CGC.” We’ll then scroll through the results until we see one with the “Spider-Man Rectangle” in the bottom left corner (that logo in place of a barcode means we’ve found a direct edition copy). Chances are we won’t have to scroll too far, as direct edition copies have been extremely well preserved and are the most prevalent out there… I just did that search now, and sure enough, the very first result I found is a direct edition copy:
Step 2 — Zoom in on the price box
Having found a listing with a picture of a direct edition copy, our next step is to click that little magnifying glass icon to then be able to zoom in on the price box. Why are we doing this? Because: direct edition copies were manufactured by the publisher to cover both the US and Canada (and also the UK). That means we will find the information we need about the price charged for this issue in US dollars, and the price charged for this issue in Canadian dollars. The Canadian price will be the smaller price underneath.
Here’s a zoomed in look at the price box on the direct edition copy we found in step 1, and I’ve drawn an arrow to point out where to look — as you can see, the “main” price in large type is the US price of 75¢ and the Canadian price in smaller type underneath is 95¢:
Step 3 — Now we can find our Canadian price variant
From the information obtained in step 2, we now know the two prices we will find out there for newsstand copies. Newsstand copies will have a bar code instead of a logo on them, in the bottom left corner of the front cover. So all we need to do in Step 3 is to search for our issue broadly (“x-factor 6” in our example), scroll through all the listings, and pause when we see copies with bar codes… Pause, look at the cover price, and if it is the US price (75¢ in our example case) then we keep looking. If it is the higher Canadian price (95¢ in our example case), then we’ve spotted one of our price variants!
I’ve just looked through the current listings in this way and found the copy below. The title of this particular listing that I found is simply “X-Factor #6 (Jul 1986 Marvel)”, so we never would have found this copy by searching on more specific keywords like “X-Factor #6 Canadian” or “X-Factor #6 Variant” or “X-Factor #6 95 Cent Variant.” Those other keywords that might lead us to these rare price variants more easily simply weren’t placed into the listing title by this seller. Because of the general lack of awareness out there about these price variants, many sellers simply don’t think about putting such qualifiers in their listing titles. So, collectors will often have to put in extra searching effort to spot these rarities by looking at all the listings for the issue broadly. But on the upside, copies found in this way and not titled as variants often go for “regular” prices… so your hard work hunting them down is rewarded!!
Clicking on the listing to zoom in, we now verify that the price on this copy is indeed the higher price of 95 cents — and it is in this case, so therefore this copy found above is one of our rare Canadian price variants! We found one, hooray! 🙂
The Distribution Rarity Figures — Setting Your Expectations For Finding These Canadian Price Variants, By Year
By population, Canada is very small relative to the U.S., roughly the size of California in the price variant window during which these rarities were published — which put Canada at 9.8% of the North American market for comic books by population size at that time. I checked the population figures for each individual year of Marvel’s price variant window, and that 9.8% figure holds throughout (the numbers changed but in each case it rounded off to the same 9.8%).
But because all of the direct edition copies sold in comic shops across both countries are the same, and therefore only the newsstand copies in Canada are the price variants, that means their rarity was not tied to that full 9.8% of the market size, but rather was the portion of the Canadian market that was served by newsstands instead of by comic shops — in other words the price variants were a smaller share of that 9.8% figure by some amount, depending on the level of newsstand sales compared to direct edition sales.
What portion of comic sales were newsstand during that time-frame? This subject has been discussed and estimated by industry insiders; for example 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):
Another particularly valuable discussion that I’ll get to in a moment, published by Chuck Rozanski, corroborates this mid-1980’s time-frame for when direct edition sales would surpass newsstand sales. Rozanski has written extensively about comic book distribution and 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 to part one ]. 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 Rozanski link shared by Shooter is in multiple parts, and one of those parts provides 1980’s newsstand sales estimates/percentages. Shooter himself also described how by 1986, he was concerned about how the distribution pendulum had swung so far in the direction of direct edition, and came up with ideas to support the newsstand market:
“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
The point in time when newsstand sales were overtaken by direct edition sales was estimated by Rozanski to be in that same 1985/1986 time-frame that Shooter is talking about above.
