Yes, I’m complaining about that again.

§ November 2nd, 2020 § Filed under collecting § 23 Comments

So I had one of my longtime customers ask me the other day what my thoughts were on the collector focus and increased pricing on newstand editions of certain comics versus those that were sold through comic shops. By and large, the only difference between the two are the UPC codes, where the one that went through traditional outlets like newsstands, convenience stores and the like would have ’em, and comics sold in the direct market either didn’t have UPC codes or had the UPC marked “Direct Sales” to differentiate from the other.

Now, my personal feeling is that pricing on the two variations of a comic, newsstand or comic shop, should be the same so long as the only difference between the two is the UPC code. If there are other variants, like different cover images (like Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21) or other changes in details about the comic (like the “9 cent” Fantastic Four having the regular cover price for newsstands), then maybe, sure, there may be some variations in pricing.

I did briefly posit that this newsstand/direct disparity in back issue pricing felt like it was a trend of forcing something into collectibility, but the customer noted something about that I hadn’t considered. That said forcing of collectibility was coming about because actual older collectible comics are in much shorter supply than they used to be. Golden Age, and even a lot of Silver (particularly Marvel) don’t just drop out of the sky every day like they used to. Maybe, he theorized, collectors are trying to make some silk purses out of their boxes full of sow’s ears by claiming some of the comics they do have access to now have some extra value accrued to them.

Now technically, I suppose newsstand editions are “variants,” particularly in latter days when newsstand distribution of comics dropped and new comics were primarily available through comic book stores. As my customer suggested, in earlier years, newsstand distribution was, of course, much higher, but as soon as UPC codes started being affixed to periodicals in the late-ish 1970s, we were at the beginning of the end for that form of distribution as comic shops took over.

As a result, newsstand editions were in less supply (and also more likely to end up in the hands of non-collectors, who were apt to destroy or damage the comic beyond collectibility, effectively removing it from the secondary market ecosystem). Even in cases like Alf, which apparently sold extremely well on newsstands versus its fairly moribund movement in comic stores, seems in short supply for these reasons. I mean, I’m just making some assumptions here, based on my observation of local market conditions…for all I know the state of Vermont is flush in Alf comics, the streets of Burlington just swimming with copies of the Alf Holiday Special.

I’ve seen this sort of forced collectibility before…in fact, I see it a lot now, as I get phone calls and walk-ins requesting copies of whatever the Hot Book of the Week is, usually featuring the first appearance of whomever, which is already listed for get-rich-quick prices on eBay. Remember when folks were all frantic about the first appearance of the Gold Lantern in Legion of Super-Heroes? …Yeah, I know, “who?” Anything that even feels like a first appearance of somebody is an investment potential…but not every first appearance, so don’t bother trying to order lots of copies ahead of time, because you won’t know for sure you’ll need them ’til the day of release which is when everyone will start asking.

And it all depends on “supply,” too. I could order extra numbers of all the later appearances of Gold Lantern…but so could everyone else, and now that it’s readily available, no one’s interested. Or that recent “X of Swords” event for Marvel…early issues were in high demand, because orders on it were generally low. That same demand hasn’t turned up for newer installments, ordered in numbers based on all the folks clamoring to for first installments, a lot of whom didn’t come back for the rest. Even restocks of those “hot” first installments have barely moved, now that anyone can get them.

I’m getting a little off track here, ranting about things I’ve already ranted about, as per usual. Back to the increased pricing on newsstand books…look, I can see why, particularly in cases where newsstand sales were less than the same book’s direct market circulation. It’s just after years where the conventional wisdom was that the two versions were priced the same, and now they’re not. As an old person, I hate change, but I suppose I need to get used to this new paradigm sooner rather than later.

Hey, I eventually got used to using “Bronze Age” (once described in Overstreet’s glossary as “widely unaccepted”). I use it fairly freely now…but I’m still drawing the line at Copper Age. I mean, c’mon, honestly.

23 Responses to “Yes, I’m complaining about that again.”

  • Matthew says:

    Speaking of the “copper age,” What years and terms do you use to define different eras of comics?

