2017 PENCE PRICE VARIANTS ?

 

 

1977

 

40 years ago in the UK, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Silver Jubilee, James Callaghan was PM for Labour and struggling with strikes up and down the country, punk rock was in full swing with the Sex Pistols causing a stir on TV and the Clash releasing their first album, British Airways inaugurated supersonic flights to New York on Concorde, and Star Wars was a smash hit in cinemas all over the UK.

 
Also back in 1977, you could buy US Marvel comics at many UK newsagent outlets. All of those comic books were so-called pence price variants: identical to the US print runs with the sole exception of featuring a UK pence price (hence the name) printed on the cover along with the masthead slogan MARVEL ALL-COLOUR COMICS. This was a direct reference to Marvel's weekly UK comics, which featured black and white reprint material - and which could often also be picked up at the very same newsagent.

Since the early 1960s, US comic book titles from various publishers were shipped to the UK with a printed British currency cover price, and during the 1970s pence price variants (predominantly from Marvel although DC also had a share of the business along with a few other US publishers) became a common sight at larger newsagents at least.

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). Bulk shipping from the US resulted in these variants actually going on sale during the month indicated on the cover, whereas this was usually three months ahead in the States to prolong shelf life.

 


Howard the Duck #16
(Price 12p, September 1977)

 

 

you can read more about the history and background of pence price variants here.

 

2017

 

40 years on and the world of comic books has changed to the extent of being almost unrecognisable from a 1977 viewpoint. Comic book superheroes have become highly profitable movie and TV franchises, while the comics themselves abound with reboots, relaunches and fundamental changes to established characters.

 
You can still pick up Marvel comic books at High Street newsagents such as WH Smith, but they are from the range of reprints produced for the British market by Panini (Marvel UK) only. Now published monthly with 76 pages in full colour, they typically reprint three US issues and are fairly close on the heels of Marvel's current home market output.

US comic books, as a rule, are now only available in the UK through specialist resellers, i.e. comic book stores. It's the established business model the world over: the so-called direct market. It did away with a major problem of the traditional newsstand sales avenue which had plagued comic book publisher for decades, namely the returnability of unsold issues, which caused a lot of fraudulent behaviour and at the same time meant that less than 50% of a print run actually reached its sales point.

 

 
Established in the mid-1970s, resellers could order comic books through distributors with larger discounts to offset the non-returnability and might also get their copies a week ahead of the newstand sellers. The latter system, with returnability and low discounts, ran in parallel to the direct market for a number of years until the direct market became the more important sales channel in the mid-1980s.
 
 

With both business models in operation, it became necessary for publishers to be able to distinguish a newsstand edition (which was returnable and hence refundable) from a direct market edition (which was the retailer's problem if not sold).

Marvel's initial solution, introduced in February 1977, was a large white diamond on a black background in the upper left-hand corner, replacing the established price / number / month fields.

 
Several other means of quick visual identification were established (and sometimes dropped just as quickly, such as the barcode struck through with a diagonal black line), but they only concerned the covers as the contents were identical. But the change introduced by DC for its October 1981 cover date production also did away with pence price variants at the same time.
 
Whereas Batman #339 had also been produced as a standard 15p price variant, the following newsstand issue featured both the US price in large and the UK price in smaller font within the same cover vignette.

Together with the barcode (which the direct market variant lacked) this new multi-pricing became the prime visual distinction for the copies sent out to the traditional newsstand sales points. It also, effectively, did away with the need to print yet another cover variant for the UK market - and thus spelled the end for the separate DC pence price variants.

     

  Marvel continued their pence price variants production up until December 1981. As of January 1982, they took the opposite approach to their main competitors by having their direct market edition also feature multi-country pricing one one single cover.

The effect for the pence price variant was, of course, the same - it ceased to exist as it effectively became a part of the direct market edition.

Printing multiple currency cover prices on one cover lasted well into the mid-1990s at Marvel before it was ultimately reduced to just featuring US and Canadian prices. Daredevil #93 from 2007 illustrates a newsstand edition, bought from a spinner rack at Miami Airport, as also having this feature.

So was this the end of pence price variants? Strictly speaking, yes. But there is a grey zone.

 

 
Defining pence price variants as such poses no problem at all - they are:

"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)

The vast majority of pence price variants produced by US publishers in the 1960s, 1970s and very early 1980s had their UK currency price printed directly on the cover, i.e. as a result of the original printing and binding process in the US.

However, when the first American comic books were officially imported and distributed to newsagents in Great Britain in October 1959 (the issues were Batman #127 and Superman #132) this was not the case.