So at some point around this general timeframe, it is fair to assume that half of Marvel’s comic book sales were made on newsstands, and half as direct editions from comic shops. Applying this concept to our price variants, one way to draw a rough “mental picture” of this level of distribution rarity within the North American market is to first picture the United States and then “copy and paste” an extra California… because by population, Canada contains an “extra-California-worth” of people. And then you must divide that extra California into direct edition versus newsstand comic book distribution.
The distribution percentages were also estimated to have changed year by year, with the 50/50 point falling within our price variant window, but with a decline the percentage of sales on newsstands over time. I’ll get to that year-by-year estimated breakdown in a moment based on the estimates Rozanski has published, but first, here is a graphic of the “extra California” concept just to help in drawing a “mental picture” of the kind of rarity we’re dealing with when it comes to these Canadian price variant comics at that 50/50 point:
But although the 50/50 point of newsstand versus direct edition comic book distribution falls within our price variant window, that window is also fairly large, spanning multiple years. Changes in distribution over those years towards a higher direct edition percentage would arguably make later year price variant comics more difficult to find as a percentage of their totals (all else equal), than earlier year comics.
So when setting our expectation as collectors about how relatively difficult it would be to track down a given Canadian price variant comic book, let’s set our expectation that the later the publication year, the more difficult it may be to find, all else equal. In “Modifications to the Distribution System,” Chuck Rozanski revealed the following information about newsstand versus direct edition sales figures by year in the 1980’s:
“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.”
A couple of notes: first, note that he says gross sales, not net sales, and it is unclear what a net number might be net of, and could explain why there is a difference to another of his articles about Marvel’s direct edition to newsstand distribution which pegs 1986, not 1985, as the year direct would surpass newsstand (and illustrating that this is all very much estimation, even by industry insiders). Something else that’s important to keep in mind is that comics sold across the newsstand distribution channel were actually returnable (i.e. any unsold copies could be returned for a refund), while direct edition sales by contrast were final/non-returnable (but in exchange for that commitment the comic shops got their copies at a large discount — note that that’s why such copies have a logo in place of a bar code, with that logo in order to distinguish them as non-returnable). Because the direct edition copies were heavily discounted, if Rozanski’s estimates are for dollars of sales, that’s different from number of copies sold — I mention all of these differences because they may factor into why his estimates differ across two different articles, one pegging 1985 as the 50/50 point, the other pegging 1986. The articles were also written at different times, and may have incorporated different information.
Also, the picture Rozanski paints of a steady newsstand decline appears to correlate with Shooter’s battles to help the newsstand, where that “newsstand exclusive” idea was shot down and the “brass” at Marvel were determined to favor the direct market. Here’s another quote from Shooter:
“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
So I think the information and estimates shared by these industry insiders definitely supports the notion that direct edition sales “took over,” and, the percentage of comics sold on newsstands trended lower and lower as the years went on. Just how much lower by percentage at any given year is indeed just estimation; when we go out to much later years, Rozanski would later estimate that Marvel’s newsstand percentage was down at 2% by 2005 and 1% by 2013. These later year estimates are so low as to raise a skeptical eyebrow — but it is also within the context of the demise of newsstand sales at Marvel, where Marvel actually pulled the plug on newsstand sales in 2013, and Marvel’s David Gabriel then revealed that Marvel had actually ended sales to most newsstand outlets years earlier before ending newsstand sales in 2013 across those last newsstand outlets (the last ones being Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million):
“Gabriel confirmed that Marvel’s single-issue comics program to bookstores has been ended. He said that Marvel ended newsstand sales of print comics “about two years ago,” and the single-issue program at BAM and B&N “ended almost three months ago to no fanfare or notice from the comics industry.” Gabriel said “the business in the direct market [the comics shop market] is a much stronger model and try as we might, we have not been able to make the comics newsstand model work for years, I don’t think anyone has.”
In the book Economics of Digital Comics by Todd Allen and Mark Waid, a May 2003 report is cited which would have put newsstand sales at an estimated 4.25%:
A great comics research resource, Comichron, estimated industry-wide 2013 newsstand comic book sales of only $25 million versus comic store orders (direct edition) of $340 million — add those two numbers together and we reach a total of $365 million. Divide $25 million into that total, and that would put the estimated newsstand percentage at 6.8% for 2013, versus direct edition at 93.2%. Since Marvel’s newsstand sales had been in wind-down mode for some years, it is logical to conclude that their newsstand percentage would have been below the industry-wide percentage. So it is understandable that we’d see estimates for Marvel some amount lower than the industry-wide 2013 number.
