By Benjamin Nobel, April 8, 2019
Recently I was part of a research conversation where we were looking into an aspect of 1993 Marvel annuals, specifically the newsstand copies of those annuals, and as it turns out there’s an interesting newsstand numbering phenomenon at Marvel for their annuals that I wanted to document — and to do so I’ve chosen the Uncanny X-Men title as the main example to show you. I hope you’ll find this stuff as interesting as I do!
Before I get to the annuals themselves, first, for introduction, I need to establish that if you’re looking at a given comic book from the second half of 1993, you cannot discern the newsstand copies from their direct edition counter-parts just by the presence of a bar code… in other words, if you see a comic from the second half of 1993 (or later) and the copy you see has a bar code, you cannot draw the automatic conclusion that you’re looking at a newsstand copy!
That’s because half way through 1993, Marvel switched from “logo boxes” to bar codes on their direct editions — this made it easier for retailers to scan them at the checkout counter — and looking at both the Amazing Spider-Man and Uncanny X-Men titles as examples, we can observe that this change occurred in July… i.e. Marvel’s June direct edition comics from 1993 have logo boxes while their July direct edition comics have direct edition bar codes.
For example, here are direct editions side-by-side for Amazing Spider-Man #378 (June) and #379 (July) and I’ve circled the logo box area to point out the change month over month, from “logo box” to bar code:
And that same June-to-July switchover from logo boxes to direct edition bar codes is observed in the Uncanny X-Men title too: here are direct edition examples side-by-side for X-Men #301 (June) and #302 (July) below:
OK: so now I want us to take a closer look at X-Men #302 (the one at right in the picture above) as the first issue in the title where direct editions and newsstand copies of the issue number both carry bar codes, and ask the question: can we tell those two bar codes apart? The answer is YES WE CAN. Here’s two zoomed-out copies side-by-side (at left, a newsstand #302, at right, the direct edition), where even from afar we can already spot that these boxes are different:
When the two types above were printed, they basically needed to finish the one batch, pause, change just the black text in certain spots, and then resume (we do not know the order of batches printed or whether they alternated, but the interiors are 100% identical and each type that was “born” at the same time and on the same equipment with the same paper and ink are true first printings).
And interestingly, X-Men #302 makes for an ideal example to illustrate the printing differences between the batches because there was also an error batch for this issue number where some copies were printed with blanks in those certain spots which needed to be switched between batches! Thus, my guess is that these error copies happened by mistake during this switch-over between the newsstand and direct edition batches. Thus, these error copies really help illustrate where the differences are between the types, by way of our “zooming in” on the blank areas. First, here’s a full front cover to show you what an error copy looks like (by the way, I’ve also seen these error copies called “Logo Variant”):
And now, we’ll zoom in to see the differences, first looking at the price box area:
The price boxes are pretty similar between the newsstand and the direct edition batch; from the error copy in the middle, we can in turn see that we should direct our attention to the area above “302 JUL” and also below to find the differences: and we see that the UK pence price is in a different location and that the newsstand copy has the Curtis Circulation code for X-Men (“02461”) under the month:
And now looking at the UPC box area, we can see that the newsstand bar code and direct edition bar code have different structures, and, the direct edition bar code also clearly says DIRECT EDITION above it.
The words “direct edition” are the big short-cut giveaway as to which copy is the direct edition, but while we’re here let’s also examine the newsstand and direct edition bar codes themselves side-by-side, to understand their structure a little bit:
That “02461” code we saw earlier as the code for X-Men appears on both of the above (in the bottom middle), we can observe that the numbers at the left are different between newsstand and direct editions, and then there’s a huge difference in the structure of the number along the right.
The newsstand copy (at left above) has a slim right-hand bar, with a 2-digit number at the top (in this case “07” which is denoting the month of July), while the direct edition copy has a fat right-hand bar, with five digits: The first three digits are the issue number (302 in this case), the next digit is used to denote different cover variations, and the fifth digit is used to denote different printings.
[p.s. There was also a Type 1A $1.95 cover price variant for newsstands in Australia — learn more about those here — which looks like this, below (notice the right side of the bar code has “10” for October, because after these were printed they were loaded onto the slow boat to Australia and so they advanced the cover month by three months so as not to appear out-of-date when they finally hit the newsstands in the land down under):]
OK! With that bit of background, we’ve now seen the basic differences between direct edition bar codes and newsstand bar codes, which is useful to know when looking at comics published after the logo-to-barcode-switchover that took place on direct editions.
We saw how the newsstand bar code has that “slim” right-hand bar with the number at the top being a 2-digit code: Marvel used these two digits to denote the month on the copy we saw. Did Marvel consistently denote the month in this spot of their newsstand bar codes? For their regular monthly comics, that indeed appears to be the case: “01” denotes January, “02” denotes February, “03” denotes March… etc.
Here are a string of quick examples just to show you all the months starting with a December issue, X-Men #188, and continuing for a little over a calendar year:
So for the regular monthly issues, it is consistently the calendar month being communicated at the right-hand side of the bar code.
But what about annuals? As you might have guessed from the title of this post, Marvel did things a bit differently when it came to their annuals! Let’s have a look!
