By Benjamin Nobel, January 11, 2017
For anything you can spend money on, there’s a difference between the price tag and the value you get for your money. Before renting an apartment or leasing a car, you compare various similar choices, right? The one that is going to give you the most utility at the lowest cost — the most value for your money — is the one you’re likely to open up your wallet for…
Well, some collectible comic books can have price tags that compare to several months of rent or car payments! And it can be interesting to do this same kind of “relative value comparison” for comic books, that you do every day for all kinds of other purchases.
WARNING: I am about to compare a COVER PRICE VARIANT, against an alternate-cover-artwork RETAILER INCENTIVE VARIANT. To some readers, I’m certain the very idea of such a comparison will strike you as comparing apples vs. oranges. If you and I were in the produce section of a market, and I was deciding which fruit to spend my budget on, would you object if I were to compare the apples to the oranges as I decided how to spend my money? If the answer to that question is “yes” (that you would indeed object), then this post probably isn’t for you and you can skip on to something else.
But if you’re willing to have an open mind about a “head to head” between a cover price variant and an alternate-cover-artwork-retailer-incentive-variant then read on with me as we walk through the metaphorical produce aisle and compare an apple versus an orange as two interesting types of fruit we might choose to spend our hard-earned money on. Because over in the world of comics, we similarly have lots of choices out there competing for our collecting dollars. And lots of interesting variants among those choices. With this introduction stated, if you’re among those still reading along, then thanks for having an open mind… and let’s proceed!
Amazing Spider-Man #678 vs. #607 — Variant vs. Variant
There’s a 1-in-50 retailer incentive variant version of Amazing Spider-Man #678 that features an awesome cover of Mary Jane as Venom by Joe Quinones… and looking at it makes me think of another awesome Amazing Spider-Man cover: issue #607, featuring a now-quite-famous J. Scott Campbell Black Cat cover. Black Cat says: “Meeeow…” on the cover of #607. A Venomized Mary Jane says “Face it, Tiger, You Just Lost the Jackpot!” on the variant for #678.
The price tags? Let’s start with a look at the ASM #678 variant. Here’s a recent auction for a copy described as Near Mint; it had 15 bids and went for $2,100:
This is a hefty sum indeed! One thought you might have seeing this sales price, if you didn’t know much about issue #678 might be: “there must be something pretty important about this issue number, like a key first appearance!” But you’d be wrong — there is no key first character appearance in issue #678. There’s no key anything about issue #678. In fact, “regular” copies of issue #678 are valued by ComicsPriceGuide at… four dollars:
Sometimes guide values are way off of reality — and the eBay sale we saw before was quite a lot higher than the $1,400 quoted here for the variant… so maybe the guide is wrong about the “regular” copies too? Nope: they have it about right… here’s a recent example eBay sale of a “regular” copy:
So clearly, the force driving the market price of the Mary Jane Venom variant isn’t the application of some rarity premium onto the value of the regular version… in other words, the market isn’t valuing the variant by placing some multiple on that $4 price that “regular” copies are going for — instead, the market price for this variant has detached from the underlying issue number itself. The market price is entirely being driven by the combination of the scarcity (at 1-in-50, a very low number of these were sold), and the demand (this variant just has the “it” factor and has gotten a lot of attention — plus, it definitely doesn’t hurt that it is a humorous take on Mary Jane’s “face it Tiger, you just hit the jackpot” from ASM #42).
How many variant copies might have been sold? As a 1-in-50 variant, we can answer that question by knowing the total number of regular copies ordered by comic shops, and then estimate from there. A great research resource providing such sales estimates is Comichron, which pegs sales of ASM #678 at 54,252 copies:
If every block of 50 copies got a retailer one Mary Jane Venom variant, then based on the above sales number at most there should have been 1,085 variants (but the true number is likely lower because not all retailers may have ordered enough to get a variant). Imagine yourself as a comic shop owner who ordered the required 50 copies, and your variant has just arrived. How are you going to treat that copy? Carefully, right? How are you going to price that copy? As much as you can get for it, right? How are you going to talk about that copy to your customers? You’re going to talk it up as much as possible, right? A question: What odds would you put on a comic shop owner actually reading one of these variants? Zero… That variant was going to be protected by a bag and a board from day one and remain unread. The only chance it was going to suffer damage was by accident.