  • Thelonious_Nick says:

    You’ve mentioned “local market conditions” several times on your site in the past. Are there really back issues that might be systematically more common in one part of the country than another? Not just a random issue here and there for whatever reason, but something structural, like maybe Flash is all over stores in Oregon because they like track there?

    And in your experience, what local market conditions really exist? Like, if I as a collector wanted to find certain particular hard-to-get issues, what areas would should I go to for those various issues.

    Oh, I thought of a likely one–G.I. Joe and other war comics at stores near military bases. But then would G.I. Joe be more available because people there are buying more copies, or less, because collectors in the area have greater demand for the title?

  • Allen M says:

    Growing up in the nineties, I remember stopping by the spinner rack at the Waldenbooks in the mall. They regularly stocked garden variety Image titles, like Wetworks, Spawn, Cyberforce or Travis Charest WildC.A.T.S. These were printed on poor quality newsstand paper vs. the glossy paper I would find them on if I was able to convince my folks to drive me to a speciality shop that sold the Direct Market copies.

    I also had subscriptions to the Spidermsn titles at the time and I remember being upset that I would be mailed newsstand copies of titles that had gimmick covers in the specialty shops. It felt like, to me, a kick in the rear that my consumer loyalty to a title, shown by my subscription, was being ‘rewarded’ by being sent a lower grade version. I’m trying to think of a good issue example, but I’m blanking. This was the era of the clone saga, so the line was replete with gimmick covers.

    I don’t know the distributor numbers for those newsstand Images, but that said, in the thirty or so years since I haven’t come across them in back issue bins, since those by and large consist of remainder stock from comic stores.

  • Allen M says:

    I personally find titles like Copper Age, Platinum Age, Chromium Age, etc kinda tacky, but at the same time I think it’s vague that the so called Modern Age is this catch all term covering everything post Bronze Age. The Modern Age has encompassed thirty plus years and has seen huge changes, from the early Image days to Marvel post bankruptcy through the ridiculous ‘widescreen comics’ decompression to the shift in Vertigo from gritty post-Sandman horror comics to a sort of print HBO model around when Y: The Last Man/Fables/Lucifer were extant. I don’t think it makes sense to lump all of that into Modern Age but I don’t really know if it’s likely we’ll see a return to the older, traditional ‘age’ groupings.

  • Tenzil Kem, Esq. says:

    I get the argument about the “rarity” of newsstand comics vs. direct market, although I’m not sure if newsstand copies from the 70’s/80’s are truly that much rarer (since, as you know, print runs were hundreds of thousands of copies and available widely back then). I think the argument is stronger for comics from this century, such as DC New 52 newsstand issues with the higher cover prices, but I still don’t know that it should translate into higher valuations. For that matter, I don’t like the inflated back issue pricing on comics with Mark’s Jewelers ads, and I have several of those that my grandparents bought me from the Fort McClellan PX near Anniston, AL. I’ll go full grumpy old man and complain about Canadian price variants and British price variants because I feel those are just “rare” here in the USA. With all of these examples, I think sellers are just trying to justify why someone should pay more for their specific copy, but the market seems to be looking for rarity wherever it can find it.

    I still haven’t acquired a copy of that 1:25 Gold Lantern variant, but I’m not going to pay $40-50 for a book that will be worth little if (when) LSH reboots and the character falls into comic book limbo.

  • Matthew says:

    Thelonious_Nick: Anecdotal, but I definitely saw more Pacific Comics titles in back issue bins in/near California (compared to Canada). Whereas, I think I see more old Aardvark-Vanaheim comics in Ontario, Canada. Those are tied to “where the publisher/creators are based” rather than some other sort of increased demand.

    Another example, is that some titles sold considerably better in certain countries. Hellblazer was one title that I was told had very high sales in the UK compared to other titles. (I think it was something like a third of the total print run was sold in the UK compared to 10-20% for other titles.)

  • Joseph Gualtieri says:

    The difference between between direct and newsstand copies was something I noticed back in the 90s, but apparently from a collectibility stand point, I got it completely wrong. Newsstand copies came out after direct copies by that point, so wouldn’t that make make them reprints? And therefore less desirable?

