$3.99 Newsstand Editions, Direct Edition vs. Newsstand Edition Comic Books

Uncanny X-Men $3.99 Newsstand Editions

By Benjamin Nobel, June 20, 2016

As one of Marvel’s most popular titles, Uncanny X-Men had some excellent creative teams working on the title.  Newsstand copies are difficult to find out there published during the 3.99 price variant “window” (when regular direct edition copies were priced at $2.99). Pictured below are two issues out of that $3.99 window that have particularly stunning artwork, #499 and #511:

Uncanny X-Men #499, $3.99 Newsstand Edition cover price variant.

Uncanny X-Men #499, $3.99 Newsstand Edition cover price variant.

Uncanny X-Men #511, $3.99 Newsstand Edition cover price variant

Uncanny X-Men #511, $3.99 Newsstand Edition cover price variant.

 This price variant window occurs close to the point in time when Marvel’s David Gabriel confirmed that newsstand sales to bookstores had ended, and that two years prior, Marvel had ended newsstand sales to other outlets (and interestingly he also indicated that after newsstand sales to bookstores ended it was months before anyone even noticed).  Based on the time of that quote, that wind-down of other newsstand sales would have been circa 2010-2011; the $3.99 variant newsstand comics shown above were published in 2008-2009.
Although neither copy above currently appears on the CGC census in $3.99 Newsstand Edition, it will be interesting to observe the accumulation of census data for these and other variants in this very interesting “class” of newsstand comics that CGC has chosen to “break out” making them one of the few CGC-recognized newsstand variant categories of comics.
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Direct Edition vs. Newsstand Edition Comic Books

Amazing Spider-Man / Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man / Sensational Spider-Man

By Benjamin Nobel, June 10, 2016

With newsstand copies of Amazing Spider-Man around the 600’s, there is quite an interesting and “post-worthy” phenomenon… one having to do with the UPC codes.  To set the stage:  Not all collectors know that the comics sold in comic shops were “direct edition” copies while meanwhile there was a second “variation” sent only to newsstands that can be told apart.  There is an interesting history there, which I covered in my post entitled Comic Book Newsstand Editions: Understanding The Difference.  But the “cliff notes” version of that history as relates to this post and the specific “phenomenon” I am about to go into, is to know that direct edition comics didn’t always have UPC codes on them the way current ones do…  But after a certain point they were added, because retailers were requesting them from publishers (with codes on them it would be much easier to scan items at check-out).  And so for what I’ll refer to as “late modern” comics, the distinction between the Direct Edition (non-returnable) copies, and the returnable newsstand ones, is pretty darn subtle at a glance.  In fact, I wonder how many readers will even notice there’s a difference before I go ahead and point it out?  Consider Amazing Spider-Man #599 below:

One of these is the "direct edition" version, the other is the "newsstand" version...  Can you tell which is which?

One of these is the “direct edition” version, the other is the “newsstand” version… Can you tell which is which?

Maybe it will help if I zoom in on the important spot…  Now take another look below, this time with the picture showing just the two UPC code boxes side by side.  Can you tell which is the direct edition and which is the newsstand edition?  (Hint: helpfully, the direct edition actually says “Direct Edition” on it).

ASM-599-newsstand-vs-direct

Zooming in on the UPC code boxes for two copies of ASM 599… Spot the direct edition copy (helpfully, the Direct Edition copy says “Direct Edition” on it).

Observant readers will notice there are actually several differences… (including another key difference — that the cover price is different — that I will delve into in future posts)…  But for this post I’m just going to talk about what appears on the side of the code box (for this issue the right-hand side):  “Amazing Spider-Man” for the ASM #599 copy at the left (the newsstand copy) and “Direct Edition” for the ASM #599 copy at the right.  Next, below, I’ll picture the subsequent issue, #600 (and this time for anyone who didn’t spot the words to look for, I’ll point them out with arrows):

ASM-600-titles

For Amazing Spider-Man #600, instead of “Amazing Spider-Man” it reads “Frndly Nbhd Spider-Man” on the newsstand copy.  (Sharp eyed readers will also notice another important difference, at the very bottom — the cover price is different).

As you can see, the title above the code for the newsstand copy of ASM #600 at the left identifies the comic as “Frndly Nbhd Spider-Man” (short for Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man).  But this is Amazing Spider-Man #600 we’re looking at, not Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.  And this phenomenon is what I want to talk about in this post.  Now that you have seen the newsstand/direct-edition distinction, I’m just going to be looking at newsstand copies for the remainder of this post.  (And now that you know what we’re looking for, I’ll make the pictures smaller and easier to scroll through).  Let’s now look at a newsstand copy of issue #601, the next issue chronologically…

ASM #601 newsstand copy... The title reads "Sensational Spider-Man" to the left of the code box.

