I usually use my Classic Comics feature to review a comic book. However, I’m going to do something different and talk comic book barcodes. What are comic book barcodes for? Why do some have pictures of Spider-Man’s head instead of the barcode? How and why did they affect comic book covers of Marvel and DC from the late 70s and early 80s? Let’s delve in.
What are those? Let’s take a look!
For comics coming out at a time when technology didn’t move so fast, there had to be assurances for companies like Marvel and DC. But more on that soon.
Here’s my copy of X-Men #126 from October of 1979. By all means, I invite you to click on the image to see it larger. Please pardon the quality of my old camera.
Let’s take a closer look at the bottom-left corner of the comic.
I remember when I first started collecting, I had no idea why someone would put black strikes through the barcodes. Eventually, it dawned on me how the strikes only seemed to have affected a particular era of comics. In fact, the strikes they weren’t drawn on but actually printed over top of the barcode. I wanted to know what it meant (and I’m sure you do too)!
Three of the following X-Men comics I have featured strikes up until X-Men #130, from February of 1980.
Then issue #131 – a month later – it didn’t have a barcode at all!
Instead of a barcode, I see. . . a picture of Spider-Man? But I’ve seen issues of X-Men #131 with a barcode! What happened?!
Direct Edition vs. Newsstand Edition
A crossed out barcode means the comic book is a Direct Edition. So what’s that?
In a nutshell, there are two “types” of editions: Direct and Newsstand. A Direct Edition is sent to the comic book store and sold there. A Newsstand Edition is something which a newsstand would carry (seems obvious, right)? However, this was not just exclusive to newsstands, as malls, convenience stores, and drugstores could also receive Newsstand Editions.
A Direct Edition comic is crossed out due to a variety of things. One is because it tracks sales for the publisher, while another reason is to stop the store owner from returning the comics they did not sell. A crossed out barcode means the barcode could not be scanned into inventory for the publisher to accept as a return.
Obviously, that means the Newsstand Editions could be returned back to the publisher.
Arguably, Direct Edition comics are more sought-after because they would have been treated more carefully. They were less likely to have been placed in spinner racks, for example, and more likely to have been bagged and boarded. Direct Editions were also bought by the dealer at a lower price presenting another reason why dealers were unable to return them.
That being said, do you remember The Amazing Spider-Man #36? It was called the “Black Issue” as it was a tribute to the events of 9/11. I personally own a copy of that comic. Comic book dealers would have received one without a barcode on the cover at all. I bought mine at a local variety store which did have a barcode on the cover.
Believe it or not, if you have a good quality copy of that book WITH a barcode, it’s actually WORTH MORE because it is considered rare to find good-quality copies of Newsstand Edition comics. That “rule” really only applies to key issues of books, for the most part. Ultimately, it depends on the buyer.
Interestingly enough, Direct Edition dealers/comic book store owners were usually unable to scan the comics they brought in as most Direct Edition carriers did not have scanners for barcodes at the time. The technology simply wasn’t there yet or was too expensive for the comic shop owner to take on!
Due to the lack of technology from many of the comic dealers, Marvel replaced the Direct Edition barcodes with things like the Spider-Man head, or DC with Batman. On top of that, it was a way to promote extra little tidbits. Who doesn’t remember “50 Years of Captain America”, or “Spider-Man’s 35th Anniversary”? It was printed on every comic where the barcode should be. It made more sense to put those on Direct Edition books anyway as the readers would be more familiar with what’s happening in their comic book universe rather than a random person purchasing a book at a corner store.
Nowadays, since everyone is mostly on par with technology, barcodes have returned and comics just state whether or not they are Direct Editions. For example, here is a picture of Uncanny X-Force #1 from October of 2010. What does it say right next to the barcode?
UPDATE May 18th, 2020 – What if there’s LITERALLY NOTHING to go on?
This barcode blog has certainly been one of the most-viewed pages on my site. I’ve had many people message me both on here or through private messages to help find information on their books and clarify the understanding of barcodes. However, a recent inquiry piqued my interest and prompted me to update this post.
I completely forgot about the comic books that do NOT have barcodes. And no, I don’t mean the Spider-Man head barcodes.
I had Benn from the UK message me. He sent me a couple of photos of his book and its lack of a barcode – and lack of a back page, of all things!
His issue was Spider-Man #3 – from Todd McFarlane’s run. This issue was “Torment Part 3” from 1990.
Looking at the cover, there’s red flags abound! There’s no barcode, no pricing, and no issue number! The information on the book’s cover are entirely stripped away. To make matters even stranger, the background colours are also different.
Benn also sent me a photo of the back of the book:
There’s no tearing or obvious removal of a back cover. The staples are intact. If you look closer, the cover actually wraps around to the back page. The book simply didn’t come with a back cover!
What gives? Benn’s book instantly reminded me of a Spider-Man giveaway series we saw here in Canada back in the early nineties.
I personally had Spider-Man’s “Chaos in Calgary” and “Hard Ball” issues. They were part of a five-issue Spider-Man promo/giveaway from Marvel which was targeted to Canadians to have them read more Spidey books. Unlike Benn’s book, these books had both their prices and issue number on them. However, there was no barcode at all, let alone a spot for one on the cover.
Based on my prior experience on a few books without barcodes, and because Benn’s book featured a colour variant, I have to assume it was a reprint of some sort. Due to a lack of barcode, it must not have been scanned into stores – similar to the Direct Edition Spidey-head barcodes. I also could not find any information in the Overstreet Guide or Comics Price Guide, as if Benn’s book wasn’t actual “comic books” per se. Without a barcode, if Benn’s book was free or offered as a promotion like “Chaos in Calgary,” it would not get scanned into inventory at all – tracking wasn’t important because the book would have had no inherent value at the time.
What Benn’s book reminds me of are the Comic Packs of the 90s. I remember one in particular which clearly had no barcode on the cover:
The Shadows of the Empire comic from Dark Horse all but confirms to me Benn’s book would have been part of a toy pack. Like Benn’s book, there’s no issue number, barcode, or price. Unlike Benn’s book however, the Shadows of the Empire book wasn’t necessarily a reprint because it hadn’t been published before. Benn’s book is a reprint for sure, but considering it to be from a toy pack, it may explain the lack of a back cover as the back would have been more expensive to print. The book would not have had a barcode because the barcode was on the packaging of the toy, not the book. It may also explain why I could not find any information of the “book” in either the Overstreet Guide or Comics Price Guide – because this may – and I’m using this term very loosely here – be labelled as a “toy” not a comic.
Personally, I’m not sure what it could be labelled as. Due to COVID-19, I certainly cannot go to any comic book or toy conventions to ask the dealers there.
Benn’s book leaves a lot of unanswered questions with it: was the book actually part of a toy or just a giveaway? Benn’s from the UK and certainly distribution and rules for it would have been different than in the Americas – does that play a factor to why there’s no numbering on it? Would you classify the book as a “toy?” If so, would “Chaos in Calgary” get a pass? Does packaging define the product? I’d argue Benn’s book is a comic book. Looking into the Overstreet guide, it doesn’t recognize Dark Horse’s Shadows of the Empire toy pack books. However, the Comics Price Guide does.
Unfortunately I am unable to offer Benn a true answer to his book. It certainly is a unique piece though! If you know of any action figures that may have sold with Benn’s Torment #3, please let me know!
Happy collecting, everyone!