By Benjamin Nobel, October 20, 2017
This post is essentially my “Advisor Note” on Amazing Spider-Man #238 as part of The 2018 Price Guide for 1980’s Marvel & DC Newsstand Canadian Cover Price Variants (Type 1A) — a collaborative project where I had the incredible opportunity to work with some of the hobby’s superstars in this niche, to create what we believe to be the very first comprehensive price guide for such variants.
Each collaborator had the opportunity to contribute notes for any given issue in the guide, and these “Advisor Notes” in the aggregate turned out to be an absolute treasure trove of valuable insights and information — and in particular I must highlight that Doug Sulipa contributed encyclopedic knowledge towards this Advisor Note concept. There’s that old saying about super-knowledgeable people, and it certainly applies to Doug: he’s so knowledgeable about comics that he’s probably forgotten more about comics than I’ll ever know! But perhaps the most conversation-provoking note in the guide was contributed by Jon McClure, about Amazing Spider-Man #238, arising from the Tattooz situation (I’ll get to his full note in a bit).
This is a situation with lots of interesting facts and also interesting thought angles. To explore this situation further, lets lay some initial groundwork for understanding these tattoos that came inside copies of Amazing Spider-Man #238. First, what did these tattoo inserts look like? Here’s front and back pictures:
These inserts were stapled right in; you’ll find many a listing describing damage to the comic from readers who tore out the insert; here’s an example screenshot clip from one such listing:
Next, it is important to know how CGC treats a submission of a copy where the tattooz were removed: they give it the dreaded green “Qualified” label. Here’s an example:
Next, it is important to know that these tattooz were not unique to ASM #238, i.e. they were not found in just that one issue alone. This might sound surprising at first, because at a glance, the tattooz seem like they’d be akin to a poster, or perhaps a trading card insert, where in order to get the special feature you had to buy that unique comic. But while the cover of ASM #238 advertises the inclusion of these tattooz, and it might seem at a glance that they were unique to that issue, it turns out that another issue from that same month, Fantastic Four #252, advertises the inclusion of tattooz on the cover too:
Interestingly both of these issues were distributed with the identical tattooz insert. And, as we all know, the difference in value between the two issues is enormous — which has led to two thought-provoking scenarios:
Suppose the original owner of a Type 1A ASM #238 had removed the tattooz and used them, but the book is otherwise in great shape.
(1) Would it be theoretically possible to acquire a cheaper and lower grade direct edition copy of the book, harvest the tattooz insert from the cheaper book, insert the harvested tattooz into the high grade ASM #238, and have that edit go undetected?
(2) Would it be theoretically possible to acquire an FF #252 on the cheap (or another issue that featured the tattooz from the same month), harvest the tattooz insert from the FF #252, insert the harvested tattooz into the ASM #238, and have that edit go undetected?
It surprised me when I learned that the definitive answer to “tattooz-swapping” is yes — edited ASM #238’s in this fashion are not just known to exist, they have also been reported to have passed through CGC’s modern tier undetected and achieve a Blue/Universal label.
This may sound surprising to some, especially if you weren’t familiar with the tattooz situation before now — because if you’re like me, the very idea of manipulating staples (the tattooz were stapled in) and risking damaging the book is unthinkable… But then again, if you had asked me ten years ago if large bends to the cover of a comic could be reversed by manipulating the paper via trade-secret “pressing” techniques, and that such a fix would be completely undetectable, my skeptical eyebrow would have gone up (and did when I first read an advertisement for pressing… fast forward, and nowadays the technique is so common and accepted that CGC’s parent company even purchased Classics Incorporated and nowadays you can have a comic pressed at CCS before grading with the check of a box!). Point being: manipulating a comic may seem unthinkable to some, but it is “business as usual” for others.
The fact is, our hobby is now permeated with people skilled in techniques to manipulate comics in ways that “improve” them without those improvements being detectable. And I’ve been shocked in recent years to learn that it isn’t just specialists anymore with such capabilities — within the past two years I’ve had a fellow collector tell me they took a class on book restoration and applied some of the techniques they learned, on comics at home; and, I’ve also had a Signature Series facilitator tell me they personally could “press” my comic for me with their own home equipment.
As Jon alluded to in his note, Overstreet has even remarked on the fact that these inserts were being swapped, in their guide listing for the issue. And it raises a thought-provoking question: what should the value difference be, between an ASM #238 copy that includes tattooz, and an ASM #238 copy that doesn’t?
