Sellouts in the comic book industry...historically...had always been fairly rare. In the decades prior to the the 1990s, there were very few sellouts in comics. Because of the method of comics manufacture and distribution, in which publishers would print far in excess of what they needed to sell, and vendors could return the unsold copies for credit, you almost never had sellouts. This was especially true after World War 2. You had books like Superman #1 and #2 (1939) and Marvel Comics #1 that were demand reprinted....but after that, not many, as publishers followed the newsstand model: print far in excess of what might actually sell, since printing past a certain number meant per copy costs went way, way down.
After the introduction of superheroes, then, in the late 30s, there weren't very many sellouts. Essentially, you had Conan #1, Amazing Spiderman #121-122, and then Star Wars. Star Wars took everyone by surprise, and was such a monster hit, Marvel didn't really know what to do...as evidenced by the haphazard markings on many of the reprints. Is it on the cover, is it in the indicia, is it a square price box, is it a diamond price box, which is it?
After Star Wars #1-6 were reprinted out the wazoo, things quieted down a bit. While Marvel started a reprint program of bagged comics in the 80s, these were not related to sellout demand, and were usually printed months, and often years, after the original books came out, and usually focused on licensed or tie-in properties, like GI Joe, Thundercats, Secret Wars, and the like.
In the 80s, we'd essentially see a handful of instant sellouts: Thor #337, ASM #252, Batman #428...plus the prestige format books and graphic novels, which don't *really* count in this discussion, as they were produced under different rules and circumstances. For the purposes of the discussion, we're talking about plain ol', standard format comics.
At the time, Marvel seemed to have forgotten what they did with Star Wars, and they didn't reprint either Thor #337 and ASM #252...a move they probably regretted. The 'Nam #1 was an oddball, in that it sold well enough in 1987 to prompt an immediate second printing..the first since 1977, by the way...it was the only standard Marvel comic book reprinted (in the same format) in the 80s based on demand from a sellout, and that second printing wasn't identified in any way on the cover. More on that in a minute.
Batman #428 was another monster hit, with everyone wanting to know the results of the infamous phone call, and the TPB reprinting all four issues of Death in the Family was announced before #429 even hit the stands, and was published shortly thereafter.
Interestingly enough, DC would strike twice with Batman in a very short amount of time, resulting in their next sellout issue, Batman #436, the first part of the four part "Year Three" storyline. Instead of waiting, however, to issue a trade paperback, they did what they hadn't done since perhaps 1939: they immediately reprinted the book in the same format. While the book does say "second printing" in the indicia, the only indication of its status on the cover is a green, rather than blue, DC "bullet" in the upper left hand corner.
In any event, as we move into the 90s, with a dying (but NOT DEAD YET!) newsstand, publishers started to trim the fat, as it were, and didn't print to excess as much as they had in the past. With the success of the Direct market, publishers didn't have to print as many excess copies; they could print much closer to order than before. As a result, you start to see books like Ghost Rider and New Warriors and yes, even Spiderman, selling out. This was essentially uncharted water for the comic book companies, so they did what they thought they should, and reprinted the books. Ghost Rider #1 was second printed without much fanfare, and very little in the way of identification, aside from a Ghost Rider skull in the UPC box, instead of the original Spidey head.
Spiderman #1, however, was an interesting case. Even though it had record orders, it apparently still sold well enough to prompt Marvel to make a second printing, and this they did, with the novel idea (at the time) of changing the metallic ink on the cover from silver, as on the first printing, to gold, thereby making a striking change to the book that sent everyone scrambling to make sure they had "the complete set." Marvel continued to repeat this procedure, mostly in gold, sometimes in silver, for their reprints throughout the first 1/2 of the 90s.
DC had a similar reprint program for their best selling books, reprinting recent issues and bundling them in 2- and 3-pack carded sets. These, as with Marvel, had only minor changes to the cover to note their reprint status. After Batman #436, DC didn't have another sellout until Batman #457 and Superman #50, which, oddly enough, both came out on the same day in October of 1990. Both were instant hits, and instant sellouts, so much so that it inspired DC to go back to press and issue second printings for both of them.
DC's method of identifying reprints at this point, however, was much more subdued than Marvel's: they added an additional blurb at the top of the cover, but were otherwise indistinguishable from the first printings.
