Newsstand vs. Direct Editions – The Original Comic Book Variant Covers

The word “variant” to comic book fans elicits a wide range of reactions.  From excitement and wonder to frustration and disdain.  People often forget that there were variants in play long before publishers began over-saturating the shelves with various cover images.  Yes, there was the classic Canadian or UK price variant, but I’m talking about the Newsstand vs. Direct Edition variants. 

Back in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, publishers like Marvel and DC began creating variant covers.  Not to help attract collectors, though, this was done out of necessity to help distinguish their product among their various vendors.  In those days, comic book specialty stores were still in their infancy.  For years, customers could only find comic book titles on the newsstand. 

1975 comic book newsstand-the-splintering

Comic book newsstand in 1975 – see anything ya’ like?

Publications like comic books, magazines, and newspapers all functioned using the same periodical distribution model. If you owned a newsstand, you’d place your monthly order of books.  Let’s say for ease of example, the cover price of the book is $.50. You’d place your order of 10 copies of Action Comics #517, at the $.50 cover price. Your cost of that book is $.12 each, for a total charge of $1.20.  At the end of the display date of the book, you sold only 6 copies, leaving 4 unsold. You could return those four copies for a $.48 credit.

Enter comic book stores. As these specialty shops started to pop up, they had very little in the way of back issue inventory. Instead, they relied heavily on new book sales. If any copies of a new book were left unsold, the comic book shops preferred to keep the unsold items as opposed to returning them to the publisher. Since the comic book shops bought them a discounted rate, it was much more profitable to just keep the unsold book, place it in a bag and board and slap a marked up price tag on it. Instant inventory!


Action Comics Issue #517

Publishers viewed the direct sales to comic book stores as the most beneficial sales method for two reasons. 

  1. Guaranteed sales:  Since the comic book stores wouldn’t return the product, that meant their sales at month end were final. 
  2. Storage/Disposal Costs:  When publishers received returns from newsstands looking for credit, the books had to be housed or disposed of, with either option costing the publisher both time and money. 

Publishers wanted to provide specialty shops with an incentive to buy from them.  Since the cost of accepting returns was diminished, publishers passed that savings on to the comic book stores.  Where that $.50 cover price book would cost a newsstand $.12 a book, publishers could provide the same book to comic book stores for only $.10.

In doing so, a new problem was created.  How do the publishers differentiate books sold to the newsstand vs. books sold to comic book stores?  Enter the variant UPC insignia. 


Marvel Premiere Issue #50

Comic books published that were sold directly to newsstands would contain a bar-code or UPC on the cover of their comic book.  If they were sold to a comic book store, that UPC would be replaced with an image, a slogan, or maybe a strike through, creating the “Direct Edition” variant.  This allowed publishers to track their sales based on the outlet selling them.

Newsstand vs. Direct Edition covers are starting to become more and more popular among collectors. Various grading companies (including CGC) are using the designation when slabbing their books.  It’s unclear which, if any, of the covers holds more value.  It’s speculated that the newsstand covers are harder to find in top quality condition due to the fact that they were indeed displayed on newsstands. Ultimately, the value resides in the appeal to the collector. 


Web of Spider-Man Issue #32

What do you think?  Does this type of variant interest you?  Do you prefer Newsstand or Direct Editions, or do you not even notice when picking up a back issue?  Let us know in the comments!

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One comment

  • Rusty Shackelford

    I remember noticing this when I was a kid. I preferred the comic shop versions because I thought the bar code was ugly and distracting.

    I never cared if I got one or the other, though… at least as far as collecting went. I would imagine the news stand versions would be more difficult to find if you were looking for both.

    Liked by 2 people

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