By Benjamin Nobel, January 10, 2016
In May of 1994, Image Comics published “Spawn-Batman #nn” (instead of being #1, the “nn” signifies no number — this is a “one-shot” comic).
An important comic featuring Frank Miller’s return to Batman (and, of course, art by the legendary Todd McFarlane, creator of Spawn), Spawn Batman is featured in the book DC Comics Year by Year: A Visual Chronicle by Daniel Wallace and Matthew Manning. That book states:
“This prestige one-shot marked Frank Miller’s return to Batman, and was labeled as a companion piece to his classic 1986 work Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. The issue was drawn by Todd McFarlane, one of the most popular artists in comic book history.”
If you have been looking to collect this comic, perhaps in the process you have come across different versions of it… specifically, a “Newsstand Edition” variant. There were two different versions printed, one was the “Direct Sales” / “Direct Edition” batch of copies and these had a rigid card stock cover; the other version was produced for the returnable newsstand channel (where unsold copies could be returned for a refund), and this second batch of copies were printed with a regular comic book paper stock cover — possibly as a cost-saving measure — and a yellow UPC code appears on the back (only copies with this UPC code were returnable for a refund — this differentiated them from the direct edition copies which were sold at a discount to comic shops but on a committed non-returnable basis).
Below is an example CGC label note for a Newsstand Edition copy, stating “UPC code on back cover and paper stock cover” in the label note at the right, and “Newsstand Edition” in the variant note at left. This variant note indicates that CGC treats such copies as a unique variant for labeling and census tracking purposes.
When collecting this Newsstand Edition version, be sure to note the yellow color of the UPC code on these copies — this is important to know because there are also copies out there with a white UPC code. Here’s the story on those: book stores, interestingly enough, did not receive copies out of the newsstand edition print run for this comic. (The reason I say “interestingly enough” is because in the later years of Marvel’s newsstand distribution just before it ended in 2013, book stores were the only place you could still find Marvel newsstand edition comic books; yet in this case with Image and Spawn Batman the book stores got copies out of the direct edition print run with the rigid card stock cover). The white UPC codes were not actually part of the paper itself; instead, the copies sent out to book stores got a white sticker which contained the UPC code and was affixed to the back cover. Below are examples of the three types of back covers you will find for Spawn Batman, starting with the regular Direct Edition (no bar code), then the Newsstand Edition (regular comic book paper stock cover and yellow background bar code), and finally the book store version which is just a Direct Edition copy with a white bar code sticker stuck onto the back:
If you were to turn in the three above example copies to CGC for grading, you would get labels similar to the following, shown below. The first label at the top is for a regular Direct Edition copy (no UPC code; manufactured with rigid card stock cover). The middle label is for a Newsstand Edition copy (yellow UPC code on back; manufactured with regular comic paper stock cover). The last label shows what happens when you submit a Direct Edition copy with a white bar code label affixed to it, purchased from a book store. The sticker causes CGC to give the book a “Qualified” grade and label, and the note reads “STICKER ATTACHED TO BACK COVER.”
So, although you will find three back cover versions of Spawn Batman out there, they really originate from just two different print runs, the card stock version print run (Direct Edition direct sold to comic shops and also those copies sold in book stores with the white bar code sticker slapped onto the back), and, the second print run which was the regular comic book paper cover version (Newsstand Edition). In the picture below, you will see the open front cover of a newsstand edition version; this picture would not be possible with a Direct Edition copy which is rigid and would crease if opened all the way.
So now that we have discussed the two different print runs, the manufacturing differences between them, and the variant treatment by CGC, which version should we want in our collections? As discussed in Comic Book Newsstand Editions: Understanding The Difference, the vast majority — 98-99% — of comic books sold by Image Comics were the direct edition copies. The remaining small fraction of 1-2% were newsstand copies, where unsold copies could be returned for a refund. For Spawn Batman, the fact that bookstores actually got their copies out of the Direct edition print run (with the white bar code stickers affixed), may actually point to a lower total newsstand distribution percentage for this particular comic.
Let’s turn to the CGC census data and take a look at the rarity difference in the numbers. As of this writing, 222 Direct Edition copies have been graded by CGC (14 of which are the Qualified label which are most likely the white sticker copies where the collector probably did not check the back cover before submitting). Meanwhile, only 12 Newsstand Edition copies have been graded.
If you ask me, the rarity difference makes it crystal clear: fewer Newsstand Edition copies were sold (by a dramatic degree), that rarity disparity shows up in the CGC census numbers, and therefore a collector should clearly want to own the Newsstand Edition as the more rare of the two. The rarity difference is magnified when moving up into the top grade tiers. Note that there are zero Newsstand Edition copies in 9.8, and zero in 9.6. With its black background cover and general treatment of newsstand copies, the top grade for this comic is 9.4 as of this writing. This makes sense, because newsstand readers in general actually read the copies they purchased, whereas a comic shop customer was likely to collect the copies they purchased and keep them in pristine condition. Furthermore, the staff of newsstands were not trained to handle comics with care, and newsstand comic books were likely to sustain damage the moment they hit the wire rack.
The theme of this blog is rare Spawn comics that can be found in high grade with a $25 budget. However, if you search eBay today for “Spawn Batman Newsstand” you will find a VF copy asking $75… that’s triple the budget. Can a collector really obtain a newsstand copy of Spawn Batman with that $25 budget? The answer is yes, but with a caveat. Because the UPC code is on the back cover, hidden by the typical cardboard backer, the Newsstand Edition difference is practically unknown to collectors today and this means it is practically unknown to most sellers when they list theirs for sale (our $75 eBay seller excepted).
In fact, you will find that the vast majority of copies of Spawn Batman listed on eBay today do not even have a picture of the back cover included, because nobody knows that the back cover carries any importance! But of course, it does… because it is the only way to know from a photograph whether you are looking at a Direct Edition or a Newsstand Edition copy… but if you know that fact, you can use it to your advantage when hunting your copy down. Before, I had answered “yes, but with a caveat” and that’s where my caveat comes in: I am certain you can find this comic with a $25 budget (because I did), but you will have to do a lot of work. Specifically, the work involved is this: you will have to go through listings and contact about 100 sellers to ask them for a picture of the back cover. But statistically, for every 100 you ask, you will find 1 newsstand copy in that haystack. And if your luck matches mine, that newsstand copy will be available to you for purchase at direct edition prices because the seller doesn’t know the difference. Happy Collecting!