Furthermore, the situation becomes even more interesting when we learn what Paul Clairmont discovered. Paul had the great fortune to acquire a massive comic collection in Winnipeg, where the original owner was discerning about the newsstand versus direct edition difference. I.e. the original owner understood there was a difference — and shared with Paul that they actually considered Direct Editions to be reprints in their view. So this collection had a huge number of unread stored-from-day-one Canadian price variant newsstand comics, plus Direct Editions too, and covered an enormous range of issues…. including multiple copies of Fantastic Four #252, Amazing Spider-Man #238 — and Captain America #279 & Star Wars #69 as well.
So by looking through the newsstand and direct edition copies of each within this large collection, Paul learned something interesting: While the Amazing Spider-Man #238 newsstand copies (Canadian Price Variants) plus direct edition copies of the issue all had the tattooz, over at Fantastic Four #252 only the direct editions had the tattooz… not one of the multiple Canadian price variant newsstand copies had the tattooz. Paul describes the original owner as a bit of a “hermit” (someone not even connected to the Internet) who never in a million years would have thought to tamper with any of their books. Plus, they had owned both types (direct edition and newsstand), and the tattooz were only absent from the Fantastic Four #252 newsstand copies. [By the way, Paul confirmed that Canadian price variant newsstand copies of Captain America #279 and Star Wars #69 did not have tattooz either].
This knowledge adds an interesting “twist” into the tattooz situation: the Fantastic Four #252 Type 1A copies were not distributed with tattooz, but, we know that swapping these inserts can and has been done, so, in theory one could harvest tattooz from a direct edition FF #252, insert them into a Type 1A FF #252 and in Frankenstein-like fashion create something that never actually existed “in nature”… a “home-made” variant.
Reading the above scenario, you’re probably shaking your head and thinking, “that shouldn’t be allowed to happen”… i.e. it shouldn’t be possible to create a FF #252 Type 1A copy with a tattooz insert as a “home-made variant.” And yet, we have to accept into our thinking, that it is in fact possible because it would be no more difficult than the ASM #238 editing that we definitively know is taking place out there!
So when it comes to these inserts, what makes a given book “complete”? Should an ASM #238 with tattooz be much more valuable than an ASM #238 without the tattooz? Here’s Jon’s full note:
Jon notes: This book is NOT incomplete without Tattooz. It was printed in a standard, old fashioned way, independent of the Tattooz inserted later just like Mark Jewelers ads from the 1970s were inserted. Should we call Incredible Hulk #181 without a Mark Jewelers insert incomplete? I believe this problem originates from the fact that the comic’s cover mentions Tattooz, as does the cover to Fantastic Four #252. Ideally, the Tattooz ARE absent due to the slow degradation of the contents that will eventually effect paper quality inside. Overstreet listings are confused, forced to respond to CGC’s nonsense. Once upon a time, I called Bob Overstreet and told him that the FF #252’s Tattooz were being used as Spidey #238’s Tattooz and that the cure was to list them as same value, which he agreed with and subsequently did so. Collectors aren’t sure what to believe and that’s how the CGC myth is perpetuated. At some point, although my original note remains in the guide about the switching of Tattooz between books, this was changed back to the original mistaken listing (including the explicit mistaken statement that NO Type 1a Canadian variants exist) with two values, with and without Tattooz. The FF #252s are listed in Overstreet #47 (2017) at $8 with Tattooz and $6 without in NM-, and ASM #238 is listed at $150 with and $80 without in NM-, a discrepancy that highlights this dilemma, with Tattooz worth between $2 and $70 for the same item. As no copies of FF #252 Type 1A have ever been confirmed to have Tattooz, all copies submitted would automatically be delineated as CGC green label incomplete unless Tattooz were inserted, thereby CREATING a variant which is not valid, as home made variants do not a variant make. ALL CGC would have to do is say “no Tattooz” on the label and have a blue label, leaving it to the collector to decide on the relative importance of its inclusion. There is little if any difference between doubling down on the term “Canadian Edition” for Type 1As and insisting books without inserts are incomplete. The situation is ridiculous; it is a conceptual failure. Any real NM- or better copy will and should be taken seriously with or without the insert. Tattooz were inserted in Amazing Spider-Man #238 and Fantastic Four #252 and advertised on the covers; Captain America #279(3/83) and Star Wars #69(3/83) were given Tattooz without advertising on the covers. Because neither of the latter books are considered incomplete without the inserts and would receive CGC blue labels, it stands to reason that ASM #238 and FF #252 are not incomplete without Tattooz either, as the books are complete, having been printed in a standard way, independent of the Tattooz that were then inserted. The only difference is the ads on the covers, and those are irrelevant as they are part of the printing process of the book itself.