How about the buyer who ponied up whatever premium price the retailer decided to ask? Would they actually read one of these variants? Nope. They didn’t pay through the nose to own one, only to bring it home, read it, and then toss it haphazardly in a pile… no way. That collectible was recognized from day one as something to preserve and protect. Excepting copies lost in the mail and accidental damage, these retailer incentive variant copies were incredibly well preserved. So that initial count of copies pretty much represents the count of copies carefully stored away. Some of them would be sent in to CGC to be graded and slabbed. As of this writing there are 130 such CGC-graded copies on census:
Let’s look at the ASM #607 variant! First of all, why is the #607 variant “a variant” in the first place — what special attribute about it causes CGC to “break it out” on census with its own distinct entry? Variant copies of Amazing Spider-Man #607 are, in a way, “doubly” variants — let me explain what I mean… CGC initially broke out these variants because, as it turns out, the variants were not distributed with the “right” UPC code on them… they were distributed as Sensational Spider-Man. This means copies were only delivered to those who ordered the Sensational title… stores that merely ordered the Amazing Spider-Man title did not actually get these! [Here’s a more in-depth discussion of this incredible phenomenon].
Because of this “incorrect” code on the variant copies, CGC initially broke them out with the designation “Newsstand Variant” on census. So that single reason alone would have made them CGC-recognized variants. However! There is something else different about these copies. Let’s see if you can spot it in the below picture taken from a variant copy, if I first tell you that the cover price on Amazing Spider-Man #607 is supposed to be $2.99 (i.e. it is $2.99 for all the “regular” copies):
You spotted correctly: you’re looking at a cover price variant here too! Instead of the $2.99 price tag that all the “regular” copies carried for issue #607, the variants have a cover price of $3.99, a dollar higher! Once this was pointed out to CGC, they changed the variant name they use on the labels and on census, to read “$3.99 Newsstand Edition” for this variant. So you get two “variant-worthy attributes” with this newsstand issue, any one of which would have been sufficient for CGC to break them out.
OK, so, some readers are probably wondering at this point, if retailers had to order 50 “regular” copies of Amazing Spider-Man #678 to get the Mary Jane Venom variant, how many “regular” copies of Amazing Spider-Man #607 did retailers have to order to get the cover price variant with the $3.99 cover price on it? Nope: that’s not how it worked! In fact, the cover price variant copies were not sold to comic store retailers at all. This type of variant was exclusive to newsstands… which is why they’ve flown under-the-radar for so long — it took the eventual demise of Marvel’s newsstand distribution channel before industry insiders really opened up in a major way and started discussing newsstand comics in a way that actually educated collectors about their desirability… and now, the growing newsstand awareness in the hobby could arguably be called a “mega-trend” today. But the ASM #607 variants hit the stands at a time when the hobby was still paying no real attention to newsstand comics.
So for the newsstand-exclusive ASM #607 variants, to peg their “1-in-something” rarity, we need to understand the relative distribution of comic books on newsstands, versus direct sales to comic shops, in the era when Amazing Spider-Man #607 was produced (which was 11/2009). It turns out that a decade earlier, Marvel had made a conscious decision in 1999 to “walk away” from the newsstand model. According to the book Economics of Digital Comics, by Todd Allen and Mark Waid, newsstand sales would dwindle to a stunning mere 4.25% of total sales by the time of a May 2003 BPA audit. But that’s 2003… ASM #607 would not be published until six years later. What was happening six years later? Marvel was about to head into the period where they would dismantle their newsstand distribution entirely, in stages, with certain bookstore partners being the last to carry them. What did this end-of-life newsstand sales period look like at Marvel? According to estimates by Chuck Rozanski, newsstand comics had dwindled to a mere 2% by 2005 for Marvel!
