A post from my defunct Marvel blog about the 3-Bags that used to be sold in supermarkets and department stores.
It’s time for one of those periodic history lessons that makes me feel old.
Way back when I started reading the books in the ’70s, comic book stores were few and far-between. If you were on the hunt for older issues of any vintage, you would either hit up garage sales and flea markets, or wait for the yearly collectibles fair to come to the local mall.
What we did have, though, was the 3-Bag.
Pioneered in the very early ’60s, the 3-Bag was a fixture of toy stores and department stores up through the ’80s. These were, as described, a plastic bag containing three semi-recent books (typically about nine months old) at the bargain price of a penny less than you’d pay for them separately.
The 3-Bag was one of the ways that companies tried to crack additional markets in those days. The bags protected the merchandise, allowing them to remain on sale longer, and the higher aggregate price made them more worth the real estate on the showroom floor. These things used to be everywhere. There were even periods during the late ’60s when there were big old vending machines dedicated to the things.
The downside, of course, is that you often had to buy issues you didn’t really want in order to get the ones you did. And the publishers became savvy to this conundrum fairly rapidly–the center book, which couldn’t easily be seen while the pack was still unopened was very often a dog, a reprint title or a western or something. And, of course, the less scrupulous readers would tear the bags open to get at the one book they wanted, and then count on the cashier not knowing that the issues weren’t meant to be sold individually (or, more criminally, sneak the individual book out of the store under a shirt or in a back pocket or something.)
Eventually, as sales on these packs dwindled, the publishers became savvier still, grouping a number of issues of a given title in a single bag, rather than grouping them by print date. The most ubiquitous Marvel 3-Bags were the ones devoted to the earliest issues of the STAR WARS comic, which adapted the first movie. The entire adaptation could be collected in two 3-Bags, and they stayed on sale for what seemed at the time to be years.
I’m pretty sure, too, that the 3-Bags are the source of some of the strange price variants that have turned up on the back issue market–issues for which the typical price was 30 cents, but which also exist as a 35 cent variant. Because the 3-Bags were distributed later, every time there was a price increase on the new books, that price increase extended over to the titles then being bagged, even though they’d been on sale a few months earlier at the lesser price.