[For more on CGC’s use of the phrase “Canadian Edition” see this separate post]. The more one thinks about this whole situation and Jon’s points, the more one realizes what an interesting and thought-provoking situation these Tattooz inserts are… On the one hand, the tattooz were not unique to any one book, much like the Mark Jewelers inserts Jon mentioned — in other words, the same insert is found across multiple books. Therefore, you didn’t have to buy just one specific issue (which later became a “key issue”) to get that insert; you could find the identical insert elsewhere in a “non-key” issue.
But on the other hand, in the case of the Mark Jewelers inserts only a subset of the print run received inserts: my understanding has been that these inserts only went into newsstand copies serving military personnel; whereas all of the ASM #238 types (direct edition, US newsstand edition, Type 1A Canadian newsstand edition) were distributed with tattooz — which were a feature which also got a special mention on the cover (whereas Mark Jewelers inserts were not promoted on comic book covers).
So in that sense, if you were to acquire a copy of ASM #238 from an original owner who assured you they immediately stored their copy away upon purchasing it, your default expectation would be to find tattooz inside — they would have had to remove them for them to be absent, which would run counter to the idea of immediately storing away the purchased copy. But this is a different default expectation versus a Mark Jewelers copy of Hulk #181, since only a portion of them would have been expected to have the insert to begin with: you wouldn’t automatically assume you’d find the insert inside.
And so how should we value an ASM #238 with and without the insert? As Jon alluded to in his note, Overstreet’s listing has actually changed over time, with regard to their suggested value with and without tattooz. Here’s a picture of how it used to look back when they determined that the tattooz-swapping situation called for the same value to be given regardless (the entry wraps from the bottom of one page to the top of the next page, so below are two images but they are the same #238 entry):
So you can see above how Overstreet used to list the book, where they made special mention of the fact that tattooz-swapping was taking place out there, with tattooz being harvested from Fantastic Four #252 and placed into Amazing Spider-Man #238 “as an incentive to increase value.” And then for the value they listed it once, with or without the insert.
Anyone with the skills and inclination could buy a copy of ASM #238 lacking tattooz, then also hunt down a suitable copy of another book “for parts” (i.e. just to harvest its tattooz from a suitable copy where the staples lined up), then edit the ASM #238, and finally sell that edited copy “complete with tattooz” for a higher value and pocket the spread. Hence a monetary incentive to perform such a tattooz swap if the market values create the arbitrage opportunity.
So in theory, since the tattooz insert can be added if absent, shouldn’t there be some relationship to the value with and without tattooz, as expressed by the following mathematical equation?
And I suppose in the time/effort/cost category would also be the risk that the ASM gets damaged in the tattooz-swapping process — some dollar amount needs to compensate for the time, effort, and risk to actually accomplish the swap, or the cost to pay someone to do it who has the expertise.
It is certainly an interesting situation, and as the #1 highest valued Type 1A variant in the guide, this is certainly an important book deserving of a large amount of thought before making a purchase. And part of that thought process should involve how you personally feel about approaching the tattooz situation. For anyone looking to acquire the ASM #238 Type 1A variant, hopefully these notes in this post are a help to you as you put your own thought into the matter.
The last thing I’ll mention is that my personal copy of this variant is a Signature Series copy (with tattooz inside), which I mention because Signature Series adds a different level of “permanence” to the CGC slab. For a blue (or green) label copy, I think of the slab as a holder — as protection for the book that is superior to a bag and board, but where there is always the flexibility to crack the book out… But if you were to crack a Signature Series book in the comfort of your home thinking to do a tattooz-swap, in doing so you would lose the signature authentication — so for such books, that slab is more of a permanent home for your comic (albeit with the ability to be “re-holdered” or switched to a different grading company that recognizes CGC witnessed signatures). Therefore if you want your variant copy to be signed under the Signature Series, and you prefer to own a copy with tattooz, that’s something to get squared away before you bring your copy to a show to be signed and before you hand that book over to CGC.
Before I close out this post I want to once more say a big thank-you to my fellow collaborators on the guide… it was a fantastic experience working with you all, learning from you, and together sharing a passion for studying these Type 1A cover price variant comics!
Happy Collecting everyone! 🙂