As a consequence, the UK distributors Thorpe & Porter needed to indicate to the newsagent how much he was to charge his customers for this product - which only 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.

As a result, all DC titles imported to the UK were sold marked with a 9d (9 pence) stamp on the cover in late 1959. This most likely manual pricing process only lasted a few months, and when Thorpe & Porter started to import Atlas/Marvel comic book titles the UK currency price was printed onto the cover.

So should those stamped comic books already be considered to be true pence price variants or were they simply US comic books defaced with a rather large stamp?

Opinions vary, but anecdotal examples from 2017 may be helpful in arriving at a consistent conclusion.

 


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

 
Forbidden Planet (which goes back to humble beginnings in 1978 on London's Denmark Street) is today, according to their own website, "the world’s largest and best-known science fiction, fantasy and cult entertainment retailer and the largest UK stockist of the latest comics and graphic novels". They also have a long standing reputation for putting their own price stickers on comic books.
 


 

Marvel Comics Digest #2, published in August 2017 by Archie Comics and reprinting stories from the 1960s through to the 2000s in the well-established and highly successful "Archie Digest" format is an example of this practice.

Bought at the FP London Megastore on Shaftesbury Avenue, the price sticker does fill the information gap for the potential buyer as to the UK price of this comic book (which only has its US price printed on its cover). The salesperson at the cash till won't need it, though, as the barcode will be scanned.

The sticker (impossible to remove without damaging the cover) also clearly states where the comic book was purchased - although there seem to be a few exceptions.

True Believers: Kirby 100th – Nick Fury #1, published in August 2017 along with a few other titles by Marvel in order to celebrate Kirby's 100th birthday anniversary, is such an oddity.

 

 
Reprinting material from Strange Tales #135 and #141, this particular copy (also bought at the London Megastore) carries an otherwise blank 90 pence price sticker - which also proved to actually not be the correct price at the cash till (it was 85p). Taken out of context, there is no way of knowing who applied the price sticker - so could either or both of these examples be considered a pence price variant in analogy to the 1959 stamped DC issues?
 
The FORBIDDENPLANET.COM price sticker has to be dismissed because apart from having been applied by a specific retailer (i.e. after the distribution process) is in fact often also applied to publications produced in the UK for the British market only.

One such example is the Marvel Pocketbook (vol. 2) from 2014 featuring Thor. Bought at the Croydon FP store, this sticker is actually completely unnecessary as the identical price (6.99) is printed on the back cover.

The blank price sticker on True Believers: Kirby 100th – Nick Fury #1 tells a similar story - it is ultimately only a copy marked by a specific retailer and not an actual systematic distribution variant. It really only appears fuzzy when the known context is not taken into account, as questions would then arise when and where the sticker was applied.

So clearly these two anecdotal 2017 examples are not pence price variants but rather comic books marked as having been sold by Forbidden Planet. But what kind of light does this shine on the Thorpe & Porter rubber stamped comic books from 1959?

 

 
McClure's by now standard definition of cover price variants (as quoted above) describes them as comic books "intended for foreign distribution" and "published simultaneously with standard or "regular" editions". The wording "published" leaves some room for interpretation and might also include post-printing copies marked up by a rubber stamp or a sticker. However, these price indications are always applied once a shipment of comic books has reached its foreign destination. Although the stamped prices on comic books imported to the UK by Thorpe & Porter (and a few others) were applied before the final distribution to the actual sales points (e.g. a newsagent), this process took place in the UK. In that sense, they were only one step ahead of the Forbidden Planet price stickers in the distribution chain.
 
 

Another important aspect is the lack of uniformity. A variant should be different from the regular edition, but all variants of one kind should be identical. This is not the case with any kind of price marking applied by hand. Stickers and rubber stamps might be (and indeed were) applied in slightly different ways, and some covers may even be left out (e.g. there was only one copy of True Believers: Kirby 100th – Nick Fury #1 which had a price sticker when I bought it). And then there are totally incoherent examples, such as a 6d stamp applied over a 9d printed price.

 
The specific purpose of producing a run of comic books for foreign distribution only materialized when the foreign currency price was actually printed onto the cover, during the actual manufacturing process in the US. From that point onwards, pence price variants truly start to exist - as a uniform variant edition.

The 2017 examples clearly are no pence price variants; at best they hark back at a variant form that once was. The 1959 issues stamped with a pence price are situated at the other end of the historical spectrum - they are forerunners, but not actual pence price variants.

 

uploaded 11 November 2017

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