By Benjamin Nobel, April 25, 2017
It is 1977; your home team in the MLB is the Baltimore Orioles. You pass by a newsstand on the way to the game, and pick up a copy of Star Wars #1. It has a cover price of 35¢. Sitting there in the stadium waiting for the game to start, and holding your comic book entertainment purchase in your hands, is there any chance you’d realize you just purchased a rare cover price variant?
It is 1988; your home team in the MLB is the Toronto Blue Jays. You pass by a newsstand on the way to the game, and pick up a copy of Batman #423. It has a cover price of $1.00. Sitting there in the stadium waiting for the game to start, and holding your comic book entertainment purchase in your hands, is there any possible way to know you’ve just purchased a rare cover price variant?
Exploring this question for Batman #423 (and this same question would apply for any of the 1980’s D.C. 95¢ and $1.00 price variants in general), let’s think about what you might do, sitting there in the stands reading your copy of Batman #423, waiting for the game to start, to find any indication that the copy you just picked up at the newsstand was any different from the rest…
Let’s put ourselves into that scenario, transport ourselves back in time to September of 1988, sit there in the stadium, and put on our detective caps. What might we do, sitting there in the stadium, if somehow, the thought magically crossed our mind that maybe our copy was a cover price variant? We might turn to the indicia page for more information, right? Here’s what we’d see:
The text in this image may appear a little small (especially if you’re reading this on a phone or small device), so I’ll transcribe it below for you — as you read through, please keep the following two questions in your mind and then see if you can answer those questions by the indicia information: (1) Can I tell if the comic was published in the USA by DC Comics? (2) Can I tell what the cover price is supposed to be?
Batman 423 (USPS 045-340). Published monthly by DC Comics Inc., 666 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10103. Second class postage paid at New York, NY and at additional mailing offices. POSTMASTER: Send address changes to BATMAN, DC Comics, Inc., Subscription Dept., PO Box 1981, New York, NY 10185. Annual subscription rate $9.00. Outside U.S.A. $11.00 in U.S. funds. Copyright 1988 DC Comics Inc. All Rights Reserved. The stories, characters and incidents mentioned in this magazine are entirely fictional. All characters featured in this issue and the distinctive likenesses thereof are trademarks of DC Comics Inc. Advertising Representative: Print Advertising Representatives Inc., 355 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10017. (212) 391-1400. Printed in U.S.A. D.C. Comics Inc. A Warner Communications Company.
The answer to question (1) is yes, we can tell that this comic was published and printed in the USA by DC Comics, it says so very clearly. But what about the answer to question (2)? There is absolutely no mention of what the single-issue price is supposed to be for the issue! The only discussion of price/cost has to do with the annual subscription rate, mentioning a $9.00 cost, and mentioning $11 as the cost in US dollars for anyone outside of the USA. With no mention anywhere of the single-issue price for the issue, and no mention of the cost in currency other than US dollars, how, sitting there in the stands, would we know we were holding a cover price variant?
We couldn’t know. The best we could do would be to divide the $9.00 annual subscription cost by 12 to reach 75 cents average cost per issue for an annual subscription. Suppose we’re really curious now, so we’re going to find a payphone and call a buddy who we remember told us he picked up a copy of Batman #423 from a newsstand on the other side of town, and recommended it to us as a good read. He answers. We ask him to check the cover price on his copy. We wait while he finds it. It’s $1.00, he says. Same as ours. Do we conclude that $1.00 is simply the “normal” cover price for the issue? After all, our buddy paid the same on the other side of town.
I think it should be fairly obvious that the above scenario is completely invented, and there’s no reason the buyer of a $1.00 cover price copy would have had this curiosity at all in the first place at the time of their purchase; it is hard to imagine any average newsstand-goers would have thought about whether the copy they purchased was anything rare or special, or studying the indicia page. But in our hypothetical world, in this invented scenario of ours, let’s not give up just yet on our question. There’s a comic shop nearby; let’s swing by after the game. OK, we’re in the comic shop. They tell us sorry, they’re all out, this issue sold like hotcakes, with incredible artwork from rising Canadian superstar Todd McFarlane (who was born in Calgary). We proceed home, and life goes on.