ASM #601 newsstand copy… The title reads “Sensational Spider-Man” to the left of the code box.

For this one, above, look at the left and you’ll see it identifies this comic as “Sensational Spider-Man” (but this is Amazing Spider-Man #601 we’re looking at).  And as a side note, from issue to issue the orientation of the codes is sometimes different and the title is sometimes on a different side of the box, but the important thing to notice is that these are three different UPC codes we’ve now seen, for newsstand copies of ASM #599, 600, and 601, being the codes for Amazing Spider-Man, Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, and Sensational Spider-Man.  Let’s see what’s on issue #602, shall we?  Here it is below:

Amazing Spider-Man 602... for this one it is "Amazing Spider-Man"...

Amazing Spider-Man 602… for this one it is “Amazing Spider-Man”…

“Amazing Spider-Man” on that one.  Let me now present a few more in succession:

ASM #603... Friendly.

ASM #603… Friendly.

ASM #604... Sensational.

ASM #604… Sensational.

ASM #605... Amazing.

ASM #605… Amazing.

ASM #606... Friendly.

ASM #606… Friendly.

ASM #607... Sensational.

ASM #607… Sensational.

And now to make the “phenomenon” I’m pointing out here all the more clear, let me list out below all the newsstand ASM issues we’ve just looked at, and I will color code the names along the UPC codes as I list them to make crystal clear what’s going on here:

599 – amazing
600 – friendly
601 – sensational
602 – amazing
603 – friendly
604 – sensational
605 – amazing
606 – friendly
607 – sensational

Do you see the pattern emerging?  Marvel is “cycling” these three different codes, alternating them in a predictable pattern.   Exactly how far back this goes (and how far forward) is another question…  one that is not easily answered because these newsstand copies are so incredibly difficult to find, so to “confirm” each and every issue with a picture is not something I will even bother to attempt.  But if this pattern holds, we should be able to extrapolate it backwards and forwards, and make a prediction about which code would be on which issue.  I will do that now, backwards to issue #579 (where I have a picture and can confirm) and forward to issue #616 (where I also have a picture and can confirm).  Here is the extrapolated list, with my confirmed examples from above in bold and my guesses (all based on the established pattern) in italics:


579 – friendly
580 – sensational
581 – amazing
582 – friendly
583 – sensational
584 – amazing
585 – friendly
586 – sensational
587 – amazing
588 – friendly
589 – sensational
590 – amazing
591 – friendly
592 – sensational
593 – amazing
594 – friendly
595 – sensational
596 – amazing
597 – friendly
598 – sensational
599 – amazing
600 – friendly
601 – sensational
602 – amazing
603 – friendly
604 – sensational
605 – amazing
606 – friendly
607 – sensational
608 – amazing
609 – friendly
610 – sensational
611 – amazing
612 – friendly
613 – sensational
614 – amazing
615 – friendly
616 – sensational

So let’s see if these predictions hold…  We guessed going backwards, based on the pattern, that ASM #579 would have the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man code.  Does it?  Here it is:

ASM #579... Friendly.

ASM #579… Friendly.

It does!  We also guessed going forwards, based on the pattern, that ASM #616 would have the Sensational Spider-Man code.  Does it?  Here it is:

ASM #616... Sensational.

ASM #616… Sensational.

It does!  Readers may be wondering at this point, does any of this matter?  Or is it just an interesting bit of trivia?  The answer is developing and I will be posting more about this in the future, but it is fairly clear to me that yes it matters [8/31/2016 update: it absolutely matters… please read Newsstand Variants, $3.99 Newsstand Editions, and The Doc Collection].  One reason it seemed to matter: the distribution was different depending on the code.  I know this because of “The Doc Collection” (which too will be the topic of a future post).  This collection, quite possibly the largest late modern newsstand collection in existence, is in the process of being sold off, at auction, one comic at a time.  But a very interesting pattern emerged in the Amazing Spider-Man run… this collection was missing every third issue.  It wasn’t that the collector “held back” every third issue from being auctioned, they simply never bought it in the first place.  And it wasn’t that it was there on the newsstand but they purposely skipped buying it, but rather, the store this collector bought their comics from (a drugstore) didn’t get them.  What’s the same about those missed copies?  They were the ones with the Sensational Spider-Man codes.  The store simply wasn’t distributed any of the ASM copies with Sensational on them!  A pretty fascinating phenomenon, wouldn’t you agree?  And it reminds me of a Jim Shooter quote:

“The newsstand cast a wide net. It funneled wannabe collectors into the comics shops. In a way, the spotty, unreliable, inconsistent nature of newsstand distribution was a good thing, because someone who just had to have every issue was more or less forced to seek out a comics shop.”  — Jim Shooter

Spotty… inconsistent…  Definitely describes this situation where the largest late modern newsstand collection out there, covering 50,000 newsstand comics, missed every third Amazing Spider-Man issue.  The ones with the Sensational Spider-Man code on them… which traces back to this phenomenon where Marvel “cycled” these three different codes.

