By Benjamin Nobel, June 17, 2016
In this post I will answer the commonly asked question: Why Do Some Comic Books Have Barcodes?
Congratulations on asking one of the most important questions a collector of any comic book published after 1977 should know the answer to… And yet this is a question I find — even to this day — most collectors have never even thought to ask. So by asking it, you’ve given yourself a huge advantage: because not only is the answer critical for a collector to know, but once you have the answer you’ll have an information edge, over the majority of comic book collectors today who still don’t know the answer!
Here’s a popular comic I’ll use as an illustrative example in answering the question, Secret Wars #8. In the two pictures that follow, one copy has a bar code (aka UPC code or Universal Product Code) located at the bottom left of the cover, while the other copy has a Spider-Man logo in that same spot:
THE ANSWER: Only the comic books from this era with barcodes on them were returnable; to distinguish returnable newsstand copies from non-returnable direct edition copies, Marvel placed Spider-Man or other logos on direct edition comics of this era, so that they could refuse refund to direct edition copies and accept refunds only for copies with barcodes. When Marvel first started direct sales, they didn’t think about this carefully enough and all of their comics were part of the same print run… but some sneaky comic shop owners would place orders that were supposed to be non-returnable (at a large discount), and then — because initially the two versions were indistinguishable — those sneaky comic shop owners would return their copies through the newsstand distribution channel and keep the difference! Marvel quickly caught on to this problem and closed the loophole by making direct edition comics distinguishable from returnable newsstand comics. And that’s the answer to your question… why some comic books have barcodes!
(You can read additional direct vs. newsstand comic book history here: Comic Book Newsstand Editions: Understanding The Difference)
Referring to the chart above, especially in that first and last year where we see such stunning extremes, this is clearly must-know information for collectors… because the publication year makes a huge difference in terms of comparable rarity between the two different versions… For 1979, the initial year of Marvel’s direct edition sales to comic shops (related: Whitman multi-packs exist from 1977-1979), a collector might prefer direct edition copies because they were only an estimated 6% of the total distribution (over 10% for more popular titles like X-Men).
But as we move down in the table, the 1990-and-on statistics show that newsstand copies represented a drastically lower percentage, especially in those later years for Marvel as they were winding down and ending their newsstand sales (and also with the context of that industry-wide Comichron estimate of just 6.8% newsstand in 2013). And during this whole time, another consideration is that these two different versions of comics didn’t reach collectors and readers “evenly” by distribution percentage… instead, newsstand comics were concentrated into the hands of readers, whereas direct edition comics, because they were sold in comic shops to “serious collectors,” were concentrated into the hands of collectors who took great care to preserve their condition. As a result of these two distribution channels “sorting” the market into a mostly-reader group and a mostly-collector group, we see a phenomenon where direct edition comics for any given issue are far more likely to have been preserved and remain in the top condition grades, while newsstand comics of the same issue are much more scarce in those top grades. As an example to illustrate this disparity, read this: Wolverine Limited Series #1 — Where Are The Newsstand Copies??
Important Note: for later year modern comics, direct edition copies have barcodes too, so it can get confusing. Know the difference so that you won’t get inadvertently tricked into thinking a bar coded comic is a newsstand comic when it isn’t… Look closely and you’ll see that the bar codes of direct edition comics will say “direct edition” or “direct sales” somewhere next to the code, while newsstand comics will not — here is a post that points out this difference, with pictures.