Then maybe one day we notice a second print copy:
OK now we’re really intrigued… this second print copy has a 75¢ cover price on it… but the newsstand copy we had picked up on the way to that Blue Jays game had a $1.00 cover price on it. We’re now so curious what a first print comic shop copy looked like, that we go through the phone book (remember those?) and go down the list of specialty comic shops calling one after another, until finally, we find one that has a first print Batman #423 copy available in the back issues section.
A comic shop copy, as we know today, is known as a “Direct Edition” (aka “Direct Sales” aka “Direct Market”) copy. Comic shops across North America ordered them on a discounted but non-returnable basis. For the publisher, those comic shop orders were a guaranteed sale. And those comic shop copies were different from the newsstand copies… Instead of a barcode at the bottom left corner of the front cover, like the copy we picked up on the newsstand, the comic shop copies, meanwhile, have a Batman logo in that spot.
The logo — or better put, the absence of a bar code — was the publisher’s way of being able to distinguish a non-returnable copy from a returnable newsstand copy (had we not made that purchase on the newsstand on the way to the game, and if nobody else ultimately bought that copy, then eventually it would have been returned through the traditional newsstand distribution channel; the publisher would often then simply pulp/recycle it forward, or try to sell it into another market). Here below is a first print Direct Edition copy of Batman #423… where we can see that the cover price… is…
The price box is weird if you were used to what newsstand copies looked like and had never studied the price box on one of these direct editions before… because there’s no one price on it. Instead, there’s 75¢ under the #423 in bold type — that’s obviously meant to be the cover price… But then there’s also “CAN $1.00” (and “U.K. 40p”) in small print.
So back to our hypothetical scenario, we’d see this price box and then think things over… $1.00 matches what we have on our newsstand copy… Is it possible that $1.00 was charged on newsstand copies in Canada, while 75¢ was charged on newsstand copies in the USA? Let’s call up our buddy in New York. He’s a Yankees fan and we met at a game once and now we talk baseball. Maybe he’ll talk comics too. Turns out he is a Batman fan! He agrees to try and hunt down a copy of Batman #423 for us locally and report back.
The phone rings. It is our friend in New York. He describes what he found… he’s describing a direct edition copy of Batman #423. It’s all he could find, he says. We ask him to please look harder, for a newsstand copy, one with a bar code on it… Weeks go by. Did he forget about us? The phone rings again… he found one! It has a 75¢ cover price on it!
OK, now we’re back in 2017.
We have the Internet; we have smartphones; we have eBay; we have CGC; we have instant online information access again. We know, now, what those $1.00 cover price copies are: they’re indeed US-published, first print Type 1A cover price variants (under Jon McClure’s definition), which were found exclusively on newsstands, and priced for the Canadian market (where the buyer would be paying in Canadian dollars).
But back in 1988, this would have been an exceptionally difficult puzzle for the average person to work out, especially considering that our hypothetical story of the collector-turned-detective probably had extremely low odds of happening… because what on Earth would have prompted them to dig into it in that way? No, much like the buyers of 35¢ variants in 1977, our original 1980’s price variant buyers as a generalization would have had no clue the copy they had just purchased was anything different or special or rare. They just read that comic as an entertainment purchase (such as while waiting for the ballgame to start), and might not have even kept it from there after they’d finished enjoying it. A collector buying comics from a newsstand was the exception, not the norm; those collectors were mostly over in comic shops and buying direct editions. People weren’t studying these 1980’s cover price variants until way, way down the line in the far-distant future from their original publication.
Even Jon McClure himself, in his famous article published in January 1998 (an article that collectors credit as “ground zero” for 35 cent variant awareness in the hobby), McClure writes: “And we haven’t yet investigated the 75¢ price variants that are known to exist…” So the person who made us all aware of 35 cent variants as a broad “class” of rare cover price variant collectibles hadn’t even begun to investigate the 1980’s cover price variants at that point, a full decade after Batman #423 was published as the final DC price variant of the 80’s. McClure cites 75¢ variants in that quote — those came before the 95¢ and $1.00 variants that I mention in this post’s title. Why is this post specifically talking about 95¢ and $1.00 DC variants?