The first annual I want to show you is X-Men Annual #17 from 1993. We observed earlier that from July onward of that year, Marvel published their direct editions with direct edition bar codes.
So, suppose as a thought experiment, that we saw just the bottom left corner of the front cover of a given direct edition 1993 Marvel comic? Even if we knew absolutely nothing else about the book, we could make an educated guess by the presence of a logo, that the book was from June or earlier… while if we saw a direct edition bar code, we could make an educated guess that the book was from July or later.
Before we take a look at what’s on the front cover of a direct edition copy of X-Men Annual #17, logo or bar code, I want to show you the indicia page… notice that only the year 1993 is mentioned (no month):
And when CGC catalogs the book in their system, they only reflect the year 1993 (no month):
How about the newsstand bar code for this annual, might that help provide us with a clue as to publication month? As it turns out, by 1993, Marvel had been putting the annual number into the right-hand side of the newsstand bar code… i.e. for X-Men Annual #17, the right-hand side of the newsstand code says 17:
So the cover of direct editions of this annual will provide a very important clue indeed — will we see a logo box (June or earlier), or, will we see a direct edition bar code (July or later)? Here’s the answer!:
As you can see above, it is a logo box. That leads me to conclude that Annual #17 is from June or earlier of 1993… and a further clue is found in the below listing — the highlighted area indicates that the story is continued in X-Men #301 (which we saw before was published in June).
If it continued in a June issue, then I’d call May (or, perhaps, the same month as #301, June) for Annual #17 a really good guess.
How about we look at another X-Men annual, #14 from 1990? Above, we saw that the newsstand code for Annual #17 says “17” on it… will newsstand copies of #14 say “14” in that spot? As it turns out, Marvel didn’t always use the annual number for this part of the newsstand code, and back in 1990 when Annual #14 was published, the newsstand code looks like this:
It says “05”… which, if this was a monthly issue, we’d conclude meant May. Does it mean May in this case? Although I think that would certainly be a fair guess, it turns out that if we examine Marvel’s newsstand numbering for X-Men annuals, an interesting pattern emerges.
[I hinted at this newsstand numbering phenomenon at the beginning of this post, but I didn’t want to jump right into the pattern until you had the background… and now you have the background, so, let’s take a look at the newsstand numbering on X-Men annuals over the course of time!]
We’ll start below with X-Men Annual #3 from 1979. The second digit of the right-hand number is five… but, the first number is… 9:
… and the next year, with Annual #4, it is “05”:
… then, it increments each year by 10:
… until at Annual #16 the numbering pattern switches to the number of the annual itself:
Notice that Annual #15 (1991) actually could fit both patterns: #14 was “05” and so going up by 10 would bring us to 15, but it is also Annual #15 so the 15 could also be the annual number!
So let’s turn to Amazing Spider-Man and see what year that title switches its pattern. As it turns out, Annual #24 (1990) is an “05”, while Annual #25 (1991) is 25:
Since the second digit of 25 is five, let’s just examine one more title to be sure that 1991 is the year Marvel began using the annual number for their newsstand codes — let’s look at Iron Man, which was up to Annual #11 in 1990 and Annual #12 in 1991:
As we can see, #11 from 1990 has the “05” code, while #12 from 1991 uses 12, the annual number. Also interesting about these two Iron Man examples is that the cover artist in both examples, Tom Morgan, signed not only his name to his cover artwork, but also a date — which is 3/1990 for #11 and 4/1991 for #12. The artist naturally would have completed the artwork ahead of the actual publication of the comic (maybe by a month or two or three as a guesstimate).
For additional reference, Tom Morgan was also the cover artist for Iron Man #257, and the artwork was signed 3/1990 while issue #257 was published in June:
After X-Men Annual #18, Marvel switches from sequential numbering of annuals to using the year (“X-Men Annual 1995” etc.), and with the 1995 annual the UPC code moves to the back cover which makes it extraordinarily difficult to spot newsstand copies on the market. So I’ll stop the investigation there without knowing for sure what the 1995 annual newsstand code shows, but, it would make sense that Marvel would have changed their newsstand numbering again in some fashion once they began this new naming convention of using the year. Newsstand annuals in general after this point appear to be exceedingly difficult to find out there to get a reference picture, but I did spot a newsstand Peter Parker: Spider-Man/Elektra 1998 annual, and the code on it is “85” (could this perhaps be 8 for 1998 and 5 for May??):
So! Now you’ve seen the patterns that I wanted to document and share, when it came to Marvel newsstand numbering on their annuals. Before their 1991 switch to using the annual number in the newsstand code, what are we to make of the “05” / “15” / “25” / etc. numbering? Was the “5” in the second digit indicative of a May date, or something else? I’m not sure what to conclude, but I think May is a fair guess, yet, not a definitive answer — even for the “05” coded copies — given that prior to 1991 these codes on annuals appear to have incremented annually by 10 and thus except for the “05” copies they do not directly correspond to a calendar month the way the codes on the monthly issues consistently do. If anyone has anything to add to the discussion, I hope you’ll weigh in! Whatever the pattern meant, I found it interesting to observe, and I hope you did too! 🙂
Happy Collecting! 🙂