When talking about the comics I owned in my youth, I often make reference to “mystery packs.” I’m certain I’ve explained what I’m talking about elsewhere, but the other day I decided that I should make a post here that I can refer to whenever I mention a mystery pack.

So…what am I talking about? What is the mystery of the mystery pack?

Before the creation of the direct market and the proliferation of specialty shops, comics were a lot more widely available, showing up on shelves – or spinner racks – at newsstands and places like grocery stores, gas stations, and convenience stores.

One other major difference between then and now is that unsold comics could be returned for a refund. (Damaged comics could also be returned, but unlike unsold comics, that remains the case today.) The thing is the whole comic didn’t need to be returned, just enough of the cover to identify the comic. Specifically, the title, issue number, and cover date.

Comics typically had a cover date that was one to three months ahead of the month they were released, so an issue of, say, Superman, released in July would have a cover date of October. The cover date indicated how long a comic could sit around unsold before it was eligible to be returned for a refund.

This is where mystery packs come in. There is, however, a lot more involved than what I’m going to lay out, particularly with regards to how long a given store was going to keep unsold comics around taking up space that could devoted to periodicals that presented a greater value proposition and profit margin. Indeed, the spinner rack that is so beloved by comic fans of a certain age came about as an effort to get comics out of the way.

In any case, here is the typical scenario, as I understand it. A comic languishes unsold on a shelf past its cover date or is damaged when the person stocking the shelves cuts open the packaging. It has to be returned for a refund.

Again, the whole thing doesn’t need to be returned, just a portion of the cover. As for the rest of the comic, the seller is supposed to destroy it/throw it away. Except…well, setting aside the missing portion of the cover, or the sliced pages underneath from when the section of the cover was removed, this is a perfectly readable comic. Hell, lots of comics end up looking just as bad – or worse – as the result of being carried home from the store by the kids who plunked down their allowances to buy them.

“Seems a shame to just toss it in the trash,” thinks some intrepid soul.

This amazing cover by Robert Hack simulates the look of a comic that had the top portion removed for a refund return.

Thus, mystery packs.

Basically, someone goes around to the various sellers of comics and purchases the comics that will otherwise be thrown away for a few pennies, which works out well for the original seller. After all, they got their money back from the return, and they’re making a few cents profit, which is likely more than they would have made if they’d actually sold the comics.

The buyer then bundles a few of them together at random, seals them in opaque plastic bags, and then turns around and sells those mystery packs back to stores. In particular, to small, mom-and-pop stores that likely don’t sell new comics.

(This sort of thing also happened with other magazines – particularly of the adult variety – and even paperback books.)

The mystery packs, which, as I recall, typically contained three comics, were sold at a price that was less than the price of a single new comic. I mostly remember them being 49 cents, at a time when new comics cost 60 cents.

They even sold digest comics that way, though I think those were only two per pack, and I don’t remember how much they cost.

For a significant portion of my early comic-book reading, that was almost exclusively how I got comics. It was unusual for me to get new comics fresh off the rack until I got a bit older. (And even then, for a long time my mom preferred that I get digests, since they were a better value, even though they were more expensive than regular comics.)

“100 pages for 95 cents? Sold!” – My mom, probably
Maybe I’ll also write a post about digests someday.

In particular, I got a lot of mystery packs from the local mom-and-pop store where I lived, as mystery packs were the only comics they sold.

In case it isn’t clear, I call them “mystery packs” because, well, the packs weren’t clear. You couldn’t see through the bag to see what was inside, and even if you could, the cover might be missing entirely – indeed, even the first few pages might be gone – so you wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell what comic it was.

Sometimes you could kind of twist and turn it and look down through the top of the bag and make out at least one of the comics in there, but in general, it was a total crapshoot.

Until you ripped the bag open, you never really knew for sure what you were getting. It might be some really terrible comic, or it might be something you already had – sometimes it could be something that you’d gotten multiple times in multiple different mystery packs – and sometimes the damage would be so severe as to render the comic unreadable.

But other times you’d strike gold. You might even get a Dollar Comic, like Superman Family! Maybe even two! And at a price that you just couldn’t beat.

Sometimes, for some reason, there would even be comics that weren’t damaged at all. Comics with honest-to-God intact covers.

Overall, it was a worthwhile gamble.

There were other types of bundled comics as well, though those weren’t sold under dodgy circumstances, and were generally undamaged comics that sold for a reduced price but weren’t quite as dirt cheap as the mystery packs. I picked up some of those from time-to-time as well, but not nearly so often as I did the mystery packs, and so they don’t loom as largely in my nostalgic reminiscences.

So that’s the sort of thing I’m talking about whenever I say something like, “I got a coverless copy of that in a mystery pack.”

Again, this is all based on my understanding of how it worked, and I could be wrong about it in general and in the specifics of how many comics were in a pack and how much they cost, but I’m just going by what I’ve gleaned, and what I remember.

The point is a lot of the comics I had when I was young came to me with damaged or missing covers in bags that contained more than one for a low-low price, and you now have at least some idea of what I’m talking about when I bring them up.

Which I do often.

Born and raised in the sparsely populated Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Jon Maki developed an enduring love for comics at an early age.

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