Comic books have been around for a long time. That means the industry has had to change continuously evolve, adapting to new social trends and emerging technologies decade after decade. Today, we’re going to examine how a technological change created some of the first cover variants. This is the tale of how Newsstand Edition variants came to be!
1970s High Tech
For most of the 20th century, the primary distribution method for comic books was through newsstands. Magazine distributors handled comic books right alongside Time and Playboy. They stocked the corner store spinner racks from whence many collectors bought their childhood comics. They were therefore subject to all the policies that applied to magazines. That includes unsold copies being returnable to the publisher for a refund, a fact that will be important later.
The 1970s brought a technological revolution to the retail industry: Universal Product Code numbers and computerized cash registers to read them. Those emerging technologies reduced human error in ringing up items and, more importantly, inventory management. UPC scanners were quickly adopted by retailers nationwide, newsstands included, and manufacturers began printing UPC bar codes on products of all kinds. The comic book industry was no exception, with major publishers adopting such codes around 1975.
The ubiquity of UPC codes on comics wouldn’t last, however. The 80s saw the rise of comic book specialty stores, run by fans for fans. The Direct Market, as it was known, proved very attractive to publishers because these retailers kept unsold comics as back issue stock. Specialty distributors, like industry leader Diamond, didn’t even allow returns or refunds at all on most items. Major publishers began printing comics specifically for this market in the latter part of the 80s.
Since the direct market was largely made up of one-man businesses and computerized inventory systems were still expensive, most comic shops didn’t bother with them. As such, direct market titles like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman or Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar were published without space for a barcode. Direct market editions of major titles didn’t have barcodes either, despite having the space for one. This box was usually filled by a slogan/ad (“Who Watches The WATCHMEN?”) or picture (like Captain America’s face). The Newsstand/Direct Market variation marked one of the earliest forms of “common” variants. Barcodes would become standard industrywide once more in the mid-90s as computerized point-of-sale systems became more affordable.
Collector’s Take Note
Until recently, collectors drew little distinction between the two editions due to their identical content. In fact, it was only in September of 2022 that CGC began to note a distinction between the two when grading comics. That was driven, at least in part, by a spike in the value of newsstand variants. Due to the collector-focused nature of the direct market, quality copies of direct market edition back issues are more plentiful than their newsstand equivalent. Modern collectors have taken notice, and the rarer editions have gained the edge in value. The difference isn’t typically make-or-break, but it is worthy of notice.
Which is a development we here at Back to the Past have been keeping an eye on! We’ve been noting this variation, where applicable, in our auction catalogs for years. We know what the collector audience wants, that’s our job. That’s why you should give us a call when it’s time for you to part with your comic collection!
If you have any questions on this or any other collectibles topic, sound off below or hit us up on socials @b2pcollect!