    Of course, now the market has decided that reprints are MORE desirable because they usually have a lower print run than first printings. Sigh.

  • Nicholas says:

    Joseph, newsstand copies weren’t reprints/second prints – they were printed at the same time the direct sales copies were. In an early 80’s Bullpen Bulletins column, Jim Shooter went to great pains to explain that the difference was just the UPC/the distributor info next to the price box.

  • Turan, Emissary of the Fly World says:

    On the subject of comic book “ages,” I shall play my old-timer/club bore card here, and note that once upon a time the exact duration of the “Golden Age” was a matter constantly in dispute. Some argued that it ended along with World War II. Others allowed that that was the beginning of the end, but that the age still limped along till the end of the decade, until the Flash and Green Lantern and the Human Torch and Captain America had all disappeared. Jerry Bails and Roy Thomas were adamant that it ended in December 1950, with the final appearance of the Justice Society. Almost no one was arguing that it extended any further than that into the 1950s, except for the few who put the final issue of CAPTAIN MARVEL ADVENTURES (1953) as the absolute, definite end. There was universal agreement that the 1950s was, all in all, a different era, not what we meant when we used the phrase “Golden Age”…

    …until somehow it became the undisputed fact that the Golden Age lasted right up until July 1956, till the day before the release of SHOWCASE #4. Old-timer that I am, I have never been able to adjust to this, but you whippersnappers seem to have no problem with it.

    I note that this is an entirely superhero-centric view of the situation. If you think that the best comics in those days were being done by the likes of Walt Kelly, John Stanley, Carl Barks, George Carlson, and Basil Wolverton, obviously the situation looks very different.

  • Thelonious_Nick says:

    “”…until somehow it became the undisputed fact that the Golden Age lasted right up until July 1956, till the day before the release of SHOWCASE #4.”

    I think this is from the need of Ebay to place every comic in a subcategory, and choosing “ages” as they way to divide them up. Since every comic must be in a specific subcategory, there cannot be any time gaps between the “Comic Ages” or you would have uncategorized comics. Thus, the Golden Age gets extended until the beginning of the Silver Age, never mind if that lumps things together in a way that doesn’t make much sense.

  • Turan, Emissary of the Fly World says:

    …and if you prefer Westerns, the Golden Age of comic books began in the late ’40s, and lasted into the early ’60s. If horror comics are your thing, the Golden Age was from 1947 to the institution of the Comics Code (and maybe you allow for a year or two after that).

    It is worth remembering that discussions of comic book history are often grossly distorted by the tendency to focus on superheroes and nothing else.

  • Cassandra Miller says:

    And hey, how about those Whitman comics? As far as I know, they’re exactly the same as the newsstand ones, just with the addition of the Whitman logo….

  • Hal Shipman says:

    “newsstand copies weren’t reprints/second prints”

    I was about to call out the sole exception of the DC Baxter books (Legion and Titans), but the newstand reprint versions had the prefix “Tales of…”, right?

  • Isaac P. says:

    I don’t know about Flash comics, but I bet Oregon is a good source for Dark Horse back-issues as they are based just south of Portland. I would imagine a lot of back stock gets dumped into the local market and through the LCS chain they own, Things From Another World. Same for several other smaller indie publishers.

  • Snark Shark says:

    Hal Shipman: “the sole exception of the DC Baxter books (Legion and Titans), but the newstand reprint versions had the prefix “Tales of…”, right?”

    That is correct!

    Isaac P.: “but I bet Oregon is a good source for Dark Horse back-issues”

    Possibly! It does seem like I’ve seen Dark Horse in random places more than any od the other Indy publishers, with the exception of Image.

    Thelonious_Nick: “Flash”

    I have not seen Flash any more than I’ve seen, say, Green Lantern.

  • Brian says:

    I think the problem of naming “ages” is simply that the terminology has a specific reference, Ovid’s Four Ages of Man, and thus it runs out past Golden/Silver/Bronze/Iron. Adding in new metals (especially trying to sandwich in more precious ones amidst the baser ones) just lays waste to the classic analogy.

  • Thelonious_Nick says:

    But Brian, we have access to the whole metals section of the periodic table that Ovid didn’t have!

