Why Do Some Comics Not Have Barcodes?

By Benjamin Nobel, June 16, 2016

In this post, I will answer the commonly asked question: Why Do Some Comics Not Have Barcodes?

Here’s a popular comic to use as an example, Amazing Spider-Man #252.  Instead of all of the copies out there being the same, some copies have bar codes (aka “UPC” codes or Universal Product Codes) in the lower left corner of the front cover, while some do not — some have a logo instead.

No bar code! A logo instead! Why? In this post I will answer this question!!!

No bar code! A logo instead! Why? Here comes the answer, read on!

This copy has a bar code! Why?! And: It has a 75 cent cover price! Huh? Read on for the answer!

This copy has a bar code! Why?! And: It has a 75 cent cover price! Huh? Read on!

OK, so, what’s going on here??  Here’s the answer!  The example with no bar code — but a Spider-Man logo instead — is what’s known as a direct edition comic book.  The “direct” part of that name comes from the fact that comics of this type were direct-sold to comic shops on a discounted but non-returnable basis (with the same direct edition version sold at comics shops across the US, UK, and Canada which is why all three prices are shown on the cover next to the issue number of direct edition copies).
The example with the bar code / UPC code is a newsstand edition comic book. It, by contrast, was sold on a newsstand on a returnable basis (what I mean by that is that any unsold copies could be returned to the publisher for a refund — that’s how the newsstand distribution channel worked).  [Notice the newsstand copy has only one price on it instead of all of the different prices for different countries… for extra credit, learn how to tell by the price on a newsstand comic whether it was a copy sold on a US newsstand, or a newsstand in Canada!  Can you guess which country’s newsstand version I have chosen to picture above?  Can you guess which country’s newsstand version was a drastically lower percentage of total copies?  Hint: Canada’s population is roughly the same as the population of California alone.]
REPEATING THE INITIAL QUESTION: Why Do Some Comics Not Have Barcodes?

THE ANSWER:  To distinguish returnable newsstand copies from direct-sold non-returnable copies, Marvel placed logos instead of bar codes on direct edition comics of this era.  In the very beginning of the direct sales distribution channel, direct edition copies were identical, i.e. they came out of the same print run as newsstand copies… but some sneaky comic shops were buying at their discount and then — since their copies were indistinguishable from the returnable ones — they’d return their copies through the newsstand distribution channel and pocket the difference (and the publisher had no way to tell by looking at the returned comics!).  Marvel caught on to this scheme and was forced to close that loophole by making the two versions distinguishable so that they could refuse refund to direct sold copies!  And that’s the answer to your question… why some comics do not have barcodes!  

(For more history about direct edition versus newsstand comics read thisComic Book Newsstand Editions: Understanding The Difference)

EXTRA CREDIT:  Here’s a tidbit most collectors still do not know even to this day… During a window of time in the 1980’s, some newsstand copies — an estimated less-than-7% of the total sold — had a higher cover price! The bar coded example picture above is one of them; notice the cover price is not 60 but 75 cents! To learn about these cover price variants, next read this75 Cent Variants (Canadian Newsstand Editions)

EVEN MORE EXTRA CREDIT:  Especially in certain years, there was a drastic distribution difference between direct edition and newsstand comic books…  In other words one type is far more rare than the other type, depending on the year.

When Marvel ended its newsstand sales to what were the last remaining bookstore outlets carrying newsstand comic books in 2013, Marvel’s David Gabriel revealed that Marvel had actually ended its newsstand sales to other outlets about two years earlier — which would have been a stair-step down in Marvel’s newsstand numbers circa 2010-2011.  Meanwhile, 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%.  That’s across the comic industry, in 2013 (that last year of Marvel’s newsstand sales).
Meanwhile, Chuck Rozanski, a prominent industry insider, has estimated that Marvel’s newsstand sales were actually even lower that this industry-wide figure, in its later years of newsstand wind-down.  Below is a table of estimates for the newsstand vs. direct edition statistics for Marvel including those revealed to collectors in 2013 by Rozanski (that being the same year the newsstand distribution channel finally met its demise at Marvel):

As you can see by the above table of estimates, the publication year sure can make a big difference…  For that very first year of Marvel’s direct edition sales to comic shops under the new ‘trade terms’ first offered in June of 1979 which standardized direct editions (also see Whitman multi-packs from 1977-1979 which were also distinguishable non-returnable direct-sold editions) a collector might consider going after those direct edition copies as their preference because they were only around 6% of the total.  Move down in the chart, and how can anyone look at the 1990-and-on numbers and want anything but a newsstand copy as their preference as more rare, especially in those later years?

Plus, these two types of comics didn’t reach collectors and readers “evenly” … instead, newsstand comics were concentrated into the hands of readers, while direct edition comics were concentrated into the hands of collectors.  This causes a phenomenon where direct edition comics are far more likely to have been preserved and remain in high grade, while newsstand comics saw a high destruction rate.  Take a look at the disparity in surviving high grade copies of Wolverine Limited Series #1 for example, where even though it was published in 1982 and newsstand copies “should” outnumber direct edition copies looking at that original distribution percentage, the high grade survivors of that issue are overwhelmingly direct edition copies.

(Note: for later modern comics, direct edition copies also have a barcode so don’t get tricked into thinking all bar coded comics are newsstand comics… the bar codes of direct edition comics will say “direct edition” or “direct sales” on them, while newsstand comics will not — here is a post that points out this difference, with pictures).

Happy Collecting!