They almost killed the industry, so why do comics publishers keep producing them?
Variant covers for comic book issues have been a staple of the industry for some time now. The first comic book to have a variant cover was 1986’s The Man of Steel #1. While there were technically variants before this, they were all due to small differences such as distributor logo. Man of Steel #1 was the first “true” variant; an alternative cover with new artwork that fans could buy along with a copy of the regular issue.
Variants played something of a not insubstantial role in the comic book crash of the 1990’s.
To give a brief history of the crash, people suddenly got the idea that buying a comic and holding on to it for 10, 20, or 50 years would eventually put their kids through university or pay off their house. Big firms such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times wrote articles about the possible future value of these once unpalatable items and so people started buying comics by the armful.
The Story of The Great Comic Book Cras
Every industry, particularly in entertainment, goes through its ups and downs. Motion pictures faced a slump when…
Due to the surge in demand for comic books, particularly rarer issues, publishers began to create more and more “special” editions of their product. Not only did these include covers with varying artwork, but also “enchanted” editions such as holofoil covers and polybaged issues. Spider-Man #1, the first issue of the adjective-less series drawn by the hottest artist of the 90’s, Todd McFarlain, had 13 variant covers alone.
However, the people buying all these comics were speculators, not collectors. They were buying with the hope that these comics would be worth thousands in the future, they weren’t buying because they had a love for the medium.
Eventually, the speculators caught on that all these comics probably weren’t worth anything and stopped buying. Of course publishers were still producing all these thousands of copies thinking they would sell…but they weren’t. The speculator bubble burst and it almost took the whole comics industry with it. Comic stores closed, Marvel almost went bankrupt and many publishers saw their revenue drop from $900US million to $300US million by the end of the 90's.
Given the part that variant covers, particularly those issues that had copious amounts of them, played in the near downfall of the comic book industry, you’d think that publishers would approach any future ventures into such area with cautious trepidation. However, you would, of course, be wrong.
Big releases, generally first issues or the start of an important story arc, often receive 10, 15, sometimes 20 or more, variant covers. When Marvel released Doctor Strange #1 in 2015, the first issue in the good Doctor’s 4th volume received no fewer than fifteen variant covers. When DC relaunched Batman as part of the DC Universe Rebirth initiative in 2016 the first issue received 43 variant covers.
Why then would comics publishers continue a practice that can be argued to have had a considerable role in their near downfall? As with most things, the easiest answer is “money.”
During the 90’s boom which lead to the subsequent crash, publishers produced more variants because lots of people kept buying them. Things blew up when those people stopped buying. Now, that group of speculators has been replaced by collectors. The collector market is a reliable one. They put money aside for the product comics publishers create and they — generally — get excited over supplementary product. Anything that is in some way “special” they feel they need to have for their collection, even if it’s as simple as different art on a book’s cover.
There is a lot of psychology behind why collectors collect which I won’t go into, but basically we’re suckers for anything new, shiny and cool. And publishers know it!
Some comic fans feel publishers are preying on the anal-retentiveness of collectors with variant covers — and there is probably a lot of truth in that — but if you’re able to look at these things with a non-cynical eye it can be argued that variant covers give consumers choice.
A good example of this would be Moonstone Books The Phantom: Ghost Who Walks #1 which had three variant covers. I chose to buy the Sy Barry cover as he is my favourite Phantom artist. The other covers weren’t bad, but I had the choice of several, all at the same price, so why not pick up the one by the artist I like most?
Variant covers can also help raise awareness of an issue. Often publishers will produce a variant cover that is exclusive to a convention or similar event so that those in attendance are made more keenly aware of the book and/or series and it will be reported by the wider comics press.
Variants are also a safe way for trying out various things which may not work well as a regular cover. An example of this is the sketch variant. Comic publishers know that the great majority of comic fans appreciate the creative process of comics just as much as the final product, thus on occasion a variant will be released showing the pencil work of a series’ artist, free from inks or colours.
Perhaps having learned from the the 90’s, publishers do actually produce some variants on a rarity scale. For example, retailer incentive variants are variants which are only sent to a retailer if they order a specific number of the regular issue. This makes variant covers even more collectable and some sell for amazing prices on the secondary market.
Of course the necessity of collecting variants is up to the individual. On one hand you could argue it’s somewhat pointless having several copies of the same issue, albeit with a different cover. After all, the art can always be found online and is re-printed in trade collections for the most part. Then again, the variants can be said to be part of the overall series and thus a collection would not be complete without them.
For my own collecting, I took the stance of “if it’s cool.” If a variant was released for an issue of a series I read that I particularly liked I’d try and get a copy. Otherwise, I was always fairly content with whichever cover I get. (Since moving to the UK I’ve been buying my comics as trade collections so variants aren’t really an issue for me anymore.) However, there was one big exception.
In 2007 I rediscovered Archie Comics’ Sonic the Hedgehog series with issue #173 and, thanks to the amazing writing of Ian Flynn, fell in love with both Sonic (again) and the series. In 2011, the 225th issue of Sonic was released and Archie celebrated by releasing a special pencil sketch variant, the first for the series. It was a wonderful issue and I decided that I was going to go back and collect the entirety of Ian Flynn’s run on the series — which had started with #97- including variants. This was not all though, as Archie was also releasing Sonic Universe (2009) and (in 2014) Sonic Boom, both written by Flynn. I’d get all the variants for those series as well. Oh, and the Worlds Collide/ Worlds Unite crossover with Mega Man? Yeah, may as well pick those variants up while I’m at it. It meant buying at least two copies of each issue in the series, sometimes more. All told, for those two crossovers I bought 24 variant cover issues.
So maybe publishers are taking advantage of collectors.
This is something that has been commented on by comics professionals and fair regularly in the comics press. It seems publishers are relying on variants to sell their issues, rather than the actual content of said issues. An example of a publisher hoping variants will entice collectors to purchase multiple copies of issues and thus artificially increase sales numbers is the recent announcement that Marvel will be producing Alien variants for many of their top series. There is no “Marvel heroes verses Xenomorph” stories within the comics, it’s literally just the cover. It’s a move that is aimed squarely at the collector, and not just comics collectors. If Marvel can pull in a few outside Alien fans as well, all the better. But the problem is it’ll work for those issues but most likely won’t result in any new long time readers.
The question remains; are variant covers a good thing? Well, like all things I feel that in moderation, yes. Celebrating a key issue, be it the first of a series, a landmark issue like #50 or #100, or the culmination of a long storyline with a variant cover or two I feel is justified. However, I also feel that no single issue should have more than three covers (so the regular cover and two variants) and that any variant should be the same cost as the regular covered issue. This way there is no oversaturation, collectors still can get some cool alternative art that won’t cost them a fortune, and regular readers have a choice.
While variant covers will most likely never disappear, I for one hope that the comics industry as a whole stops the ridiculous oversaturation that it is currently seeing (well, before COVID anyway). One would think the industry would have learnt from the crash of the 90’s, but at the moment it looks as if it is destined to repeat those mistakes.
This article was originally written in 2018 for Gemr.com (no longer online). Here it has been updated and extended.