    Iridium Age has a nice ring to it, no? I for one, hope to specialize in comics from the Molybdenum Age.

  • Turan, Emissary of the Fly World says:

    Here is another in my “I’m so old I can remember when…” line:

    I’m so old, I can remember when some fans actually objected to the phrases “Golden Age” and “Silver Age.” They objected to “Golden Age” because they did not think the comics published in that period were actually golden, and they objected to “Silver Age” because it seemed to rank the comics published then as inferior to what had come before. As these fans saw the matter, the discussion was being skewed by a few older guys (Roy Thomas and Jerry Bails foremost among them) whose nostalgia for their childhoods kept them from recognizing how crude most of the stuff published then actually was. A phrase one would encounter in these discussions was “the true golden age of comics is nine” (borrowed from another community, which put it as “the true golden age of science fiction is fourteen”).

    I mean, no sensible person would argue that Stan Lee did better work in the ’40s than in the ’60s.

    Back to the question of how to separate the eras (regardless of what one calls them), the great difficulty is caused, as I noted above, by the fixation most fans have on the superhero genre. If you insist on making SHOWCASE #4 the start of a new era, and you insist on looking only at superheroes, you have the inconvenient fact that the last few years before it were not a good time for superheroes. Superman and Batman continued to sell well (and carried along a few other characters–Green Arrow, Aquaman, Johnny Quick–as back-up features), Wonder Woman was kept alive by William Marston’s contract with DC (according to which, the ownership of the character would revert back to Marston or his heirs if DC stopped publishing the character on a regular basis), and Plastic Man limped along with some terrible stories most definitely not by Jack Cole, and that was about it. This was most definitely not the dominant genre in the medium. Westerns, horror, funny animals, and teen humor all sold better. The actual best selling comic in the US was WALT DISNEY’S COMICS AND STORIES. Therefore, if you are defining the 1940s as the Golden Age in large part because superheroes dominated the comics then, you have to admit that the first half of the ’50s does not look like a Golden Age. That is why there were arguments about exactly when the Golden Age ended.

    Obviously, the question is much easier for modern fans. They may be vaguely aware of the EC horror comics, but otherwise they simply do not acknowledge the existence of anything other than superhero comics in this period. If there were only ten superhero comics being published in the months immediately before SHOWCASE #4, then there were only ten comics being published, period, and so there is no problem in dividing the ages.

  • Turan, Emissary of the Fly World says:

    I will throw in one last observation/reminiscence: Absolutely no one was using the phrase “Bronze Age” in the 1970s. It did not occur to any of us that we were living in a new, distinct era.

  • Turan, Emissary of the Fly World says:

    All right, one more: To the degree that the 1970s did feel different from what had come before, it was due to the emergence of a new generation of talent, a generation distinct from the previous one in that it was made of people who wanted to be creating comics, rather than writing novels or painting or working in advertising or–if they actually were interested in comics–producing newspaper strips (which, in this medium, were where one got money and fame). However, this is a change that eludes strict decade divisions. Many of that new generation (e.g., Roy Thomas, Steve Skeates, Dennis O’Neill, Jim Shooter, Marv Wolfman, Len Wein–I am not sure if Neal Adams counts, as he was as much an advertising artist as a comics one) arrived in the ’60s, while the previous generations (e.g., Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Robert Kanigher, Bob Haney, Joe Kubert, Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino) continued to be active in the ’70s.

  • Joseph Gualtieri says:

    “Joseph, newsstand copies weren’t reprints/second prints – they were printed at the same time the direct sales copies were.”

    Remember, people used to hate reprints so it behooved Shooter to argue that they were not. But if something is released weeks later and has a cover variation, that sure sounds like a different printing to me.

  • Nicholas says:

    The fact that they were distributed to different places (that had their own schedules/rules with regards to returns) doesn’t mean they were printed reprints. But I guess you could also argue that a comic printed on a press at 10:30 is an earlier printing than one done at 10:32…

  • Snark Shark says:

    Joseph Gualtieri: “Remember, people used to hate reprints so it behooved Shooter to argue that they were not”

    I’m not saying Shooter never lied (HA!), but I don’t think he lied about That.