"PENNY DREADFULS" FROM THE STATES

THE SILVER & BRONZE AGE BRITISH PENCE PRICE VARIANTS

 
Although Superman and Batman material was reprinted by various publishers for the British comic book market in the 1950s, it was all put out in a very cobbled patchwork fashion. Then, in 1959, Thorpe & Porter Ltd became the official distributor for DC comics (which they remained right through to the 1980s after they were taken over by DC's distribution outlet Independent in 1964 - and one of the major changes T&P brought to the British comic book market was a direct supply and distribution of US production run titles from DC comics.
 
BIRTH OF THE BRITISH PENCE PRICE VARIANT
 
In October 1959, Batman #127 and Superman #132 were the first American comic books to officially be imported and distributed to newsagents in Great Britain.

A simple task in itself (given that there was no translation or reworking required to make these US comics accessible to British readers), the only thing required was to indicate to the newsagent how much he was to charge his customers for this product - which carried a printed price in US cents. The simple solution was to apply an ink stamp to the cover which spelled out the British currency price.

During the initial test phase all DC titles were stamped this way - a clear indication that the initial wave of US imports to the British market must have been rather small in numbers to make this manual price marking feasible.

Issues imported to Britain and sold with a 9d (9 pence) stamp at this stage included titles such as Action Comics , Adventure Comics, All-Star Western, Batman, Brave and the Bold, Challengers of the Unknown, Detective Comics, Flash, GI Combat, House of Mystery, House of Secrets, Lois Lane, Mystery in Space, Our Army at War, Our Fighting Forces, Showcase, Star Spangled War Stories, Strange Adventures, Superboy, Superman, Tales of the Unexpected, Tomahawk, Western Comics, Wonder Woman and World's Finest - as well as Date with Judy, Falling in Love, Fox and Crow, Girls' Love Stories, Girls' Romances, Heart Throbs, Jerry Lewis, Pat Boone, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Secret Hearts and Sgt Bilko.

 


UK import Batman #127 (Oct 1959) with 9d. price stamp

 
The success of these trial imports must have been rather limited, a fact perhaps tied to the low quantities available using the rubber stamp price method, which in turn must have made distribution patchy to say the least. As a result, US printed DC comics would not be imported to the British Isles again until mid-1971 (McClure, 2010).
 


Fantastic Four #1 (Nov 1961)


X-Men #1 (Sept 1963)

  However, Thorpe & Porter were also the official distributors for Atlas and subsequently Marvel Comics until about 1971.

Since the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Transworld Feature Syndication Inc. (run out of New York by future Marvel president Al Landau) oversaw the worldwide distribution of Atlas/Marvel material (Kirby, 2013). Landau was eager to push into new markets, and being able to sell the identical product produced for the home market in a second market with the sole requirement of changing the price indication was as simple as it would ever get.

Either influenced by Thorpe & Porter's previous experience with the DC titles or Landau's business sense, the decision was made to actually print the British currency price on the cover.

The first import and distribution run of US comics with a printed pence price of 9d (replacing the original 10 price) and minus the cover date on their cover took place while Marvel was still publishing its material as Atlas. The initial titles (cover dated May 1960) were Gunsmoke Western #58, Journey into Mystery #58, Kid Colt Outlaw #90 and Millie the Model #96. These were followed by Date with Millie #5, Kathy #5, Patsy Walker #89, Patsy and Hedy #70, Strange Tales #75 and Two-Gun Kid #54 (all cover-dated June 1960) before Tales of Suspense #10 and Tales to Astonish #10 (both July 1960) hit the British shores (comicpriceguide.co.uk).

It was the birth of the Pence Price Variant of US comics, which would go on to include virtually every Silver and Bronze Age key Marvel issue, be wrongly referred to as "UK editions" or even "UK reprints" of Marvel and DC titles, and be scorned and avoided for the longest time as "penny dreadfuls" even by UK collectors.

