There is a lot of confusion in the market about the difference between newsstand and direct editions. Sellers on eBay regularly confuse the two. And it’s not just folks new to collecting. I’ve spoken with comic shop owners that don’t know the difference between newsstand and direct editions. Even major online comic retailers are currently listing comics incorrectly. Here are a few quick examples to make the point.
Understanding the difference is important because depending on the year, newsstand variants are MUCH rarer than their direct edition counter parts. As a result, they often command a much higher price. At other points in time, however, newsstands are MORE COMMON than direct editions and there’s no reason why they should be more expensive.
Knowing which newsstands are rare and which ones are common will keep you from getting taken advantage of and also help you find deals – and there are a lot of deals to be had if you know what to look for.
So, in this post I’ll explain:
- The history of newsstand and direct editions.
- How to identify newsstand and direct editions.
- Are newsstands actually rare?
- How grading companies treat newsstand editions.
- Why does any of this matter?
The (Simplified) History of Newsstand and Direct Editions
If we were to jump into a time machine and go back to the late 1970’s and early 1980’s we would find fewer comic shops. A lot fewer. Up until the mid-1980’s most comics were sold in general stores like pharmacies or bookstores or newsstands. The business model looked something like this:
Comic companies would sell comics to general retailers. These retailers would then sell the comics to customers. The problem was that the comic companies didn’t really like this model. This is because if the stores didn’t sell their comics, they could return their unsold inventory back to the comic companies who were required to buy the issues.
This process of refunding unsold comics was tracked through the bar code on these newsstand editions. Stores were frequently required to tear off and submit the cover for reimbursement to ensure that they weren’t double dipping, that is selling comics and requesting a refund.
But as the industry matured more and more local comic shops began to spring up. These local comic shops began to represent a greater and greater share of comic book sales. Eventually the comic companies came up with a new business model. They would sell comics to local comic shops at a discount, but in exchange for the discount these shops would not be able to return inventory that they didn’t sell. This is the direct edition model.
Comics sold under this business model had a strike running through the UPC that prevented the comic from being returned. This provided the comic companies with some stability in their revenue because they wouldn’t have to issue refunds and provided local comic shops with a discount in exchange for keeping everything they ordered.
But what happened when comic shops ordered more comics than they could sell? Dollar bins were born! (Or at least became a lot more common.)
However, the UPC strike through didn’t last long. It’s ugly and visual appeal has always been a large part of comic collecting. But comic companies still needed some way to distinguish direct editions from newsstand editions and soon began filling the UPC box with art.
As you can see, however, that didn’t last long either.
I don’t think there’s a single reason why bar codes came back, but I do have a couple best guesses. At their beginning direct editions needed to have an alternative to the bar codes on newsstands, but as newsstands became less and less common there was simply less of a need to distinguish them. Additionally, at the same time that newsstands were becoming less common, comic companies began printing multiple variant covers of the same issue. Bar codes made it easier to track these for both comic companies and collectors.
How To Identify Newsstand Editions
Despite the massive amounts of confusion surrounding this issue, it’s actually really easy to identify newsstand editions. They, of course, have a bar code, but as seen above, direct editions in the late 1990’s and afterwards also have bar codes. So how can you tell a newsstand edition?
Sometimes the UPC self-identifies as a newsstand edition. That’s always helpful, but it’s also uncommon. The surest way to identify a newsstand edition is to look at the second part of the bar code in the UPC box. Direct editions have five numbers and newsstand editions have two numbers.
Here are a few examples.
Batman #457 is the first appearance of Tim Drake as Robin.
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Daredevil #21 is the first appearance of the Superior Spider-Man.
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Are Newsstand Editions Actually Rare?
Whether newsstand editions are rare compared to direct editions depends on two factors: year of publication and condition of the comic. Newsstand editions are more common in older comics and much rarer in newer comics. This is because newsstands were printed in fewer quantities as time went on and the people that stocked and bought them were less likely to take care of them. This means that recent newsstand editions in near mint condition can be extremely rare.
Mile High Comics is one of the few comic companies that recognized early on how difficult is to find NM copies of later newsstands. When they began distinguishing newsstand editions from direct editions and charging more for the former they got some questions on the decision. In response they published a very helpful justification that included the following data and statement:
To better illustrate the scarcity of high grade newsstand editions I made the following graph. Here you can see that after 1986 direct editions are increasing as a percentage of print runs and distribution and newsstand editions decrease.
But when you look at this graph it’s important to remember the role that condition plays in the scarcity of a comic. The closer to the present the more unlikely it is to find a 9.8 newsstand. An easy experiment will bear this out…
Search eBay to see how many Amazing Spider-Man #252 CGC 9.8’s there are in newsstand and direct editions and then do the same with X-Factor #6 CGC 9.8, X-Men #266 CGC 9.8, and New Mutants #98 CGC 9.8. And in case you think that this is limited to Marvel look at Doomsday’s first appearance in Superman: Man of Steel #18. See how many more direct editions there are than newsstand editions? If this sounds like a lot of work you can also watch me do it here:
The bottom line is that newsstands are much rarer than direct editions in later years (after 1986) especially in higher grades (9.4+).
How Grading Companies Treat Newsstand Editions
One of the biggest misconceptions about newsstand editions is the widespread and persistent belief that grading companies don’t distinguish between direct and newsstand editions. This is simply flat out false. Every major grading company recognizes newsstand editions in some capacity.
Let’s look at CGC first since it is the premiere grading company (this is not an endorsement of CGC, it’s just a fact of the marketplace right now). CGC recognizes newsstand editions as variants if they meet a specific set of requirements. For example, it the content of the comic differs between direct and newsstand editions, or, sometimes if there are price differences.
Spawn #9, the first appearance of Angela and Medieval Spawn, is a great example of when CGC will recognize newsstand editions. The direct edition of Spawn #9 is on nice glossy paper and contains a poster. The newsstand edition is printed on horrible low quality paper without a poster. The newsstand also has a bar code, but that alone will not get newsstands noted on the label.
A more recent example is Daredevil #21. CGC notes that it is a newsstand in part because it carries a different (higher) price.
Next, let’s look at CBCS. This is an easy one because CBCS really is taking the lead in advancing the industry by flat out no exception recognizing newsstand editions. As a collector I really appreciate this – it’s just giving the community more and better information. They announced this as their policy on Facebook a few years ago.
Finally, PGX has recognized newsstand editions for a long time.
Who Cares? Does Any Of This Matter?
While doing research for this post I came across a lot of heated conversation about newsstand editions. It’s amazing how passionate some people are about disliking these particular variants. Here’s an unscientific sample I clipped for this post. Look at the hate?!
But even if you dislike newsstands, that’s not stopping other people from paying a LOT more for them. Especially in recent printings. Perhaps the best example of this is the first appearance of Miles Morales in Ultimate Fallout #4. A same day sale of both issues in CGC 9.8 condition resulted in a difference of more than $7,000.
Love newsstand editions or hate them, if you have any financial interest in collecting, it’s probably best not to ignore them.