Anyone making these newsstand-vs-direct edition sales estimates is trying their best and their numbers for any given year they have attempted to estimate could be off; Rozanski put out his 1980’s estimates after careful thought and discussion with Marvel insiders, so I think it is valuable to use and extrapolate them, in order to make further estimates of what was going on with the rarity of the Canadian price variants — which themselves were a newsstand-only phenomenon — with the caveat of all these notes above and that we’re now entering the realm of estimation based on someone else’s information which itself was estimation. Having made these notes/caveats, if we now take his 1982 figure of 20% direct edition, and then we increase the direct edition market share by 10% each year, it “fills in” perfectly. Here’s what I mean: below are his figures in bold, and my “fill-ins” in italics… notice it works out pretty much perfectly to pencil in a smooth rise of direct edition distribution in this way:
Before proceeding to use these above distribution numbers to make further estimates, I also want to point out that cold hard CGC census data also exists which we can look at… CGC denotes these comics as “Canadian Edition” on their census. [ May 2019 UPDATE: CGC announced that as of May 6, 2019, they will label as “Canadian Price Variant” going forward 🙂] So although distribution-percentage-based estimates can give us a good ballpark sense of how difficult it will be to find a Canadian price variant comic book from any given year out there, original distribution and survivorship are two completely different discussions… And newsstand comics are notorious for having a high destruction rate. So when you compare the figures I’m about to lay out against the actual CGC census data, you will find that the numbers in my table will run high compared to the CGC census rarity.
With these caveats stated, here is how the distribution rarity numbers would look when we take the 9.8% of the North American market for comic books by population that Canada represented, and then we divide up the Canadian market using our direct edition percentages by year, within 10% range, in order to estimate the portion of the total North American comic book sales that were our price variants (i.e. that were distributed and sold on newsstands in Canada):
|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)|
So what this picture paints, is that when seeking a Canadian price variant published closer to the beginning of the window, you will most likely find copies are somewhat easier to come across… while comics published closer to the end of the window are going to be far more scarce as a percentage of the total, all else equal. Having a ballpark distribution percentage, we can then make some further calculations about the likely number of price variant copies that made it out there, starting from probable total sales numbers for a given comic book issue.
For our example from earlier, X-Factor #6, this source pegs the print run at 340,000 total copies. Published in July of 1986, we can then apply our estimated distribution percentage against that total to ballpark the number of Canadian price variant copies. From the table, let’s round up to an even 5%, as that makes for easier math that we can do in our heads — because we can just take 10% of the total print run and cut that resulting number in half, so in other words first we take the total print run and move the decimal place over to the left (to get 34,000 copies likely sent up to Canada) and then we cut that in half to arrive at our estimate of 17,000 95 cent price variant copies. This exercise is estimation, but can help “calibrate” our sense of how difficult it would be to find 95 cent copies of X-Factor #6 out there… but we can also look at the CGC census data as well for supporting evidence of relative rarity, where only 0.4% of the copies on census are the Canadian price variants (which are listed with the name “Canadian Edition” when you do a census lookup):
You can start to see the low newsstand survivorship expressing itself in this low census count, at what works out to 0.4% of total copies graded. That’s not 4%, that’s zero point four percent. If we assume that the ~4% original distribution figure from our earlier table is a good estimate, the actual CGC census result we’re seeing here is only one tenth of what we might have been expecting to see…
But this makes some sense when you consider that these variants may have been slow to move South by way of comic trading among collectors, and the shipping cost for Canadians to make CGC submissions sets a different bar than collectors have in the USA. And then we should also consider how these price variants were newsstand-only distribution, and the typical newsstand buyer was a reader, as opposed to a collector carefully preserving their copy (the typical collector was taking home a regular direct edition copy from their local comic shop). We also have to consider that these price variants are still overlooked and “under-the-radar” and so low grade copies are not going to be viewed as grading candidates. Compare for example against the situation with Star Wars 35¢ Price Variants, where even a low grade CGC 3.0 copy of the price variant for issue #3 recently auctioned off for over $300… In that market price situation, someone owning even a low grade copy might consider sending it to CGC. But it would not make sense for low grade copies of our Canadian price variants (not yet at least, sitting here in 2016) and we can see that in the grade breakdown — every price variant copy is 7.5 or higher. My read on this is that copies under 7.5 surely exist out there, they’re just not being selected as grading candidates to send in to CGC and so we’re not seeing them in the census numbers today.