 


Hulk #1 (May 1962)


Avengers #4 (Apr 1964)

 
DEFINING THE BRITISH PENCE PRICE VARIANT
 
Predominantly Marvel's playground (with DC and other publishers only chiming in from time to time), the distribution of pence price variants in the UK took place from May 1960 up until September 1982 (with intermittent short breaks here and there). As a result, many British comic book readers were exposed to them over time, and many misconceptions grew up around the pence price variants along the way. Some erroneously considered them to be UK editions, while others mistakingly believed them to be "reprints" (a fate the pence price variants share with the early "diamond" direct market editions and most Whitman variants).

In actual fact, they were variants - which was far from being a commonly known concept in a time and age when variant covers on comic books were unheard of.

 
Even today, there is little published research on the topic of comic book variants outside the collector's perspective on variant covers, but Jon Martin McClure's "History of Publisher Experimentation and Variant Comic Books", published in the 2010/11 Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, provides ample in-depth insight. McClure identifies a total of 15 types of variants, some of which have subtypes, and lists the pence price variant as belonging to Type 1a, which he defines as follows:

"Cover Price Variants intended for foreign distribution with limited regional distribution [i.e. for pence price variants: UK only], published simultaneously with standard or "regular" editions. The indicia and all aspects of the book, except for the cover price and sometimes the company logo, are identical to a regular U.S. edition." (McClure, 2010)

In other words: Pence price variants were printed in the US at the same location and time by the same company and on the same paper as the regular US run of that specific issue, and only differ from these with regard to certain aspects of the cover, while the interior pages are absolutely identical (including editorial material and even adverts).


Strange Tales #158 (July 1967)

 
Initially, the difference between a "regular" US cover and a pence price variant was truly minimal and even easy to overlook, as this example from 1967, taken from the covers of Strange Tales #158, illustrates. There is indeed only one divergence: the original 12 price has been changed to a British currency of pre-decimal 10d (10 pence) - everything else is exactly the same.
 
 
The difference remained minimal for years by concerning the price indication only, so that even the MARVEL COMICS GROUP banner emblem introduced in 1971 looked very much the same on US price copies and pence price variants, although the emblem of Marvel's US distributor Curtis was now dropped as well.
 

 
"MARVEL ALL-COLOUR COMICS"
 
But then, for the August 1974 cover date run (which went on sale the US in May but due to the slow surface shipping process usually coincided with the actual month the comic book became available in the UK), a major change occured - as witnessed for example on the cover of Journey Into Mystery (vol 2) #12. While the US copy retained the standard MARVEL COMICS GROUP banner emblem, the UK pence price variant now ran a banner reading MARVEL™ ALL-COLOUR COMICS.
 

 
The reason for this change effectively went back to September 1972, when Marvel Comics started their own UK imprint (semi-officially known as Marvel UK) by launching a weekly comic book entitled Mighty World of Marvel which reprinted classic Silver Age material and, put together in the New York offices, also introduced the Marvel editorial style to the British Isles.

At the time, the UK comic book market was still quintessentially keyed at a weekly interval of publication with predominantly black and white contents. The Mighty World of Marvel followed this formula, was a huge success, and was soon joined by other Marvel UK weeklies such as Spider-Man Comics Weekly (launched in February 1973) and The Avengers (September 1973).

 
By mid-1974, the success of the three British reprint weeklies had Marvel (and especially Transworld, the foreign market stakeholder) looking to further expand its presence on the British comic book market. Accordingly, two new weeklies were launched In October 1974: Dracula Lives! and Planet of the Apes.

Marvel Comics were riding on a high in Britain, and attempting to expand on this success was more than just second nature, as Al Landau now had a combined personal interest: he was not only invested in foreign market shares through his Transworld Feature Syndication Inc., but since 1973 also as acting president of the Marvel Comics Group.

"This was when Cadence was running things, and the person in charge of Cadence separately had a deal to sell material overseas and was making money every time we sold stuff overseas , which is why so many books came out (...) that money went directly to them." (Marv Wolfman in: Siuntres, 2006)

 


Mighty World of Marvel #1 launched Marvel's own UK imprint on 30 September 1972

 

"Al Landau, not one of my favorite people, succeeded [Stan Lee] as president of Marvel. His company, Trans World, had been selling Marvel's work in other countries. (...) The only time Al and I were on the same side (...) was when both of us wanted to get back one of the pages of story we had lost in our books. I wanted the page back just because I wanted it back, for better stories — and he wanted it because then his company Trans World could sell another page abroad." (Roy Thomas in: Lee & Thomas, 1998)

Marvel had been expanding both in terms of titles and genres ever since 1970, and this had been echoed by the large variety of pence price variants produced and shipped to the UK.