If you picture how a “typical” newsstand buyer (a reader) might react to this phenomenon — this “hole” in the story line — it might pretty much be what Jim Shooter said, i.e. this forced them into a comic shop to buy the issue they missed and see what happened in the story.  At that point, they might very well become a regular customer of the comic shop, finding it to be reliable and consistent.  Enough readers making this switch from newsstand purchases to comic shops, and you can start to see how it really snowballed to the point where by 2013, by Rozanski’s estimates, direct edition comics were a full 99% of the total sold by Marvel, meaning newsstand comics were a mere 1%.  Marvel actually shut down its newsstand sales to the last remaining bookstore outlets in 2013 and Marvel’s David Gabriel revealed that newsstand sales to all other newsstand outlets had ended two years prior (which would have been circa 2010-2011).   By Comichron’s estimates, industry-wide 2013 newsstand comic book sales were only $25 million versus comic store orders (direct edition) of $340 million — that’s 6.8% newsstand vs. direct edition at 93.2%.

No matter how you slice it up, it looks like that newsstand slice in later years is a single-digit percentage of the total… and then from there, newsstand comics also suffer the typical high destruction rate inflicted by readers, that newsstand comics are pretty much notorious for… making high grade survivors all the more rare.

There is such a lower percentage of these as to nearly make many of these late modern newsstand copies “effectively invisible.”  But CGC has decided to “break out” newsstand comics with UPC codes mis-identifying the comics as another title — which would be two out of three ASM’s in the period discussed in this post — and they have also decided to “break out” $3.99/$4.99 newsstand cover price variants, as separately recognized census variants.  This will mean that over the years as data is accumulated, we’ll be able to see the relative newsstand-vs-direct edition rarity numbers self-express in the census data for these later years of Marvel’s newsstand distribution.

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Direct Edition vs. Newsstand Edition Comic Books

Wolverine Limited Series #1 — Where Are The Newsstand Copies??

By Benjamin Nobel, June 2, 2016

This post is prompted by a discussion I was having with a friend about which comic book version (direct edition or newsstand) is preferable to collect by year, from 1979 onward (’79 being the year comic shop direct edition comics came into existence — 1977 if you count Whitman multi-packs from Western Publishing).  As I talked about in my post entitled Comic Book Newsstand Editions: Understanding The Difference, an industry insider recently (in 2013) published estimates for Marvel’s newsstand/direct percentages for certain years throughout history, giving us a picture of the relative percentages of each type over the course of time and how direct sales took over the market.  [This revealing of information happened to coincide with Marvel’s decision to end newsstand sales altogether].

Newsstand vs. Direct: What’s The Most Rare Version To Collect By Year?

Early Direct Edition Vs. Newsstand Copy, ASM #201

For 1979, the published estimate was 6% direct edition to 94% newsstand sales.  It makes sense that the direct-sold percentage would be so low in this first year, because this was a brand-new sales channel that was just getting off the ground.  A prominent eBay seller I discussed this phenomenon with revealed to me that in their own sales online, when they list a direct edition copy with the bar code strike-through and they point out the tiny print run percentage in the listing, they get a higher priced sale (their words: “I always get better money when I list them as such”).

A premium market price is a compelling reason to prefer one version over the other, although amazingly, even at 6% of sales originally, when you search for graded copies of some of these today, you notice that there sure seems to be plenty of CGC graded strike-through copies out there in relation to regular-bar-code newsstand copies.   Because when you think about it, that tiny 6% fraction in 1979 that were direct edition copies, were handled with great care by the comic shops themselves and then from there wound up concentrated into the hands of collectors who preserved them extremely well… compared to their newsstand counterparts which suffered such a high destruction rate, ending up mostly in the hands of readers.  But, with such a small initial distribution percentage, and with that fact driving a market price premium, arguably these very early direct edition copies with the bar code strike-through (before the Spider-Man rectangle was introduced) are the preferable version to collect.

Direct edition vs. 60¢ newsstand vs. 75¢ newsstand.So that’s 1979… Then what?  Well, let me first skip ahead from 1979 to late 1982.  Because from October of 1982 to August of 1986 (and even later for D.C.), the clear version to collect for any given comic are the rare cover price variants, which I talked about in my post entitled 75 Cent Variants (Canadian Newsstand Editions), where the cover price variants were also a single digit percentage of the total distribution (starting with the comics that were sold into Canada you then divide that already-small market by direct/newsstand, with the price variants being only the newsstand portion of that market — a market which by population size was 9.8% of the total as a starting point, with that percentage figure then getting further lowered when you divide it up by direct/newsstand because only the newsstand copies were the price variants).