Collectors quickly learned to avoid the "HISTORIC ENGAGEMENT ISSUE!" and "NEW ROBIN ISSUE!" as "worthless" second printings...as, indeed, prior to the 00s, reprints were avoided like the plague by the entire collecting community; to be shunned and discarded, or perhaps donated to a local Goodwill or a younger sibling as the trash it was.
As luck would have it, the very next month, DC published the first issue of Robin's solo mini-series...the first such series in the character's 50 year history...and it, too, was an instant sellout. This time, however, they not only changed the cover blurb, they put a stately Roman numeral "II", in Times New Roman font, to identify them as second printings (perhaps because of backlash from customers who didn't know they were buying second printings of Superman #50 and Batman #457.)
Robin #1 was such a hit, it even went to a third printing, with the addition of a Roman numeral "III" and the changing of the starburst near the comics code seal from white to black.
So what does any of this have to do with the newsstand? Well, the newsstand was different from the Direct market in a number of crucial ways. One of them was that individual newsstands had absolutely no mechanism by which to order books. None. They simply "got what they got", with distribution generally determined by the local or regional magazine distributor that serviced them. This would include, by the way, not only the traditional sidewalk news vendors, but also the expanding book market, like Waldenbooks, Borders, Barnes & Noble, and the like.
So, while the Direct market could (and did) order these new second printings in whatever quantity they wanted, the newsstand market had no way to do so.
The leading theory is that someone at Wal-Mart, noticing the tremendous sales of Spiderman #1 in June of 1990, contacted someone Marvel circulation and said "we need more!" Marvel, which obviously could not send Direct copies through the newsstand distribution system, decided to call up the printer (in this case, Ronalds, a division of Quebecor in Montreal), and ordered what seems to be 10,000 or so copies of the gold second print of Spiderman #1...but with a UPC code, so they could be sold through the newsstand system.
And the rest...at least for Spiderman #1....is history. These were noticed fairly quickly by the collecting public, and scooped up and saved in droves. After all...these are books that theoretically should not even exist...again, there was no mechanism by which, through the normal course of things, anyone in the newsstand distribution system could order these. But, because someone asked to have these specially made...and again, the leading theory is Walmart, since that's where most of these were found...a book that should not exist came into being.
And you'd think that would be the only time that special exception would happen. But, a scant six months later, lightning struck again, and Bats #457 and Superman #50 also became instant sellouts, and were reprinted. And just as before, someone, somewhere, this time notified DC that they had to provide additional copies for these sold out books. And so, DC sent the books back to the presses, not just for second printings of the Direct version, but second printings of the newsstand version...again, totally unprecedented in all of comics history.
Keep in mind that these books should not exist. They could not be ordered through routine ordering; there was no mechanism by which to do so, and they only exist because someone, somewhere, decided they could use more copies for the newsstand distribution system and contacted the publishers directly to make them happen.
As luck would have it, the next month, Robin #1 would continue the streak, and also be an instant hit and sellout, and the process was repeated. The format would be repeated as with Batman #457 and Superman #50, and the Roman numeral "II" would be left off the cover.
But, this time, unlike with Spiderman #1, nobody noticed that Batman #457, Superman #50, or Robin #1 had these second print newsstand versions, or didn't care if they did notice. The mercurial nature of the comics market being what it is, and since there was no way to chronicle these things easily pre-internet, the first printings had shot up in value, then fallen back to earth just as quickly, so that by the time these second printing newsstands actually showed up, demand had evaporated, and they quietly slipped into the channels of commerce, unheralded by all. The vast majority of them would have, almost certainly, remained unsold and "returned for credit" (aka destroyed) at the end of whatever sales period to which they belonged.
And, because of the stigma against reprints, already strongly emblazoned on the hearts and minds of collectors everywhere, it's unlikely that, even if they were known, there would have been a rush to find them, as there was with Spiderman #1. They weren't dynamic enough, they weren't different enough and...after all..they were "second printings! GROSS!" There were no throngs of collectors rushing out to save them; it's likely that not a single collector even knew they existed to be saved. Those that survived, then, did so by pure chance, bought by readers who wanted a copy, and happened to be where they were, at the right time and place, and then happened to save them. And that's where they remained, unknown to anyone.