And what is 2% in “variant terms?” Why, it is 1:50 (1/50=2%)… matching the retailer incentive ordering ratio we saw earlier for ASM #678 variants. Yep: and that’s a newsstand rarity estimate from 2005 so there would be four more years of newsstand dwindling from there until the time of ASM #607’s publication.
And what about the Comichron sales estimates for issue #607? Comichron pegs sales of ASM #607 at 62,517 copies:
From that total, which represents the comic shop orders (i.e. the “regular” old direct edition copies with $2.99 cover prices on them), we can then extrapolate a tiny fraction of copies to be the newsstand copies. What fraction should we use? Based on the newsstand rarity discussions and estimates I cited earlier, the rarity percentage was probably highly competitive to the 1:50 #678 variant (which we saw before would have been limited to no more than 1,085 copies). Recall too that on top of whatever tiny newsstand percentage we might assume for ASM #607, this particular comic also had the phenomenon of having the Sensational Spider-Man code on it which we know for certain lowered its distribution as compared to the surrounding issues.
Clearly the variant copy count sold for ASM #607 would be very small. But that’s only part of the story… Let’s now think about the buyer behavior (and staff behavior) for the copies that have the variant $3.99 cover price and variant UPC code.
These variants were newsstand copies, so to the staff, they were handled just like magazines: a publication meant to be read. Just ate a slice of pizza for lunch before stocking the shelves and hands are still greasy? No matter. Sliced into the comic delivery bundle with a box cutter and shredded through some pages? No matter.
I know this behavior sounds crazy for how one would handle a rare variant, but remember, the staff didn’t know it was a rare variant, nor did the buyers who took it home at the time. Would the staff carefully lower them into place on the shelf? Nope… probably just dropped them carelessly inflicting condition damage immediately. Would the staff carefully slip them into plastic bags with boards: nope… not a chance.
As for the buyers who took one of these variants home, they had paid $3.99 — that’s an entertainment purchase… way different situation versus the ASM #678 variant. In the case of this variant, the buyer probably did indeed read issue #607! They might have tossed it haphazardly in a pile afterwards. They weren’t treating it as a rare collectible. Did they know it had incredibly low distribution as a minuscule percentage of the total sold? Not at all. Did they know CGC “breaks out” such copies as variants on their census? Nope. Did they notice it carried the Sensational Spider-Man UPC code on it? Fat chance.
So here we have a demonstrably-rare CGC-recognized variant with drastically different behavior by the buyers (and staff), as a newsstand exclusive versus how retailer-incentive variant comics were treated. The total number of copies sold initially for the ASM #607 variant wouldn’t represent the number of copies carefully stored away… the high grade survivor count would logically be much smaller than the already-small count of copies likely sold. We’d probably see a low survivor count reflected in the CGC census data… How many copies of this variant show up on the CGC census today? Before, recall that we saw 130 copies of the ASM #678 variant. By contrast, as of this writing, there are a grand total of five copies of the ASM #607 variant on census:
Let’s circle back now to the idea of our head-to-head variant-vs.-variant look, and a price comparison. We saw that for ASM #678, the “regular” copies were not any kind of key or valuable on its own on the basis of the issue number itself: they were worth four bucks. But for ASM #607, “regular” copies actually fetch a decent amount. Here’s a recent example eBay sale of a “regular” copy:
So if “regular” copies are already very-nicely-valued, what is a variant copy worth? Let’s check eBay for recent sales of copies identified as $3.99 variants:
Unfortunately, a search comes up short… there are no copies identified as $3.99 variants in the “sold listings” section of eBay. How about active listings?
Sorry, no active listings for the variant either… How about we look at the ComicsPriceGuide page. Earlier, we saw that their guide value in Near Mint was $4 for “regular” ASM #678 copies, and $1,400 for the variant. Let’s see what they show for ASM #607:
As you can see, although they have an entry for “regular” copies (at $60… fifteen times the value of “regular” copies of ASM #678, incidentally)… they do not even know of the existence of the $3.99 variant. That’s how ridiculously rare we’re talking here folks… the price guide people have never even heard of it yet!