 


Journey Into Mystery (vol 2) #12 (Aug 1974) - 25 price

  With the black and white weeklies so successful, it must have seemed an excellent opportunity to push on with this export (from a US perspective) production even more, and it was nothing but a logical marketing strategy to highlight the fact that the pence price variants, unlike the Marvel UK reprints, were all-colour.

As of August 1974, the difference between a "regular" US comic book and its pence price variant thus became much easier to spot - and the MARVEL ALL-COLOUR COMICS banner would become a familiar sight to British comic book readers visiting their neswagent.

Ultimately, it turned into something akin to a business card for the pence price variants and remained unchanged right up until October 1982, when Marvel ceased the publication of British market variants.

 


Journey Into Mystery (vol 2) #12 (Aug 1974) - 7p price

 
THE PRODUCTION PROCESS FOR BRITISH PENCE PRICE VARIANTS
 
Pence price variants could be produced with absolute minimal extra work and cost - which no doubt made the concept so attractive to Marvel. This was because the comic books concerned were all printed using the so-called "Four Colour Process" (CMYK for short) which renders the variations in colours by applying the so-called subtractive primaries Cyan (blue), Magenta (purple) and Yellow.
 
Mixing yellow and cyan produces green colours, while yellow mixed with magenta results in reds, and magenta with cyan in blues. Mixing equal amounts of cyan, magenta and yellow in sufficient density produces black, but in order to save ink and decrease drying times black is used as the fourth colour pigment for the so-called "key" (hence the letter K) printing plate, which prints the artistic detail of an image (Ferry, 1921).

A four-colour printing press therefore uses four printing plates - one for each colour separation - wrapped around a cylinder and inked with the relevant colour. As paper passes through the press, the cyan, magenta, yellow and black separations are printed exactly one on top of the other. This can produce a wide range of colours by combining different tints of the four inks, as colours are split into so-called "component separations".

 

 
The colour separations used for comic books up until the 1980s were fairly crude, using only tones of 0%, 25%, 50%, 75% and 100% in a coarse dot grid, and were done for both Marvel and DC at the Chemical Color Plate Corporation in Bridgeport (Connecticut). The process resulted in four overlays (one each for CMYK) on Rubylith acetate, which then went to the camera for the so-called shoot plates (a process which continued into the late 1990s before computer colouring took over). This process of building up a multi-colour image from four components can be seen from the colour separations for the cover of Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #3 (1981):
 

+

+

+

 

The actual sequence of the three colour ink layers can vary according to the desired final result. This is because the first ink used "traps" the ones that follow, defining the sequence as the first ink down must have the highest "tack" (i.e. stickiness), while the subsequent colours have lower effective tacks (Pritchard, 2009).

=

=

=

 

In the case of Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #3 the sequence is YMCK, but in any combination the black plate will always come last. And as can clearly be seen, all the modifications required for the production of pence price variant only concern this last colour separation plate.

 
 
All that was needed was a second "K" plate which featured the minimal adjustements of having a pence instead of the cents price, plus changing the banner to the trademark MARVEL ALL-COLOUR COMICS.

The printer would thus run the first print run with one black plate and then, when the required number of covers had been printed, exchange the K separation plates and continue printing.

The sequence in which this happened may have varied, but a number of people have pointed out the likelihood that the pence price variant covers were in fact printed first, based on the fact that the initial output at any printing press may get messed up, and that Marvel and DC would, from a business point of view, rather have had that happen to the British distribution lot than to the home market print run.

The same procedure applied to Direct Market Editions and Whitman comicpack issues, as illustrated by the cover shown here: the DME black diamond replaces the regular price indication, and the newsstand barcode is replaced by a Spiderman face - all done on the black colour separation plate only.