Because unlike Marvel, where they had decided from the very beginning of their price variant window not to identify the price shown on front covers as Canadian dollars on the cover (i.e. just a price denominated in $’s and ¢’s is on the Marvel variants), DC, meanwhile, at the start of their Canadian price variant window, specifically spelled out that the 75 cent price was 75 cents Canadian, right on the cover. Here’s an example, with Batman #357:
As you can see, it doesn’t merely say 75¢, like Marvel had done on their variants… Instead, DC actually spells out that they are charging 75¢ Canadian. But that raises an interesting question: they eventually stopped including the word Canadian, which they seem to have done when the price went up to 95¢ (it would be impossible to check every single variant but I’ve spot-checked a bunch and found this to be the case).
But think about this for a moment: we know that the 95¢ and $1.00 price variant copies were Canadian price variants only by other reference information. To be crystal clear, I do truly believe they are Canadian price variants (because it makes so much sense, with the pricing on Direct Edition copies as a reference point, and Canadians reporting that’s the type sold to them on the stands). But when it actually comes down to what’s on the comic and what’s in the indicia… well, for those 95¢ and $1.00 copies, they don’t actually spell it out! The per-issue price in Canada is not included in the indicia (the per-issue price isn’t spelled out at all)… the word “Canadian” is not included on the cover, when it used to be included for DC’s 75 cent variant copies…
I contend that DC was giving themselves optionality when they designed their 95¢ and $1.00 price variant copies. They removed the word “Canadian” when they got to the 95¢ price-point by design — it was their choice and decision to remove it. Their indicia page states no per-issue cover price, no Canadian dollar price. So while we may conclude with logic and reference information that these higher cover price copies were produced to serve Canadian newsstands, I think it is a non-trivial point I’m raising here that in isolation, there is no way to tell from the variant comics themselves that they are indeed Canadian price variants. If you didn’t know what the cover price was “supposed to be” for a given 95¢ or $1.00 DC issue, and you were presented with one of these DC variants in isolation from outside information — like our Blue Jays fan sitting isolated in the stadium in 1988, back in the age of pay phones — you would have no way to conclude just what it was that you were holding in your hands.
A thought exercise I like to do with these variants is what I call a “scissors test” — namely, just what would you have to “snip out” at minimum in order to make a variant copy indistinguishable from a regular copy? And then compare the “scissors test result” against a different “class” of variants and see how they compare: For example, if we were to take a 35 cent variant copy of Star Wars #1 and snip out the price box with scissors, we’ve just rendered our copy completely indistinguishable from the “regular” ones. And in the very same way, if we snip out the 95¢ or $1.00 price from one of our 1980’s DC price variants, that edited copy is now completely indistinguishable from the “regular” ones. So on a “physical” basis, the 35 cent variant “class” of price variants and our 95¢ or $1.00 DC price variants are equal on a scissors-test-basis: the same amount of snipping renders a variant physically indistinguishable from a “regular” copy.
And then on the distribution rarity level, the similarities continue: while we know that 35 cent variants are rare because they were distributed only in certain restricted geographical areas within the larger North American market (such as the Baltimore area as one of Marvel’s chosen markets for them), we similarly know that the 95¢ and $1.00 variant copies of Batman and other DC comics were sold in population centers like Toronto — i.e. places where buyers would be paying with Canadian currency. By population within North America, that’s a very restricted area indeed. And then it was only the newsstand portion of those geographical areas that got the variants (because the comic shop version was the very same direct edition copies sold in the USA).
