By Benjamin Nobel, June 17, 2016
In this post, I will answer the commonly asked question: Why Do Some Comic Book Barcodes Have A Line Through Them?
If you’ve found a comic book with a diagonal line across the bar code — a strike-through — then you are looking at an early example of a “Direct Edition” comic book, published in 1979 or early 1980. And in asking this question, you’ve stumbled onto an important difference in comic book distribution that I consider “must-know” information — and yet to this day I find most collectors have no idea about this difference!
Here’s a popular 1979 comic I’ll use as an illustrative example in answering the question, Amazing Spider-Man #194 (first Black Cat appearance). In the following two pictures, notice that one copy has a diagonal line across its bar code (aka UPC code or Universal Product Code), looking at the bottom left corner of the cover.
This copy of ASM #194 has no line through its barcode.
This copy of ASM #194 has a diagonal line through its barcode.
Before 1979 — or 1977 if you count Whitman multi-packs
— Marvel comics were all distributed via the newsstand distribution model of returnable sales: unsold copies could be returned to the publisher for a refund. Historically, the unsold comics themselves were literally shipped back; 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. This model had some serious inefficiencies!
With the growing popularity of specialty comics shops, who wanted to stock back issues anyway, the idea came about to sell copies of comic books directly to these specialty shops… but on a non-returnable basis. With a guaranteed sale, this would eliminate the administrative and shipping costs to accept returns, plus, Marvel could print out precisely the number of copies ordered (with newsstand sales, not knowing how many of a given issue would sell, it was common practice to over-produce, which was essentially wasted money and paper). With these savings, Marvel could offer the comic shops non-returnable copies at a large discount to cover price.
It was a great (and highly successful) idea, but there was a problem initially — and here comes the answer to your question! — at first, there was no way to distinguish a returnable copy from a non-returnable copy, and some sneaky comic shops realized they could return theirs through the newsstand distribution channel and pocket the difference! That was a problem… And Marvel initially solved it by putting a diagonal line through the barcodes of direct sold copies — that line distinguished the copy as non-returnable!
Before you go, here’s one more piece of must-know information: Depending on the year of publication, the distribution percentage breakdown between direct edition and newsstand comics could be wildly different. For example in that first “start-up” year of Marvel’s direct edition sales, those barcode strike-through copies were actually revealed to be only 6% of the total. (That small percentage, however, was concentrated into the hands of comic shop owners who were careful to preserve their condition, and collectors preserved them very well from there.)
But direct edition sales were so successful, they would start to surpass newsstand sales by around 1986. By 1990, newsstand comics were only an estimated 15% of the total. And the newsstand numbers dropped further off a cliff from there. When Marvel shut down newsstand sales through the last remaining bookstores carrying its newsstand comics in 2013, Marvel’s David Gabriel revealed that Marvel had actually halted newsstand sales through other outlets about two years prior
— which would have been circa 2010-2011 and would have represented a “stair-step down” in newsstand numbers for Marvel. For some 2013 context, comics research resource Comichron has estimated industry-wide 2013 newsstand comic book sales of only $25 million versus comic store orders (direct edition) of $340 million
— that works out to an estimated newsstand percentage at a mere 6.8% for 2013, versus direct edition at 93.2%, and that’s industry-wide. But industry insider Chuck Rozanski has estimated that Marvel’s newsstand distribution was actually even lower than this industry-wide figure, in its later years of newsstand wind-down. The estimates below for Marvel include those revealed
to collectors in 2013 by Rozanski (the year Marvel finally pulled the plug on newsstand distribution entirely):
To this day, most collectors do not know or think about the fact that during a publication window in the 1980’s, a small batch of newsstand copies destined for Canada — an estimated under-7% of the total sold depending on the publication year — had a higher cover price because the currency exchange rate moved and they were priced in Canadian dollars! Learn more about these interesting cover price variants here: 75 Cent Variants (Canadian Newsstand Editions)
Important Note: while Marvel continued to distinguish direct edition from newsstand comic books, a collector must know how these two groups of comics differed over time, because there were changes… Those early bar code strike-throughs were replaced by “The Spider-Man Rectangle” (or similar logos). Then for more modern comics, shops were requesting bar codes on their copies too, for ease of check-out scanning… So at a certain point both newsstand and direct edition copies have barcodes and it can get confusing if you don’t know what you’re looking for! Know the difference and be able to spot it, so that you won’t inadvertently buy a bar coded comic thinking it must be a newsstand comic when it actually isn’t… For later modern direct edition comics, look closely at the code box and you’ll see the words “direct edition” or “direct sales” somewhere, while newsstand comics will say something different — here is a post that points out this difference, with pictures
, for later modern comics where both versions have UPC codes.