 


Spectactular Spider-Man Annual #3 (1981) Direct Market Edition with "black diamond" price and no barcode

 
CIRCULATION AND DISTRIBUTION OF BRITISH PENCE PRICE VARIANTS
 
Both McClure (2010) and the online Comic Price Guide for Great Britain (CPG) seem to agree on the assumption that the proportion of British pence price variant copies generally amounted to somewhere up to 5% of the print run (while probably much lower in the 1960s, nearer 2-3%). The statements of ownership published in the May 1974 and 1975 issues of Fantastic Four puts the total average monthly number of copies printed for that title in the preceding 12 months at roughly 425,000. This in turn would yield some 21,000 copies (equaling a share of 5% of the total print run) of Fantastic Four pence price variants. It is quite obvious from this example (using a title which had a higher total print run than some other, minor Marvel titles) that the circulation of pence price variants comic books could wear thin rather quickly as they were being spread out all over the UK.

In 1974, even the black and white Marvel UK reprint titles received letters from readers who complained about their problems in finding pence price variants:

"Distribution of American mags. Yes, we're back on that again. I have always been fortunate enough to live in an area well-supplied with these (...) but sind February 1974 not a single one have I found!" (Letters page, Avengers [UK] #65, December 1974)

To which editorial interestingly enough replied:

"From almost every quarter, we receive letters from grateful Marvelites stating that life is beginning anew for them because once again they are able to lay their eager hands on those US editions. We KNOW they're here within these shores because we're SENDING 'em here." (Letters page, Avengers [UK] #65, December 1974)

This exchange between readers and editorial of Marvel UK on the subject of "American mags" not only shows that Marvel pence price variants and Marvel black and white UK reprints were run as two outlets of one and the same business (which, of course, they also clearly were), but it also highlights a disagreement between McClure (2010) and the CPG concerning the production window of pence price variants. Whilst the CPG explicitly postulates an uninterrupted publishing of pence price variants, McClusky notes certain periods of time in which he states no pence price variants were printed, i.e. between cover dates of December 1964 and August 1965, December 1967 throught to March 1969, and April 1974 to July 1974. The reply to this reader's complaint would seem to point more in McClures's favour as it does hint at an interruption of supplies ("we receive letters from grateful Marvelites stating that life is beginning anew for them because once again they are able to lay their eager hands on those US editions").

 
In that very same issues of the UK reprint Avengers a reader from Swansea highlights another rather peculiar trait of the pence price variants: their longevity in terms of shelf life in some locations.

"While on a hunting trip around the newsagents I came across a mag called "Daredevil" with a story called "On the Horns of the Man-Bull" price one shilling. I calculated that it must have been at least 3 years old because decimal coinage came to Britain in 1972. Please could you give me some information on it?" (Letters page, Avengers [UK] #65, December 1974)

Editorial provided the requested information, namely that it was

"an imported copy of U.S. edition of Daredevil. It was issue 78 of the Daredevil series and was published in July 1971." (Letters page, Avengers [UK] #65, December 1974)

 


Iron Man #86 (May 1976)

 


Crypt of Shadows #21 (Nov 1975)

  Returnability of unsold pence price variants, even if offered in some ways, must have been tricky - with the obvious result that copies stayed on display until eventually sold.

This is how and why I myself was able to pick up Iron Man #86 (May 1976) at a newsagent in Fort William in September 1976, and Crypt of Shadows #21 (November 1975) and Chamber of Chills #25 (November 1976) together in September 1977 at the newsagents of a servicing area on the M4 motorway southbound. These horror comics both were the final issues of their title, so maybe this also helped keep them on the lowest shelf for almost two and one year respectively beyond their cover date.

WH Smith, on the other hand, either sold all their copies of one month or actually had a system in place where new arrivals would make the older copies disappear from the shelf.