After the cover price variant window of the 80’s closed at Marvel we are left more than half way through the year 1986.  And in 1986, the published discussions and estimates by Marvel insiders shows this was the time-frame when direct edition sales would surpass newsstand sales… making newsstand the clear winner to collect as the more rare version from that point forward.

So by percentage rarity, if direct editions are clearly favorable to collect in 1979, if the cover price variants are clearly favorable to collect from late 1982 to 1986 (during the window when they existed at Marvel), and if the newsstand versions are clearly favorable to collect thereafter, that leaves a period of time just before the cover price variants started in 1982, that is open to some debate…

Let’s consider 1982, shall we?  Following 1979, that’s the next year we have published information to look at, for the estimated percentage… and it was revealed to be 20% direct edition to 80% newsstand.  There were less direct edition copies sold… does this mean the direct edition is more favorable to collect?  Maybe on paper from the starting point distribution percentage one would think so, but when it comes to high grade survivors I’m not so sure (read on and you’ll see why)!  Which brings me to Wolverine Limited Series #1, a key issue which was published in 1982, making it a perfect example comic to examine.

Wolverine Limited Series #1 (1982) — Let’s Actually Look For It!

If the distribution split was 20% direct to 80% newsstand, then “on paper” we should be able to find plenty of newsstand copies of this comic, should we not? I went looking for a CGC 9.6 copy.  I want to share with you what I found, with screen-captures for posterity.  The captures will be long but scroll through if you will, and count how many UPC codes you see (newsstand copies), versus how many Spider-Man rectangle copies you see (direct edition).  Are 2 out of every 10 direct edition, and 8 out of every 10 newsstand edition?  First, below, I have a screen-capture of the copies offered in the upcoming June ComicLink auction (all but one has a picture listed).  As you can see, every copy pictured is the direct edition.

Every pictured copy of Wolverine Limited Series #1 for the June ComicLink auction is a Direct Edition copy.

Every pictured copy of Wolverine Limited Series #1 for the June ComicLink auction is a Direct Edition copy.

Only seven results here so this is not a huge sample size… but not a single newsstand copy is pictured.  If direct edition copies were only 20% of Marvel’s sales that year, and newsstand copies were a full 80% then shouldn’t we see some newsstand copies?  Maybe at a larger source, like eBay…  There, the sample size is so large that to make a reasonably-sized screen capture you need to narrow the results with a search term.

I searched for CGC 9.6 copies (a nice grade point where the copy is going to be in stunning shape but you don’t have to pay 9.8 premium prices).  Here is a screen-capture for posterity, of the search results querying for CGC 9.6 copies on eBay, on the date of this writing, June 2, 2016 (even this result makes for a long screenshot so my apologies if you are on a smartphone, this will require some scrolling!), please count how many UPC codes (newsstand copies) you see:

eBay search result for CGC 9.6 copies of Wolverine Limited Series #1... All direct edition, no newsstand copies are shown!

eBay search result for CGC 9.6 copies of Wolverine Limited Series #1… Did you spot the newsstand copy?

Did you spot the one newsstand copy (with a UPC code)?  It wasn’t a #1… it was in the listing that pictured a 1-4 set, with the newsstand copy being issue #2 (a CGC 9.4 copy).  So between these 24 eBay copies and the 7 ComicLink copies we’re up to 31 we’ve looked at and haven’t yet seen a single newsstand copy of Wolverine Limited Series #1.  But maybe that newsstand #2 provides a clue — it is a 9.4, a notch below what I searched eBay for…

Newsstand comics are pretty much notorious for getting beaten up, between the fact that the typical buyer was a reader (whereas collectors meanwhile were buying direct edition copies from their local comic shop), and the fact that the staff of newsstands treated them just like magazines (i.e. a publication meant to be read, with no thought of preserving condition — by definition with this distribution channel they were not handled with any semblance of care and were simply tossed into those metal spin racks, inflicting damage pretty much immediately for all but the lucky “sandwiched” copies protected by outer ones or the rare staff member who was gentle with them).

“Our experience has shown that the comics sold in comic shops had a 90% probability of being put into a plastic bag and preserved, while comics purchased from newsstands had a 90% probability of either being read to death, or thrown away.” ~ Chuck Rozanski

So maybe 9.6 is too lofty a goal for newsstand copies?  I repeated the same eBay search but notched down to 9.4.   Out of 19 listings, still no newsstand copies!  So 31+19… that’s up to 50 copies now that we’ve reviewed that are all direct edition examples.  I next notched the grade down again, to CGC 9.2.  This time, among the 12 listings, there was one newsstand copy!  Finally!  Here it is:

found-one-in-9.2

We have now looked through 62 copies of Wolverine Limited Series #1 in this exercise before finding this newsstand copy in 9.2…

So that’s 1 out of 62 copies… 1.6%.  Today is just one moment in time and I’ve only looked in two places but any time I’ve looked — and no matter how wide my search of online and offline comic shops — my own experience with Wolverine Limited Series #1 is consistently that high grade CGC newsstand copies are the exception, while high grade direct edition copies are the norm out there.