Then, somewhere in the mid 00s, the existence of the Batman #457 was discovered, and, without much fanfare or notice about how rare it might possibly be, it hung on the fringes of the collecting world for several more years, too scarce for any sort of realistic market price to be established, or to inspire others to search for them. It had turned out, in the ensuing years, that publishers could do interesting things with second (and third and later) printings, and some later printings were, in fact, worth more than the first printings! What an amazing turnaround! No longer were reprints shunned and discarded; now they were avidly sought by collectors, precisely because they had been so shunned and discarded by previous generations of collectors! And so, slowly but surely, on this site and others, more and more copies were documented, a few high dollar sales occurred, and by 2016, the book had achieved fairly widespread popularity.
But what of Superman #50 and Robin #1? No one had noted them, or even theorized as to their existence. One morning, in late 2016, I was sitting at the computer, pondering the unlikely existence of such books like Spiderman #1 gold UPC and Batman #457, when it hit me like a freight train: Superman #50 came out the same day as Batman #457, and had a second printing just like it...so there was a chance, at least, that a UPC second printing of that book could exist, too! So, my search began. While Batman had always been a popular character, Superman struggled to do so in the 90s and beyond. Batman #457 would be a much likelier candidate for discovery, and, in fact, that is what happened. Superman #50? A bygone book in a time that had moved on. Superman hadn't even maintained the numbering that Batman had, so it was much less likely for people to be looking for it.
So, I looked and looked, and one day, while perusing eBay, I found a copy, hidden amongst a lot of other books. I couldn't believe my luck! I crossed my fingers, bought the book, and waited for it to arrive. I was sure it would be a regular second printing, but lo and behold, what showed up was an honest to God second printing UPC! So, I did quite a bit of research, to see if anyone had mentioned it anywhere, on any website, or in any publication, and...nothing, nada, zilch. I had made a new discovery, unknown to the collecting world, 26 years after the book was published! I did a short writeup for "The Comic Book Forum", and that was when the information became public.
BUT...the search wasn't over. Because, of course, I also remembered that Robin #1 ALSO had a second printing, and a third, so it followed that it had to be out there, too. And, as it turns out, of the three, Robin #1 looks to be the most common. I published that additional information, and the comics world took notice...now there are several eBay listings for Robin #1 second newsstand, and, as of this writing, even a listing for the third or fourth known copy of Superman #50!
Are there more...? Well, as it turns out, just about two years later, DC would have an even more monstrous hit with the "Death" of Superman in issue #75. That book sold an estimated 4+ million copies, and the demand was so intense, DC immediately printed up an additional 3 printings. But, more astonishing, they'd apparently forgotten what they'd done with the newsstand two years prior, and printed up special UPC stickers and stuck them to the covers of regular 2nd printing Direct copies. Well, they fixed that, and there are printed copies of the 3rd and 4th in newsstand versions.
Any after that? Who knows. There are some good suspects, but nothing's panned out so far. Some of these books...like Ghost Rider #5 and X-Men #270 and the like...can't possibly have UPC versions hiding out there, or someone would have discovered them long ago, as they did with Spiderman #1. And at least one, X-Factor #71, was second printed with a UPC already, even though it never went to the newsstand, and there is no "Direct" version.
So, of the known newsstand later printings, we have:
Spiderman #1 (gold UPC)
Superman #75 3rd
Superman #75 4th
And that's it. Just a small collection of 6 books, that, due to time and circumstance, managed to survive despite the odds. Are there more? Time will tell. Are there examples from other publishers? As of yet, no one knows. There are similar versions of these books from the New 52 ( @Cpt Kirk can fill you in on those), but they're not quite the same, in my mind, as these books that were made in just a small window in the early 90s.
They are interesting little artifacts, these comics that shouldn't exist at all. And it's amazing that they were discovered, long after the era of the internet, quietly hiding in tiny numbers throughout the land. It's amazing they survived at all. By rights, they could all have been destroyed, and no one would have ever known they existed. It remains endlessly fascinating that such things exist, waiting to be discovered, in an era of massive overproduction and glut. If these can be discovered, decades after they were made, then there's no reason there aren't others out there.
I guess we'll see!