 


Chamber of Chills #25 (Nov 1976)

 
But even though there clearly was no sense of market rivalry between the pence price variants and the UK black and white reprint weeklies, Marvel / Transworld wasn't throwing all business caution to the wind and did curb what must have been considered unduly competition imposed by certain pence price variants on the licensed UK market publications. As a result, there are no pence price variants for Amazing Spider-Man issues #121 - 214 according to the CPG. This measure was only applied very moderately, however, as other characters and titles - such as the Fantastic Four or Hulk (which also appeared regularly in the licensed black and white UK reprints, with the Hulk being especially popular) did not experience them.
 
Availability would vary from area to area and periods of time, but a major source for pence price variants were the small number of specialised resellers who would sometimes operate a small shop and sometimes rely on mail order entirely.

One of the latter examples was Fantasy Unlimited in Millwall, run by Alan Austin who also published a fanzine and advertised regularly in the black and white Marvel UK weeklies. Customers would receive long typed lists in alphabetical order on a regular basis by mail, and orders were even shipped to the continent - at no extra charge.

 


Advertisement in Planet of the Apes (UK weekly) #102 (September 1976)

 
 
OTHER PUBLISHER'S BRITISH PENCE PRICE VARIANTS
 
Marvel dominated the pence price variant market to a large extent - not the least, one might assume, because Transworld was honing its foreign market skills as time went by and perfected distribution of its line of comics to the British market almost to an artform. But there were, of course, other oublishers as well - Gold Key, for example, exported some of its titles as pence price variants from May 1973 to November 1975 (McClure, 2010).
 


Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery #53 (April 1974)

  But what about Marvel's major rival and competitor, DC Comics?

DC had in fact experimented with a few runs of pence price variants in 1971 (McClure, 2010) but then seemingly reached the decision that they really favoured a British market presence through licensed reprint material published directly in the UK. It wasn't until March 1978 that DC returned with pence price variants and continued to publish and distribute them up until the cover date of September 1981. By that time, the direct market had increased significantly in importance for the entire comic book industry, and the big publishers Marvel and DC introduced direct market editions (DME, as opposed to newsstand editions) in late 1982, there was no need for pence price variants anymore as the DMEs were multi-priced for the US home market as well as the Canadian and British export markets.

 


Kamandi #56
(May 1978)

 
BRITISH PENCE PRICE VARIANTS & THE COLLECTOR'S MARKET
 
As already pointed out, the share of British pence price variant copies generally amounted to somewhere up to 5% of the total print run of any given title and issue. In purely mathematical terms, a pence price variant will therefore be around twenty times as scarce as a regular cent copy. In actual fact, they are much rarer as their survival rate is sigificantly lower and estimated by McClure (2010) to be as low as 1-2%.

For obvious reasons, few pence price variants have found their way back to the States, so the lion's share remains in the UK to this day - where, in contrast to the numerical scarcity, they can mostly be found and bought without major problems. This is because pence price variants have for the longest time been deemed undesirable by the majority of UK collectors - "penny dreadfuls" rather than "pennies from heaven". A fact reflected in substantially lower prices asked and paid on the collector's market even for key issues in high grades:

"Currently, general issues of pence copies seem to be valued at about a half compared to cents copies in the lower grades. From about Very Fine condition onwards the gap tends to widen to perhaps a third of the US value." (Comic Price Guide for Great Britain, 2010)

For most British comic book collectors, pence price variants are thus "penny dreadfuls". For those who actually bought them at the time, however, personal nostalgia may well result in a different perception.

 

BRITISH PENCE PRICE VARIANTS
MARVEL COMICS COVER GALLERY

 
Here is a selection of pence price variant titles published by Marvel between 1970 and 1981 which, although by no means complete, shows the wide variety of material and genres offered to readers in the UK.
 