How is this possible, when the published statistics show that fully 80% of Marvel’s comics would have been newsstand in 1982, versus 20% direct edition?  How do we get this kind of opposite observed newsstand rarity in high grade surviving copies in 2016, from that original 1982 distribution percentage which should on paper argue that the direct edition would be harder to find?

I want to comment at this point that it is a real shame that CGC did not elect to break out newsstand versus direct editions as separate versions on census broadly… had they done so instead of lumping them both together, at this point we could look at some actual census data and know how many copies of each version were turned in for grading, and what grades they were given.  Alas, that information does not exist.  Which leaves us with observation about availability in the market as the only way to get a sense of what the relative rarity of surviving high grade copies likely looks like today.

From my observations about this and other comics published around 1982 — such as the exercise I shared above of actually looking for a high grade copy — I have to conclude that although the direct edition copies may have only been 20% of the total sold at time of distribution, those direct edition copies were then concentrated into the hands of shops whose owners knew to preserve their condition, and then the typical buyer at those shops was concerned about collecting the comic and preserving its condition as well.  Over at the newsstands meanwhile, how many of those copies were actually handled with care and then stored away in a bag with board by a collector?  Unfortunately because of CGC’s decision to simply lump both versions together on the census, we have no official census tally to reach a definitive conclusion based on hard numbers of existing graded copies…

But my own conclusion is that even with comics published back in 1982, a year when the answer isn’t crystal clear from the distribution data which version should be preferable to collect, I for one cannot resist wanting to own a high grade newsstand copy because they just seem to be so much harder to find out there…  The “sorting” of the comic book market into a mostly-collector group taking home and preserving direct edition copies, versus a mostly-reader group buying newsstand copies, produces relative survivorship effect that appears to overwhelm the original distribution percentage.

So for me, high grade newsstand is my collecting preference from the point strike-through copies end (the point the Spider-Man rectangle was introduced), because that seems to be a good cut-off point:  I’ll collect direct edition as my preference if it is early enough that it has a strike-through (even though those early direct edition copies were so well preserved, if nothing else it is such an interesting part of comic book history and adds to the “story” behind the comic… “and see that weird strike-through on the bar code, only 6% of the copies sold that year had that, and the really interesting reason that is there is…” [by the way, for anyone reading this who does not know what that really interesting reason is, the answer to that question can be found in my separate post entitled Comic Book Newsstand Editions: Understanding The Difference]), after that strike-through ends and the Spider-Man rectangle begins my collecting preference becomes newsstand, and then if the comic in question has a newsstand cover price variant (if it was published during that window in the 1980’s where they exist), then I’ll go after the price variant as my preference.

Happy Collecting! 🙂

July 18, 2016 addendum — I was just reviewing the July ComicLink auction and couldn’t help but notice that the Wolverine Limited Series #1 listings are all direct edition copies yet again this month.  In fact, out of the entire mini-series there’s just one newsstand copy (a #2).  I screen-captured all the listings for #1-4 below for posterity:

july-comiclink-wolverine-1

Addendum: July ComicLink auctions shows the same pattern of Direct Edition prominence among “CGC-Worthy” surviving copies… with just 1 newsstand copy at auction this month (a #2). Screen-captured for posterity.

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Direct Edition vs. Newsstand Edition Comic Books

Comic Book Newsstand Editions: Understanding The Difference

By Benjamin Nobel, November 8, 2015

In June of 1979, something happened in comics that would change everything — Marvel changed its ‘trade terms’ and standardized its distinct direct edition type comic books which were sold to specialty comic shops, at discounted prices but on a non-returnable basis. That was a major development, culminating from what began in 1977 when Marvel started producing distinguishable non-returnable comics for the first time (encompassing Whitman multi-packs from Western Publishing which were specially marked and non-returnable).  But before this “advent” of early direct edition comics in the 1977-1979 period, the prior primary distribution method for comic books in North America was the newsstand model: one primary type of comic was produced, and unsold copies of that type could simply be returned for a refund.

Returned for a refund? That’s exactly right… Historically, the unsold comics themselves were literally shipped back. How inefficient is that!? The shipping cost alone cut deeply into profits, not to mention the cost of manufacturing more comics than actually sold through (not knowing how many would sell, and not wanting to under-produce, it was common on average to publish three comics for every one that ultimately sold).

Then at some point they figured out they could save on the return shipping cost by permitting just a torn off cover as evidence of an unsold copy. While this was an improvement over shipping back entire comics, there was still the large administrative cost to manage this process and issue credits for returns.

As comic shops started to grow in popularity, the idea came about to sell copies of comic books directly to the shops on a non-returnable basis. Not only would this eliminate the administrative costs to accept returns, but Marvel could publish a more precise number of copies instead of over-producing each issue. These savings would enable Marvel to offer the shops a hefty discount to cover price, in exchange for the guaranteed sale.

And it worked, but there was an initial hiccup: at first, there was nothing to distinguish a direct-sold copy, from a returnable newsstand copy. And some shops were buying with their discount at what was supposed to be a non-returnable basis, but since the copies could not be told apart they were returning them through the newsstand channel and pocketing the spread. Clearly, this could not continue; there needed to be two distinct print run batches, so that direct sold copies could be told apart from returnable newsstand copies.

The first distinction introduced to close this loophole was the barcode strike-through:

Early Direct Edition Vs. Newsstand Copy, ASM #201

The first attempt to close the loophole and make direct sold copies distinguishable: a strike-through of the bar code. This served the purpose, but didn’t look so great.

Shown above are two copies of Amazing Spider-Man #201, side by side.  At left, a direct edition copy; at right, a returnable newsstand copy.  To close the loophole where some comic shops were returning their non-returnable copies through the newsstand channel, a strike-through was placed over the bar code for direct sold copies — the strike-through meant that copy could not be returned for a refund.  Although this did solve the problem, comic shops did not like the look of that bar code box with an odd line through it.  But Marvel came up with a solution: The Spider-Man Rectangle!  Here’s the subsequent issue, #202:

Spider-Man Rectangle Origin

And that’s the origin of the Spider-Man Rectangle that appears in place of the bar code, on direct edition copies.

It amazes me to this day how many collectors don’t know — nor even think about — why some copies of comics have the bar code and some have the Spider-Man Rectangle (or some variation of it).  But that’s the “origin story” of that rectangle… it appeared in connection with closing the loophole to keep non-returnable comics distinguishable from returnable comics.  Comics with the Spider-Man rectangle were direct sold to comic shops on a discounted but non-returnable basis, while over on the newsstands, unsold copies with UPC codes could be returned through the traditional newsstand channel.

In later years, Marvel would replace the Spider-Man Rectangle with a UPC code — but a different code.  This made them look identical at a glance to the untrained eye.  But look closely and you’ll see that direct edition copies say “Direct Edition” in small type along the bar code, while returnable newsstand copies say something else (such as “Amazing Spider-Man”) and may also contain a “display until” date.  Below are a couple of examples:

Direct Edition Vs. Newsstand Comics

In these more modern examples, the direct edition and newsstand copies both were given UPC codes, but if you look closely you’ll see they are actually different, once again distinguishing the non-returnable direct sold copies (which have “Direct Edition” on their bar code boxes).  Some even had different price tags: in the bottom example, the Direct Edition copy has a cover price of $2.99, while the Newsstand Edition copy has a cover price of $3.99.

At this point you may find yourself thinking: so what?  This is all very fascinating, but should it have any impact on how I collect modern comics?  Let me answer your question with a question: if the number of copies sold of each type were different, then would it make a difference to you?  And when I say “different” what I mean can be illustrated in the following table of estimates published by industry insiders including Chuck Rozanski:

Although these are estimates (also see: Newsstand Rarity Discussion & Estimates), what this chart above clearly shows, is that what began as a good idea — to start making non-returnable direct edition sales to comic shops — absolutely exploded into Marvel’s primary distribution method.  That first year, just ~6% of their total distribution was direct sales to comic shops (and said to be over 10% for more popular titles like X-Men), but by the 1985/1986 time-frame it was an even 50/50 split.  Talk about a successful idea!  By the 1990’s newsstand sales had dwindled to a mere ~15% of the total.  That’s absolutely remarkable.  Remember when I posed the question: if the number of copies sold of each type were different, then would it make a difference to you?  Suppose you are looking to collect a comic book published in the 1990’s.  Given this estimated data of an approximate 85/15 direct/newsstand split, would you rather have a Near-Mint (NM) copy from the direct edition print run, or an NM copy from the newsstand edition print run?

Before you answer that question, keep in mind that in contrast to comic shops which were careful to keep their copies in pristine condition, newsstands had no staff training to protect condition and the comics were treated like magazines or other competing publications, with the notion that the buyer didn’t care about condition — they just wanted to read the thing.  And that’s true: newsstand purchasers did want to read the comics they bought.  Those newsstand buyers tended to be readers.  A collector buying from the newsstand was the exception, not the norm.  So a NM copy from the newsstand print run, logic would dictate, would be the exception, not the norm of typical condition.

So not only do you have a distribution disparity tilted dramatically in the direction of direct-edition prevalence and newsstand rarity, you also have a condition disparity (surviving direct edition copies tending to be in better condition, surviving newsstand copies tending to be in poor condition).  So let me re-ask my question another way… If I offered you the choice of two copies of a 1990’s-era comic book you were looking to collect: in my left hand I held a NM copy from the direct edition print run (purchased from a comic shop), while in my right hand I held a NM copy of the same issue but from the newsstand print run, which copy would be more desirable to you, now that you know the difference in rarity at just ~15% of copies being newsstand, and also knowing the typical condition disparity?

But to blow our minds even further, as we move down that chart, we see that by the year 2000 the estimated Marvel newsstand percentage is down to just ~5% — think for example of Amazing Spider-Man #36 (all black cover, 9/11 issue), where newsstand copies would therefore have on the order of 1-in-20 rarity if these estimates are on target [by the way: a Marvel VP has described a 1999-era decision to walk away from the newsstand channel].  Move to 2003 and the estimated Marvel newsstand percentage is down to a mere 4.25%.  Move to 2013 and the newsstand percentage is down to single digits industry-wide and by one estimate for Marvel, just one percent — think for example of Amazing Spider-Man #700, the final issue, where newsstand copies would therefore have 1-in-100 rarity.

After 2013 by the way, Marvel decided to just shut down newsstand sales altogether.  When newsstand sales through the last remaining bookstore outlets carrying Marvel’s newsstand comics ended in 2013, Marvel’s David Gabriel revealed that Marvel had actually ended newsstand sales to all of its other newsstand outlets years earlier — which we can conclude would most certainly have put their newsstand sales percentage below the rest of the industry in the later years of their newsstand distribution.

Can you see now why understanding the newsstand versus direct edition difference is must-know information?  In my opinion this is not just food for thought, but information that should shape the way collectors approach modern comic books.

And if Marvel was down to sub-15% newsstand distribution in the early 90’s, what was going on at newcomer Image Comics when they made their debut in 1992?  It turns out Image’s newsstand sales were so small as to be next-to-invisible, causing some to even conclude Image was exclusive to the direct market. However, that’s not the case — newsstand copies of Image comic books do indeed exist, albeit being incredibly difficult to find out there as they are buried under a mountain of direct edition copies.  According to Chuck Rozanski, Image Comics distributed 99% of their comics via direct sales.  So they did succeed in selling comics on newsstands, but it was a minuscule fraction of their total sales from the get-go…

But equally interesting about Image, is that the challenging and competitive nature of newsstand distribution led Image to elect manufacturing choices for their newsstand print runs that in some cases were different from their direct edition print runs in order to save money.  Some common choices: excluding centerfold posters, choosing cheap newsprint interior paper, and in one case I’m aware of — Spawn Batman — using card stock for the cover of the direct edition print run, but regular paper for the cover of the newsstand print run.

These manufacturing differences may sound at first like just an interesting bit of trivia, but they have an important implication when it comes to studying data comparing direct edition and newsstand relative rarity: CGC treats these comics with manufacturing differences as variants for census and labeling purposes.  Look up any “typical” comic book and CGC will make no distinction in the labeling or on the census to track newsstand copies versus direct edition copies…  so the data — the official count of surviving newsstand copies that have been graded, versus direct edition copies — is lost for the vast majority of comic books.

But for these special copies with manufacturing differences that lead CGC to track them separately, that precious data, that precious information, is right there in the census numbers for all the world to see.  Below is a table of seven Image Comics titles where CGC is known to label newsstand copies with the variant “Newsstand Edition” attribution, and thus separately tracks the count for those variants on their online census:

Newsstand Editions: CGC Census Data

CGC census data as of this writing, where Newsstand Editions exist on census as a variant, show that 98% of all graded copies across these seven examples are from the Direct Edition print run, with 2% from the Newsstand Edition print run.

To explain the table above, in the first column is the title and number of the comic — starting around issue #8, Spawn comics were manufactured with newsprint interior pages, and for issues #8, #9, and #12, Newsstand Edition variants appear on the CGC census; WildC.A.T.S. #1 has newsprint interior; WildC.A.T.S. #2 had a prism cover for the direct edition but a regular paper cover for the newsstand edition; Savage Dragon #1 in the table is the Limited Series, with newsprint interior paper for the newsstand edition; and Spawn Batman had a thick card stock cover in the direct edition but a regular paper cover for the newsstand edition.  The second column in the table lists the CGC census numbers as of this writing for the regular edition, the third column lists the CGC census numbers for the variant “Newsstand Edition” copies, and the final column totals the two to get the total graded copy count for that issue.  A grand total is presented at the bottom.