How big was the newsstand market versus the direct edition market at that time? It turns out that industry insiders and book authors peg the middle of the 1980’s as the time when direct edition sales would surpass newsstand sales for the major publishers like DC and Marvel. Here is a quote from the book Economics of Digital Comics for example:
At the 50:50 point we basically have a “pie” of comic book sales divided into two equal sized slices: a newsstand slice and a direct edition slice. But our 95 cent and $1.00 DC price variants only came out of the newsstand slice. So we’d have to divide that newsstand slice up between the US-priced copies, and the Canadian-priced copies, to understand the distribution rarity of the price variants. One guidepost we can use to make such a division is population… the market size. And looking up the population of each country in the 1980’s we can see that Canada was just 9.8% of the North American market for comic books at that middle-of-the-decade mark:
A lot of people don’t realize how small Canada is, by population… but California alone has more people living there! So in the middle of the 1980’s when direct edition sales surpassed newsstand sales for the big publishers, the distribution rarity of the Canadian price variants would be 4.9% if we use population difference as a guidepost, i.e. we take 9.8% of the newsstand pie slice to arrive at 4.9% distribution rarity for our price variants:
But DC was publishing $1.00 cover price variants as late as September of 1988 as we saw with the Batman #423 example. That’s well past the middle of the decade… well past that 50:50 point… Direct edition sales had already taken over. Chuck Rozanski of Mile High Comics has described the collapse of the newsstand distribution channel in great detail in his writings, including the below quote about the state of the newsstand market in 1987:
Indeed, Rozanski has estimated that over at competitor Marvel, newsstand sales had dwindled to a mere 30% of the total, for that 1987 year. If DC had a similar experience, then we’re now dividing up a much smaller newsstand pie slice between the USA and Canada, in our price variant distribution rarity exercise. Instead of 9.8% of 50%, we’re now at 9.8% of 30%… which is 2.9%. And that 2.9% figure is just the estimated original distribution percentage of the total copies for a given issue, and the notorious newsstand destruction rate would then be layered on top of that original distribution rarity when considering surviving copies!
I don’t know about you, but I think the mathematics pointing to a probable ~2.9% – 4.9% distribution rarity in this middle-to-later 1980’s period for the DC price variants (and 1988 was probably lower still), and the newsstand-exclusivity aspect with the associated high destruction rate, is a pretty stunning situation in the hobby, that demands collector attention and demands price-guide attention as well. We’ve basically got 35-cent-variant-like-characteristics here with our 1980’s price variants, both on the physical differences side (what’s different about the variant comics themselves — i.e. that “scissors test” we did earlier), and with demonstrably low distribution as well.
There’s no good reason why price guides should be breaking out modern variants available only at Fan Expo Canada (like this ASM example below), while simultaneously ignoring the Canadian price variants of the 1980’s, especially when the hobby has such a rich history of recognizing cover price variants!
It is an interesting time we live in, fellow collectors, where sitting here in 2017 our level of information access — which is absolutely unparalleled versus what collectors of past decades had — lets us study and comprehend the rarity of newsstand-exclusive variants like our 1980’s variants and like our late-modern $3.99 Newsstand variants… But while we happily study and collect these rarities, meanwhile the price guides happily ignore their existence! Here’s what ComicsPriceGuide shows for Batman #423 for example… where’s our $1.00 variant? Where’s the US newsstand version for that matter? Absent, that’s where.
The price guides are happy to make space for incentive variants — those variants which were most important to retailers — but where are the price guides when collectors point out rare cover price variants that the comic shops didn’t carry… that could only be found over on the newsstands? The competing newsstands… (I say “competing” because no comic shop owner would want their customers leaving their stores to buy comics over on newsstands instead… and maybe that is part of the answer of why newsstand comics have been so “overlooked”).
I’ve written an open letter to Overstreet encouraging them to “break out” newsstand comics in the guide, starting with our rare 1980’s Canadian price variants, and if you feel the same way I do that it is well past time for the “authorities” in the hobby to pay better attention to the rarity of newsstand comics, I encourage you to take a moment of your time out from hunting for these rarities, to contact your price guide of choice and nudge them to break out or otherwise recognize newsstand comics. One alternative to “breaking out” a given variant on its own line (thereby consuming valuable page space), would be to have a permanent newsstand and cover price variant newsstand identification page, and some rarity guidelines with reasonable multiples to guide price to apply to the baseline direct edition guide price, for different “classes” and years of newsstand variant comics.
But something must be done to recognize newsstand comics in the price guides soon… because the market price disparity between the types is getting too obvious for them to continue to ignore; and because CGC is now breaking out newsstand comics from their prevalent direct edition counter-parts in several special situations (including our 1980’s variants); and because CBCS just recently announced they’ll be recognizing the newsstand vs. direct edition difference even more broadly. We’re basically witnessing a rolling snowball of growing newsstand awareness in the hobby, and it is gaining mass every day as it continues to roll down the mountainside towards its final destination. So it is probably simply a matter of time before the price guides “catch up” to the current reality.
Happy Collecting! 🙂