Iron Man #31
(November 1970)

 


Astonishing Tales #6
(June 1971)

 


Kull #7
(March 1973)

 


Tomb Of Dracula #9
(June 1973)

 


Frankenstein Monster #12
(September 1974)

 


Creatures On The Loose #34
(March 1975)

 


Amazing Adventures #30
(May 1975)

 


Werewolf By Night #34
(October 1975)

 


Inhumans #3
(February 1976)

 


Iron Man #87
(June 1976)

 


Marvel Triple Action #30
(July 1976)

 


Strange Tales #187
(September 1976)

 


Master of Kung Fu #46
(November 1976)

 


Spectacular Spider-Man #1
(December 1976)

 


Marvel's Greatest Comics #68
(January 1977)

 


Tomb Of Dracula #55
(April 1977)

 


Conan the Barbarian #76
(July 1977)

 


Marvel Premiere #37
(August 1977)

 


Daredevil #148
(September 1977)

 


Fantastic Four #186
(September 1977)

 


Master of Kung Fu #56
(September 1977)

 


Nova #13
(September 1977)

 


Star Wars #3
(September 1977)

 


Thor #263
(September 1977)

 


Marvel Premiere #39
(December 1977)

 


Human Fly #6
(February 1978)

 


Doctor Strange #29
(June 1978)

 


Captain America #224
(August 1978)

 


Doctor Strange #30
(August 1978)

 


Marvel Triple Action #44
(October 1978)

 


Doctor Strange #31
(October 1978)

 


Doctor Strange #32
(December 1978)

 


Doctor Strange #33
(February 1979)

 


Power Man & Iron Fist #55
(February 1979)

 


Marvel Two-In-One #49
(March 1978)

 


Avengers #182
(April 1978)

 


Doctor Strange #34
(April 1979)

 


Iron Man #127
(October 1979)

 


ROM #2
(January 1980)

 


Machine Man #13
(February 1980)

 


Marvel Team-Up #92
(April 1980)

 


Tales To Astonish #5
(April 1980)

 


Defenders #83
(May 1980)

 


Spider-Woman #28
(July 1980)

 


Ghost Rider #57
(June 1981)

 


Hulk #260
(June 1981)

 


Amazing Spider-Man #221
(October 1981)

 

 
 

BRITISH PENCE PRICE VARIANTS
DC COMICS COVER GALLERY

 
Here is a (by no means complete) selection of pence price variant titles published by DC between 1978 and 1981. Although the choice of titles on offer was far more limited than Marvel's presence at the newsagents, readers in the UK nevertheless got to enjoy some variety.
 


Challengers of the Unknown #87
(July 1978)

 


All-Star Comics #73
(August 1978)

 


Detective Comics #478
(August 1978)

 


New Gods #19
(August 1978)

 


Batman #306
(December 1978)

 


Batman #307
(January 1979)

 


Brave and the Bold #146
(January 1979)

 


DC Comics Presents #5
(January 1979)

 


Green Lantern #117
(June 1979)

 


Ghosts #78
(July 1979)

 


Justice League #169
(August 1979)

 


Batman #315
(September 1979)

 


Batman #318
(December 1979)

 


Brave and the Bold #157
(December 1979)

 


Action Comics #503
(January 1980)

 


Brave and the Bold #163
(June 1980)

 


Brave and the Bold #165
(August 1980)

 


Wonder Woman #274
(December 1980)

 


Brave and the Bold #172
(March 1981)

 


Flash #296
(April 1981)

 


House Of Mystery #292
(May 1981)

 


New Teen Titans #10
(August 1981)

 


Legion Of Super-Heroes #279
(September 1981)

 

 
 
BIBLIOGRAPHY

FERRY Ervin Sidney (1921) General Physics and Its Application to Industry and Everyday Life, John Wiley & Sons

KIRBY Rob (2013) "The Mighty World of Marvel UK", in Back Issue #63, April 2013

LEE Stan & THOMAS Roy (1998) "Stan the man & Roy the boy: A conversation between Stan Lee and Roy Thomas", originally published in Comic Book Artist (issue 2), available on-line and accessed 4 September 2007

McCLURE Jon Martin (2010) "A History of Publisher Experimentation and Variant Comic Books", in Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, 40th Edition, Gemstone Publishing

PRITCHARD Gordon (2009) "Ink Sequence - 4/C process & beyond", The Print Guide, available on-line and accessed 1 June 2015

SIUNTRES John (2006) Marv Wolfman by Night, transcribed from the podcast Word Balloon: The Comic Creator's Interview Show, available online at wordballoon.libsyn.com

 

First published on the web 1 June 2015
Text is copyright (c) 2015 Adrian Wymann