As collectors, we often try to get our hands on comics that are rare. In recent years, Marvel newsstand editions have often sold for quadruple the price of their direct counterparts even though many are extremely common. Early direct editions are more scarce, so why don’t they garner the same attention or premiums? Part of the reason is the frequent heated debate and confusion regarding early direct market sales. Hopefully, I will be able to shed some light on an often overlooked and puzzling subject. Let’s take a look at what many call the “Whitman” variant.
The Dawn of the Direct Market
There is an overwhelming amount of misinformation about the start of Marvel’s direct market distribution. Keep in mind that forty years ago, way before the internet, comic book shops were still a relatively new thing. No one had any idea that they would turn out to be as popular as they are today and a lot of the information was lost. In order to understand these early days, we are forced to rely on anecdotes from sellers that were there at their advent.
It is often said that the Marvel direct market started in 1979. June 1979 is when Marvel took control over shipping to direct market retailers. They distinguished direct market copies from newsstand editions by placing a strike through the UPC. Later in the 80s, they would replace the UPC with an illustration such as Spider-Man’s head for direct editions. Newsstands from this era are the ones everyone is currently making a fuss over.
The direct market did not start in 1979 however, despite widespread belief. Some say that the direct market started as early as 1972, even if it only made up a small percentage of sales. Comic book shops had started springing up in urban centers such as New York City and Chicago. Direct and newsstand copies at this point were indistinguishable. That is, until February 1977, the dawn of the “Whitman” variant. From February 1977 to May 1979, Western Publishing and others began sporadically distributing bagged direct edition comics distinguishable from their newsstand counterparts. These direct editions made up 5% of the market or less. You may or may not have noticed that some of your comics from this period have diamond price tags on the cover as opposed to the typical rectangles. This is where things get a little sticky and disputed.
Newsstand vs Direct Edition
The difference between newsstand and direct edition comics was that direct editions were sold at a discount and non-returnable. Unsold newsstands could be sent back for refunds. Concerned about shops fraudulently returning unsold stock through newsstand vendors, Marvel began to distinguish between the two types of comics with subtle differences in their covers. Western publishing was the largest earlier adopter of the direct market and sold their direct issues to stores through Whitman multi-bags.
There is a lot of discussion about whether or not Whitman was the sole distributor of the direct market in the 1970s or merely the driving force behind it. Many argue that these comics should not be called “Whitmans” because there were other direct distributors. Either way, I am fine with calling the variants from this small window “Whitmans” as this was the nomenclature for decades. I have also seen the terms “No Month Variant”, “3 Pack Variant”, and “Fat Diamond Variant”.
What to Look For?
Spotting early, distinguishable direct market editions, or Whitmans, can be confusing as they were not always consistent in their variations. You can have the diamond price with a UPC or a diamond price with a blank UPC box. There are fat diamonds, skinny diamonds, and multi-color diamonds, depending on the issue.
Whitmans are often described as second printings even though they are first printings. This mistaken perception is a result of Whitmans typically being sold months after their direct counterparts, making them undesirable the same way newsstands were in the Copper Age. Bagged direct comics would often sit for months collecting damage, making them even rarer in high grade.
I want to note that Whitman also distributed direct edition comics for other companies. There are DC Whitmans, but since I’m not much of a DC guy, I decided to not touch on the subject. Also, Marvel direct editions June 1979 and later, while not Whitmans as they were distributed to market by Marvel, often featured the same diamonds on their covers and were also scarce.
A Smart Investment?
Currently, newsstand editions are all the rage. That’s despite there being hundreds of thousands of copies comprising 50% or more of the market- depending on the year. Whitmans, on the other hand, made up less than 5% of the market. They make up 1% or less of the listings for any given issue on eBay. On top of only making up less than 1% of available copies, even fewer are available in high grade. This is due to how they were treated and the damage often caused by the seams on poly-bags.
A search for Whitman variants will often show no listings or sales history at all. Simply put, 9.8 Whitmans are almost impossible to find. One theory I have wrestled with as to why these haven’t taken off is that being as they are so rare, it is hard for sellers to hoard them and manipulate the market. There isn’t enough money to be made promoting these on social media.
If Only I Could Tell the Future
Will Marvel Whitmans be the next big thing? It’s hard to say. I know that I personally enjoy hunting these down simply because of how extremely rare they are. First and foremost, I always recommend collecting what you like. I appreciate rare or unique comics regardless of their investment potential. That being said, in recent years, we have seen newsstand editions, Canadian price variants, and Mark Jeweler copies command record-breaking premiums. If you come across some Whitman variants, it definitely can’t hurt to grab a few on the cheap.
“Let us not be too particular; it is better to have old secondhand diamonds than none at all”- Mark Twain