Secret Stuff in Bar Codes, Part 3:
Publisher and Series…Sort of…

Wrapping up (for now) the subject of exactly what’s on the barcodes printed on comic books, we get to what should be the Holy Grail—the publisher and series—but what turns out in practice to be not nearly as useful as you’d think.

Let’s look at the taller bars on the left side of our barcode from the last tip:

Bookland Style EAN

This is a UPC-A format code, since there is one number at the far left (the 7), followed by a five digit group. On an EAN13 code, the only difference is that you’d see the number at left followed by a six digit group.

On UPC-A codes, the first digit represents the type of product being sold, with “0” and “7” being used for regular goods (as opposed to drugs, vegetables, coupons, etc.)

On EAN-13 codes, the first two digits signify the country or region the code was issued in. 0 through 13 are the U.S. and Canada, 45 is Japan, etc. For smaller countries, they sometimes make use of the third digit as well for the country: 479 is Sri Lanka, for instance.

The next five digits (“59606” in the example) are the manufacturer or publisher. “Aha!” you say, “That means 59606 is the code for Marvel! Indeed it is. And you’d think that’d be Really Useful Information. And it would be…if Marvel, DC, and countless others didn’t also have dozens of other codes. Given the long chain of companies, shell companies, groups, imprints, and other administrivia tied to corporate ownership, it’s possible that nobody knows the full story on which manufacturing codes belong to which comic companies.

The next five digits* in the code are the product number (or series). The company in question gets to set this in any manner they wish. So, if you’re DC comics (company code #61941), Action Comics is series 20001, Batman is series 20005, and Jonah Hex: Shadows West is series 21636. This also sounds Really Useful, and indeed it is—if you have the corresponding cross-reference of which series number corresponds to a particular series name. The only problem: nobody publishes that list. We had to essentially compile it ourselves in ComicBase by painstakingly collecting tens of thousands of barcodes.

Still, if you have such a list (as ComicBase does), it becomes possible to make a pretty good guess as to which issue a given barcode belongs to, even if you’ve never seen the comic in question. For instance, if ComicBase sees a barcode, say “76194121636200311”, it first sees if it has an exact match for that code on file. If it doesn’t, it could have still taken you to Jonah Hex: Shadows West based on the match of the first ten 11 digits. Based on the last five, and the general format of the code (see Friday’s Tech Tip), it would know with some confidence that this is the code for issue #003, regular (1) edition, and 1st (1) printing.