So we’re left only seeing half the picture on the price side. But perhaps that is an opportunity to put your own independent thought into the question: What is a reasonable price tag for the ASM #607 variant? Is it more or less desirable than the ASM #678 variant? Do both variants carry the “it factor”? Where might the guide value the ASM #607 variant when, eventually, they are made aware of its existence?
I am pleased to report that the ASM #607 variant has been brought to the attention of ComicsPriceGuide.com and they have now “broken out” the ASM #607 variant as a distinct entry in their guide! Applause to CPG for adding this missing variant in! In the new guide entry they also included the key-comments information of “$3.99 newsstand” in the note (and clicking through to the details page the $3.99 cover price is reflected there too), which is great because part of understanding this variant is knowing that its cover price did not match the “regular” copies. When the standard edition is $2.99 and there’s another version out there with a different cover price deviating from that standard, that’s critical to know. So it is great they’ve pointed it right out in their entry.
Also great to see is that they have additionally pointed out the “UPC error / coded for the title ‘Sensational Spider-Man'” which is such a critical thing for collectors to understand… because any time a newsstand comic is identified by its UPC code as a different title than it is, that means, among other things, that (1) CGC by precedent will “break out” such newsstand books as distinct variants on census, and, (2) the distribution of the book did not follow the norm because it was only available at newsstands that also ordered that alternate title… which in this case appears to have made it substantially harder to find, suggesting stair-step-lower sales versus neighboring issues with the “correct” code.
And here’s how they have pegged the value:
So at $200 in NM, you could own 7 copies of the ASM #607 variant before getting to $1400 (the guide value for one NM copy of the ASM #678 variant). Seven apples, versus one orange, as the guide value pegs these two variants today as of the middle of the year 2017. Which do you think is the winner on the basis of getting the most interesting/desirable variant comic for your money?
My opinion is to think about these two variants as illustrative of how two “worlds” exist today… the world where the ASM #678 variant lives is one where thousands of comic book retailers have educated collectors about the desirability of collecting incentive variants, and where every single copy is being preserved and treated from day one as something valuable. There is no chance that the owner of an ASM #678 variant is going to confuse their copy with a “regular” #678 and price it for sale at $4… that just isn’t in the cards.
The ASM #607 variant comes from an entirely different world; it is an entirely different kind of variant. It is the kind that initially goes unnoticed, then eventually gets discovered, and there is a period of time in between where there is a good chance that the owner of a #607 variant is going to confuse their copy with a “regular” #607 and price it for sale at the going rate for regular direct edition copies.
Even as newsstand awareness continues to grow among collectors, it should still be possible in 2017 to find sellers of newsstand comics out there who do not know they own newsstand comics. In other words, I believe opportunities will still arise from time to time where someone owns the ASM #607 variant but doesn’t realize they own anything different or special and just thinks about what they own by the issue number broadly, i.e. they know that they own ASM #607, period. The new CPG guide entry will help a lot of people who might use it to look up their comic’s value before selling it, to understand if they own the variant (CPG has over 950,000 members); but, other guides like Overstreet are still unaware of this variant’s existence sitting here in 2017… and a lot of people still rely on Overstreet as their price guide of choice (and then there are those who do not refer to a guide at all before selling their comic). So I think it may still be possible to come across an opportunity in the marketplace to pay regular price for the $200 variant — in other words, to my way of thinking, it isn’t just a question of 7 apples or 1 orange, it is a question of whether I can find that $200 apple on sale for $60. But over at the #678 variant, no such opportunity exists: every original buyer of that variant paid through the nose to own it, and knows exactly what they own.
So for my money, the relative value opportunity in comic book collecting today is over in the world of newsstand comics! Learn more about this world if you haven’t stepped into it before… I strongly believe that for anyone who collects modern comic books, understanding the newsstand versus direct edition difference is must-know information — and understanding that difference leads into some highly interesting and incredibly-low-distribution variants including the CGC-recognized $3.99 cover price variant “window” that encompasses the ASM #607 variant [here are more $3.99 cover price variant examples I’ve written about].
Happy Collecting! 🙂