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.
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 this: Comic Book Newsstand Editions: Understanding The Difference)
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.
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).