A short history of ballast comics

Comic distribution is now in the hands of Diamond Comic Distribution for a large chunk of comics, though other methods are available thanks to publishers like Self Made Hero. You want a comic or trade or graphic novel it’s pretty easy to get what you want these days, and unlike when I was young, a bloody chore. In the UK prior to the mid-80’s, you’d need to rely mainly on comics shipped via sea- freight meant for the UK market, so this is why older Marvel and DC comics have Shillings or Pence costs on the cover rather than Cents.

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British price variants made up around 5% of the total print run, which back in the day of 100k print runs, meant a decent amount of copies made their way to the UK market. There’s a good article here explaining the differences, and it’ll also explain why Cents copies of older comics are worth vastly more than their Pence variants. These copies were distributed to newsagents, so your local corner shop would have the same issues as larger shops like W.H. Smiths or John Menzies.

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There’s an entire blog to be written about the issues that system had, but this is about what still think an urban legend today, which is ballast comics.

Ships have to have ballast, and pre WW2 some of the cheapest, most disposable forms of ballasts were comics, so the first American comics brought to the UK came over in the bellies of ships. The ones not thrown overboard of course, the rest would drip into the UK, but of course by later in the war tens of thousands of American comics were coming into the UK thanks to American troops but these books were still used as ballast. In fact the late artist Jim Baikie first saw comic books in pages which would wash up on the shores near where he lived.

In the post-war years, comics would still come over this way, even when Marvel, then DC, were being distributed across the UK but again, these were Cents copies that entered the UK market.

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You’d also have comics coming over which weren’t officially distributed in the UK, which were of course, nuggets of gold as official distribution of American comics meant you’d be able to get Avengers one month, but not the next and in those days that meant relying upon dealers or fans going to America buying a load though by the start of the 80’s the likes of Titan had sprung up in the UK shipping in American newsstand comics.

So to explain what actually happened with this unofficial supply of comics. Ships would load on ballast with comics being one of the cheapest options as back in the day you’d have print runs of hundreds of thousands, so when newsstands returned unsold copies in the US, they’d be used by ships because they were so disposable. These copies would get to the UK and if not flushed into the Atlantic, they’d be kept on or dumped portside and this is where for us it gets interesting.

If you lived in a big port city (which I did having grown up in Glasgow) you’d find piles of comics, sometimes slightly water damaged, in markets or newsstands. I remember one stall in the old Barras market, plus one in St. Enoch’s Square where I’d go down and pick up imports such as Amazing Spider-Man #129.

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Sure, there’d be a bit of warping but you’d get comics now that’d you’d have to wait years for the UK reprint, plus there’d often be loads (one stall used to literally have 50-60 of each issue they had) of them so I do remember having multiple copies of what became key issues. ASM #129, for example, I had enough copies to keep me financially ok for a long time into the 90s whenever I needed an extra influx of money. My only wish is I’d kept some of those today! However people would go along dockyards buying pallets of comics to keep themselves going, and this wasn’t just Glasgow but in other port cities like Bristol and London. The further away from one of these cities, the less likely it seems you were in coming across such copies.

When I got older in the 1980s and started working in comic shops, these ballast copies starting drying up as seafreight became less used to get comics to the UK. Every now and then you’d hear of someone coming across a box or two. When I was working in Bristol and the waterfront there was being redeveloped the dream was to find a stash of Golden Age, and every now and then you would find small piles of them. A shop in London in the early 1990’s did manage to get lucky with a load which was brought into them, but once the UK’s big port cities saw their docks redeveloped into expensive flats the chances of finding these batches of comics died.

At the same time, American comics were now being airfreighted into the UK via Titan and Neptune distributors, while seafreight comics were still something shops could order, customers didn’t want to wait three to four months for the latest issues to arrive, so they were meant mainly for newsagents until that stopped in the 90s. Again, more on this another time.

These days everyone and their dog knows comics are worth money, so I never expect any collection or stash like this to turn up ever, ever again so anyone younger than 45 isn’t really going to know what it’s like to find a pile of comics on a table and find a literal goldmine. I miss picking up those slightly warped gems that’d fill holes in collections while at the same time stashing a few aside for a rainy day but the industry moved on, and now we get comics within 24 hours of our American cousins, something we could only dream of back in the olden days.

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