Also notice that there are zero price variant copies in 9.8… This also makes sense, when we consider that newsstand staff were not trained to handle comics with any semblance of care, and all but the lucky “sandwiched” copies sustained some amount of damage the moment they hit those metal racks. So even for the collector buying their comics off of newsstands, it would be highly unusual (or maybe highly “lucky” is the better word) to be able to take home a NM/MT condition newsstand comic.
This grade disparity is another factor to take into consideration when collecting these, and setting a lower bar of targeted condition is warranted… because in the case of X-Factor #6 as our example, if you are so demanding about grade that you prefer to sit back and wait for a CGC 9.8 copy to hit the market then guess what? In the case of X-Factor #6 it has been thirty years since publication and there are no Canadian Edition CGC 9.8’s! You’re literally growing old waiting for that CGC 9.8 copy to come into existence! So set the bar lower, would be my advice, realizing that these price variants are a newsstand-only-phenomenon… So in the context of how they were distributed, I’d argue that even VF+ is a very strong grade for these.
Spotting Canadian Price Variants — Two More “Cases” To Know About
Going back to my three step method to spot Canadian price variants, I want to give you two other cases to know about: the case of a comic you’ve decided to look for where you’re actually just before the price variant window, and, the case of a comic you’ve decided to look for where you’re actually just after the price variant window.
Other Case #1: Just Before The Window
If you’re attempting to go through the three steps from earlier, but for a comic published just before the window — meaning you’ve picked out one to look for that is actually too early for a Canadian price variant by publication date — then you’re going to find something that looks like this when you get to step 2 (the step where you zoom in on the price box):
You’ll be looking for the alternate Canadian price at this step… and not finding it (in the above example, which is a direct edition copy Wolverine Limited Series #1, the same 60 cents was charged across the US and Canada; the only alternate price is 25 pence for UK sales). The one 60 cent price traces back to the reason we have a price variant window in the first place… currency exchange rate. Immediately before our window, in the 1970’s, the US to Canadian dollar bounced around near parity and therefore publishers could charge the same 60 cent price if the buyer was paying in US dollars, or if the buyer was paying in Canadian dollars. Sometimes they came out slightly ahead, sometimes slightly behind, depending on the exact moment the currency was exchanged, but over time it balanced out and there wasn’t a real need to think about charging a different price to Canadians. In the chart below, look at the blue line in the beginning section of the chart before the 1980’s begin… relatively stable (bounces around near parity). Then as the 1980’s begin, the exchange rate starts to spike dramatically with no signs of reversing course. By late 1982 it had moved so far that publishers basically had no choice — buyers had to be charged more when paying in Canadian currency. And that decision point is when our price variants begin.
Other Case #2: Just After The Window
If you’re attempting to go through the three steps from earlier, but for a comic published just after the window — meaning you’ve picked out one to look for that is actually too late for a Canadian price variant by publication date — then at step 3 when you pull up a newsstand copy to check the price box you’re going to find something that looks like this (follow the yellow arrow — I’ve enlarged the price box in the picture below):
This comic is too late for a separate Canadian price variant, because the publisher has now already “merged” the two newsstand print runs into one, i.e. newsstand copies now carry both the US and Canadian prices on them, the same way direct edition copies did throughout.
Rare Canadian Price Variants To Collect
Using my three-step method to spot Canadian price variants, for any given comic you own you’ll be able to answer the question: “Is my copy a Canadian price variant?” But you’ll also be able to identify and seek out the price variant for any particular comic you may be actively looking to collect, if it was published during the window where these exist. The window is large enough that there are countless interesting comics one could look to collect… To give you some ideas, I’ve shared a slideshow of several examples I found interesting, from among “keys” and personal favorites: Start Slideshow.
Happy Collecting! 🙂
Other posts on the subject of Canadian price variants: