By Angelo Virone and Benjamin Nobel, October 2019
Hi everyone, the article that follows was a joint effort between Angelo Virone and Benjamin Nobel. And we’re going to start it out with what Ben lately likes to call an Orange Cat Warning — Did you know that only 20% of orange cats are female (read more!)? In this article that follows there will be some discussion of rarity estimates for Canadian Price Variants; so if you are, shall we say, “allergic to cats” (if this kind of comic book rarity discussion offends your senses), then you may want to avert your sensitive eyes and skip to the next article instead.
In our CPV price guide’s discussion of the 1980’s population difference between the USA and Canada (with Canada at 9.8%) we have a graphic with the footnote that this portion of our rarity discussion was “before considering the impacts of (a) the size of the French-speaking population in Quebec, and (b) the 25% cover price hike likely reducing the number of copies buyers could afford.” [And really there should also have been (a-1) the size of the population in Canada that spoke neither English or French but another foreign language altogether]. Here’s that graphic so you know what we’re referring to:
But that market size breakdown shown above (of approximately 10% Canada, 90% USA), splits up the newsstand market simply by the number of people, not by the number of English speaking people. And that is a big distinction. The official language of the USA is English, period. But did you know that Canada has two official languages, both French and English, and that the one official language in Quebec is French?
It’s true: In 1974, the “French Loi sur la langue officielle” (The Official Language Act of 1974, also known as Bill 22) made French the sole official language of Quebec, Canada. Quebec is basically considered to be a nation within a nation and there’s no obligation for anyone to speak English in that province even if Canada itself has two official languages (English and French).
What does this mean for CPV rarity?
To explore that question, let’s actually start in the USA, even though the bulk of this article is going to be about our investigation into the Quebec Effect. Because before we make a comparison between the two countries, we should first have some idea of the numbers in the USA as a baseline. Even though English is the one official language, there is still some small percentage of households that have some difficulty speaking English.
The way the US Census Bureau measures this statistic is by defining the term “Limited English Speaking Household” and then measuring how many households fall into that category. That term “Limited English Speaking Household” is defined by the Census Bureau as follows: A household in which no member 14 years and over speaks only English or speaks a non-English language and speaks English “very well.” In other words, all members 14 years and older have at least some difficulty with English.
This definition is used within the US Census Bureau’s “American Community Survey” which breaks down households by language and lists out the number of households that fell into the “Limited English Speaking Household” definition. Looking at their 2017 survey, if we total up such limited English households to calculate the percentage of the total households measured, it comes out to 4.4% of the total. So basically, in the USA, just 4.4% of households fall into this category of having at least some difficulty with the official language of English.
And now: a look at Quebec
The socio/political landscape in the province of Quebec has undergone decades of feuding between those wanting to reinforce Quebec French sovereignty using referendums and laws (i.e., Bill 101, etc…) versus Quebec anglophones who, prior to the Quiet revolution of the 1960’s, were the dominant financial players embracing and encouraging everything Americana.
Simultaneously, the ongoing tension between French-speaking Quebec separatists and federalist Canadians living in Quebec made history when the provincial separatist party, the Parti-Quebecois (AKA: P.Q.) twice brought about an independence referendum: The first one took place in 1980 and the second in 1995 with hopes that Quebec would become its own sovereign French-speaking country. In 1980 and 1995, 1,485,851 and 2,300,000 people voted in favor to separate Quebec from Canada, but this was not enough, and both attempts failed. Separatists felt sandwiched between English Canada to one side and the USA on the other.
What this history means for Canadian Price Variant Comics, is that in the 1980’s there were likely a very large number of people in Quebec who did not speak English and thus would have had a much lower likelihood of buying an English language comic book (i.e. our CPVs).
So we wanted to find out: how many people in Quebec in the 1980’s spoke only French?
To answer that question, this year we did some detailed investigation and happily we are able to report that three e-mails to Ottawa and three phone conversations later, we have some answers to share with you! Liz from the Statistics Canada archives department in Ottawa, referencing the 1981, 1986 and 1991 census helped us track down the number of Canadians who were able to carry out a conversation in one or both of the official languages in Canada (French and/or English)!
In this investigation we were mainly interested in understanding what the census meant from the terminology “French only”? This is how they responded to our question:
I’ve been looking into your question on the further definition of “French only,” and I’ve also asked our Census Help Desk.
On my end, I found this document which explains the “official language” question for 1981 in more detail here on page 40 of the PDF (page 38 of the document). Here is the same document for 1986 and 1991.
From the Census Help Desk, this is what I was told:
“Our electronic dictionary defines this concept as Refers to the ability to conduct a conversation in English and/or French, the official languages in Canada. This is a direct variable from the question. The question respondents see is ‘Can this person speak English or French well enough to conduct a conversation?’ and then the concept of knowledge of official languages is applied. There is no particular context as to ‘where’ this person can conduct a conversation in the official language i.e. at home or at work, it is more general than that. This also does not mean that the person cannot conduct a conversation in a language other than French. It means that of the official languages of Canada (French and English), these respondents speak only French and not English.”
So, the way they define this, the statistics are indeed going to give us great information to explore our CPV rarity questions! And now, on to the actual numbers from the census in a nutshell below.
- In 1981, the total population in Quebec was 6,369,070 (of this number, 3,826,510 spoke French only and 51,120 spoke neither French or English). Hence, a total of 3,877,630 Quebecers were not able to carry out a conversation when it came to the English language. Leaving only 2,491,440 in the province of Quebec who were able to carry out a conversation in English and/or English and French.
- In 1986, the total population of Canada was 25,309,330 (Quebec pop. 6,532,460). Within Canada, 3,957,730 were French only and 291,215 spoke neither English or French. In summary, a total of 4,248,945 could not carry out a conversation in English.
- In 1991, the population of Canada was 26,994,045 (Quebec pop. 6,810,300). Within Canada, 4,110,305 were French only and 378,320 spoke neither in English or French. In summary, a total of 4,488,625 could not carry out a conversation in English.
Note that we were informed by Liz that the statistics sometimes do not add up perfectly and any slight discrepancies are due to a procedure called “random rounding” (see “Confidentiality and Random Rounding”). Below, we have provided the links to those statistics above which were shared with us by two employees from Statistics Canada:
Thinking about the above: Concomitantly, comic book companies from the USA (i.e., Marvel, DC, etc…) must have taken into consideration the Quebec Effect otherwise there would be much wasted distribution producing few actual sales in Quebec and more unsold copies pulped.
Bringing the “Quebec Effect” around to CPV rarity
Earlier we touched upon the historically significant referendum years of 1980 and 1995. The “CPV window,” where the newsstand price variants exist, falls directly into this important timeframe. And the statistics we learned for 1986 for example showed that out of the total population of Canada (25,309,330), a total of 4,248,945 people could not carry out a conversation in English in 1986. That’s ~17% of the population of Canada at that time!
Let’s take what we have learned, and bring it into the CPV rarity discussion. As the starting point, we will take the “simple population split” matching the graphic that we showed in the very beginning — so for every 1000 people across the North American Newsstand Market, statistically about 100 of them would be from Canada and 900 from the USA. Each icon below represents one person out of 1000 (the stack of people on the USA side at right is tall, so you may have to do a bit of scrolling down before you see the stack of people for Canada on the left side):
For any given 1980’s Marvel/DC comic book issue where there is a CPV, that left side (Canada), was distributed the higher cover price type on newsstands, while the right side (the USA), was distributed the lower cover price type on newsstands. So for the typical issue, the left side got the 75¢ price variants, while the right side got 60¢ cover priced newsstand copies.
But wouldn’t a non-English-speaker have been much less likely to buy an English-language comic? Alas, having a pre-dominant French speaking population in Quebec did not definitively mean that French Canadians didn’t purchase English comic books because some did, with a number of them being dealers, owners of comic book stores and collectors.
But, back in 1986, the market for French language comic books in Quebec was strong enough to support the existence of French editions of Marvel, DC, etc… (AKA as Heritage books) as well as Asterix, Gaston Lagaffe, Lucky Luke, and TinTin. Thus, arguably the likelihood was high that the 4,248,945 non-English speaking Canadians most likely never bought an English comic, or, bought English language comics at a much lower rate. How much lower is a guess no one can state with certainty, but just for sake of comparison, let’s take the population graphic from above and now we will add a color — we will color in any people in blue who the statistics suggest could not carry out a proper conversation in English, and the numbers atop the bars now just reflect the remaining icons shown in black:
Thus when we subtract the blue colored figures and do a comparison of just the remainder of the market size by population — the ones who could speak English well enough that the odds were more likely they would be a newsstand customer for one of Marvel or DC’s comics — then instead of a ratio of 100 Canadians out of 1000 total people, we are now looking at an adjusted 83 English-speaking-potential-customers out of 943 total English-speaking-potential-customers. Which means that from the 9.8%-in-Canada we started with, we’re down to 8.8%!
Adding in “The Law of Demand Effect”
With that 8.8% figure (arrived at by adding in the potential Quebec Effect), we’re still just comparing “head counts”… which is distinct from comparing the quantity of comic books sold. Was the per-capita comic book consumption higher on one side of the graph than the other? We don’t know for sure, but consider this: The economic principle called “The Law of Demand” predicts that a price hike — from 60¢ to 75¢ per comic in this case — would result in a lower quantity sold at the higher price.
To think through the logic behind this, suppose you are a newsstand customer with a $6 budget and it is September of 1982: how many comic books can you afford, at 60¢/issue? Setting aside any sales taxes, six dollars divided by 60 cents equals 10 comic books. And that holds North-American-Newsstand-Market-Wide, because in September of 1982 the regular cover price charged to both Canadian newsstand customers and US newsstand customers was the same 60¢.
But now let’s move forward a month to October of 1982 and let’s suppose that you, our hypothetical newsstand customer, has another $6 to spend. How many comics can you buy now? The answer to that question depends on whether you are on the Canadian or US side of the border … because in this month of October, as we know, Marvel and DC raised the cover price North of the border to 75¢ per issue, while over on newsstands in the USA the price has remained 60¢. Thus, a newsstand customer with a $6 budget in Canada could now only afford 8 comic books for the same $6, whereas the identical newsstand customer in the USA would still be taking home a full ten comics!
What does this illustrated effect mean for CPV rarity? Alas, the answer here again is that “we don’t know for sure“… because perhaps our hypothetical Canadian customer would have still wanted their ten comics and been willing and able to increase their budget when the price was hiked? It would be great if we knew the per-capita comic book consumption numbers before and after the price hike with certainty; alas, we don’t. But in economics they teach the “law of demand” which states that the higher the price of a good, the lower the quantity demanded of that good. This is a widely taught and accepted principle of economics, and thus, surely it is more than reasonable for us to consider that this law may have applied in some degree, when the price was hiked to 75¢ in October of 1982.
So, just for sake of comparison, let’s take the numbers from the population graphic we had before, where we had 83 English-speaking-potential-customers out of 943 total English-speaking-potential-customers after layering on The Quebec Effect, and let’s next see what would happen if we assume per-capita comic book consumption was equivalent on both sides of the bar chart before the price hike, and then, after the price hike, assume that every $6 spent by the Canadian side resulted in just 8 comics whereas every $6 spent by the US side resulted in 10 comics.
The answer? We would go from 8.8%-in-Canada down to 7.2% because the Canadian side of the bar graph essentially shrinks by 20% when we go from comparing head count to comparing the number of comics in this way. And for Marvel & DC, remember, part of the Canadian market that this 7.2% figure corresponds to was out there buying direct edition type copies in comic shops, rather than buying newsstand copies! So that 7.2% figure is only the starting point which we now need to divide up into two pieces, one piece buying direct editions and the other buying our CPVs on newsstands.
Layering on the direct edition vs. newsstand split
How might we next split up that 7.2% figure by direct edition copies sold vs. newsstand copies sold? There are no exact hard statistics on this direct-vs-newsstand-breakdown, but fortunately there are some great estimates (Ben has a great blog page collecting such estimates from various experts), and there is also near-universal acceptance in the hobby that the 50:50 point between newsstand versus direct edition sales fell sometime around the middle of the 1980’s (circa 1985 or 1986). In the guide’s Marvel/DC rarity discussion page we show a great chart to highlight this which was created by Greg Holland:
The idea of the above chart is to show the hobby’s consensus — a chart that everybody can agree upon. The chart illustrates that while people may have differing estimations of the precise percentage split between newsstand and direct edition at a given point in time before or after the middle of the decade, there is consensus about both the directional trend and that the 50:50 point (i.e. where the red and blue lines cross) happened right around the very middle of the decade. And remember, this is only referring to the split at the time of original distribution. Survival differences between the two types is a whole different discussion.
But at the 50:50 point within Canada for newsstand vs. direct edition (whatever month and year precisely in the 80’s that may have occurred), half of Marvel’s/DC’s Canadian comic book customers were taking home direct editions and half were taking home newsstand copies. And this is important because the price variants were only those newsstand copies (the direct editions meanwhile had both US and Canadian prices and direct edition copies were 100% identical across the full North American marketplace). So in the guide’s rarity discussion page, we took the ~9.8% market size difference by total population and showed that 50% of that were newsstand copies… arriving at the estimated 4.9% of the total distribution at that 50:50 point.
Suppose we now add in The Quebec Effect as well as The Law of Demand discussions, to contemplate their potential impact in big-picture thinking. Instead of dividing 9.8% in half, we’re now dividing 7.2% in half: resulting in 3.6%. And this is just with the law-of-demand-impact of the cover price difference plus the language statistics we uncovered; another entire factor we should think about as well is the number of French speaking Quebecers who did speak English also but had little to no access to English language comic books because of the remote area they lived in (those smaller communities up in the northern parts within the province of Quebec, where some of these towns and communities even spoke a dialect of French which was different from the French spoken in the more populated larger cities in the province, i.e. city of Laval, Quebec, Montreal, etc…). And, remember, this is also all before considering differences in survival rate between the types: the typical direct edition copy was purchased in a comic shop by a collector who typically took care to preserve it while meanwhile the typical newsstand comic was purchased by a reader who may not have even kept it let alone carefully preserve its condition.
To bring this discussion to a conclusion, while we cannot say with certainty exactly how much lower the English language comic book sales were in the French-speaking portion of Quebec, The Quebec Effect definitely would have had some noteworthy directional impact on the “big picture” CPV rarity characteristics; and likewise while we cannot say with certainty exactly what impact the cover price hike had on number of copies sold per capita, everything we’ve been taught about the economic principle of the Law of Demand suggests that all else being equal the number of copies sold would have decreased when the cover price increased — and when that cover price increase went into effect it only increased for Canadians (Americans continued to pay the very same price as before!).
Decreasing the “Canadian side of the bar chart” according to how these forces could have exerted influence is an exercise that clearly shows the strong directional impact of these forces on the CPV rarity characteristics, which would have been to make the rarity even more extreme than the conservative assumptions laid out in the guide’s rarity discussion… In other words, given the fact that both of these forces were left out entirely from the guide’s rarity discussion and instead relegated to footnotes, it is thus quite reasonable to conclude that the rarity discussion in our guide handily leans to the side of conservative.
Happy CPV Collecting!! 😀
– Angelo & Ben
p.s. One final note, related to the “Orange Cat Warning” issued at the beginning of the post: When those of us who study these variants discuss rarity characteristics, the take-away a reader should have is not that our discussion is all about pinpointing the rarity percentage to a surgical level of precision (such as a figure like the “3.6%” you saw earlier). Rather, the take-away is about learning about the underlying drivers of the rarity (in this article the specific drivers we focused on were the Quebec Effect and the cover price hike / Law of Demand Effect), and seeing the big-picture collecting-conclusion.
With The Orange Cat Phenomenon, the underlying genetic drivers create a situation where just 20% of orange cats are expected to be female versus fully 80% expected to be male; and at that level of rarity disparity, a common question people ask is whether/why all orange cats are male. Clearly, with many people questioning if female orange cats even exist, if in a hypothetical world cats were collectibles, then orange female cats would be expected to be more sought after for their rarity, versus orange male cats…
And when it comes to the “big picture take-away” about the relative rarity of CPVs, it is that any reasonable person who studies the underlying rarity drivers (such as newsstand exclusivity, restricted geographic distribution area, and yes, The Quebec Effect and the Law of Demand Effect) must conclude that those drivers in combination led CPVs to be the most rare type by some large margin, versus direct editions and versus regular newsstand copies. Even if the Canadian population was hypothetically double the true figure, and if there was hypothetically no Quebec Effect and no Law of Demand Effect, we’d still be beyond Female-Orange-Cat-Level rarity for CPVs!
Bottom line: For those collectors who care about relative rarity between the 1st-print types when collecting, our collecting preference when going after any given 1980’s issue where a cover price variant newsstand comic is a choice we can make, is to choose the clearly-more-rare price variant if/when we can find one at a reasonable price! That is the overall big picture we want you to see! Get it? 😀 And today, with this article, we wanted you to see how The Quebec Effect (and Law of Demand Effect) both play a role in that big picture, as additional rarity drivers. Hope you enjoyed reading this as much as we enjoyed working on it!