For these seven examples, as of this writing a grand total of 2,545 copies have been sent in to CGC for grading, and out of that total, 2,483 copies or 98% were from the Direct Edition print run, while 62 copies or 2% were from the Newsstand Edition print run.  Rozanski indicated 99% direct sales, the CGC census data across these seven examples shows 98% — that’s pretty much right in line: so an industry expert as well as the cold hard CGC census data itself, shows that Image newsstand edition comics really are at a rarity level that can only be described as “extreme” versus their direct edition counterparts…  We’ll see how this data fills out in the fullness of time — I personally hope to inflate the newsstand numbers for some of these with my own submissions to the extent I can find good grading candidates! 🙂

Knowing all of this information, if you were to want to collect the first appearance of Angela (Spawn #9) or the first full appearance of Spawn (Spawn #1), or the first full appearance of the Savage Dragon (Savage Dragon #1 Limited Series [See Graphic Fantasy #1 for the first appearance of the “original” Savage Dragon from 1982]), or the first full appearance of the WildC.A.T.S., your preference without hesitation should be a newsstand edition copy over a direct edition copy.

And when thinking about the relative numbers, knowing the total sales we can then extrapolate the count of just the newsstand edition variant copies.  For Spawn #1 or Spawn Batman, both widely believed to have come close to the 1 million copy mark, a ratio of 99% direct edition to 1% newsstand would imply on the order of 10,000 Newsstand Edition copies of each.  For Spawn #9 at sales of approximately 700,000, the ratio would imply on the order of 7,000 Newsstand Edition copies.  For Savage Dragon Limited Series #1, Erik Larsen was quoted as saying the first issues sold “hundreds of thousands of copies” — let’s up that to a full half million for sake of argument — which extrapolates to on the order of 5,000 newsstand edition copies.

But another consideration in all of this is just how difficult newsstand competition was for different characters.  These comics were competing side by side with Superman and Amazing Spider-Man.  How many newsstand readers grabbed a Savage Dragon?  A post by Erik Larsen gives us a hint at just how difficult newsstand sales actually were:

Savage Dragon Newsstand Sales

Erik Larsen wrote, “Returnable books and the newsstand gamble have put many ambitious publishers out of business.” Larsen pulled Savage Dragon off the newsstands because it was losing money, with issue #30 the final attempt to sell copies on newsstands (the newsstand version of #30 was Spawn/The Savage Dragon #1).

With the newsstand channel, the level of returns determined the difference between making money or losing money.  For Savage Dragon comics, with this distribution channel losing money, by 1996 Larsen made the decision to stop distributing Savage Dragon comics on newsstands altogether.  The final attempt made at newsstand sales was issue #30, the newsstand edition of which was tweaked to try and attract more customers, labeled as “Spawn/The Savage Dragon #1” (instead of “Savage Dragon #30“) and having an “as seen on TV” logo on the cover as well to try and attract eyeballs.

So: how many copies of Savage Dragon #30 were sold in total? Although Comichron doesn’t have monthly sales data going back quite as far as issue #30, they do have monthly data going back to issue #32 which should be within the same general neighborhood.  Here’s how the numbers look around issue #30:

Savage Dragon #32: 33,956
Savage Dragon #33: 33,299
Savage Dragon #34: 34,427
Savage Dragon #35: 33,077

So we’re in the neighborhood of 34,000 around these issues.  Suppose having Spawn on the cover provided a 15% sales boost for issue #30… that would put us at about 39,000.  Let’s round up to an even 40,000 for total assumed sales for Savage Dragon #30.  A ratio of 99% direct edition to 1% newsstand would imply on the order of just 400 Newsstand Edition copies of issue #30 (i.e. 400 copies of Spawn/The Savage Dragon #1). Even if we were to generously estimate total sales of Savage Dragon #30 all the way up at 50,000, the 1% newsstand ratio would still imply just 500 copies of Spawn/The Savage Dragon #1!

Any time you can find an interesting comic book, that has on the order of merely several hundreds of copies sold, that’s one to consider collecting, and the reason newsstand editions are a recurring theme in this blog (here’s yet another example where the newsstand rarity math lands in the hundreds: Venom/Deadpool: What If #1 copies with $3.99 cover price), and in my Spawn and Savage Dragon blogs.  And for many of these comic book examples, it takes an understanding of the difference between Direct Edition and Newsstand Edition copies, before you can truly appreciate just how collectible some of these rarities are.

[8/31/2016 update: in addition to manufacturing differences like those in some of the Image newsstand comics I mentioned above, I’ve now become aware of two additional “special situation” categories where CGC recognizes newsstand copies as distinct variants on census, i.e. tracking the count of graded copies separately from their direct edition counterparts!  Read about this further, here: Newsstand Variants, $3.99 Newsstand Editions, and The Doc Collection]

Happy Collecting! If you enjoyed reading this post, also check out: 75 Cent Variants (Canadian Newsstand Editions)

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