Comic Variant Covers: A Brief Guide
So you’re browsing Twitter or your favorite artist’s Tumblr, and suddenly you come across cover artwork that is breathtaking. But somehow, three months later, this comic is no where to be seen on the shelf. Did it sell out before you got to your local comic shop? Did your store get a sub-standard cover while the rest of the world is enjoying that wall-worthy artwork? These are unlikely explanations; those covers were just limited edition, and you’re out of luck. Try eBay?
Variant cover artwork has grabbed a lot of headlines lately, but many readers might not be familiar with the popular practice. Variants are often produced in limited quantity by publishers, and many cannot be ordered by comic shops without meeting a minimum order. Ordering all (or any) variants is a difficult task even for large retailers. Many comic shops that order variants may also take advantage of their rarity by selling them for more than cover price, even going so far as to bypass the shelf altogether and put them in their online stores first. This is a controversial practice, but it is no different than a speculator buying them for cover price then selling them online for more based on demand. It’s every retailer’s right to decide how to sell “retailer incentive” covers (as variants are also called), and not ordering them at all is also an option.
Every major publisher offers variant covers, some more frequently than others, and there are many different kinds of variants. There are variants that are released as regular covers that can be lettered such as covers a, b, and c. Dynamite likes this method, so that is why you may see eight different versions of Red Sonja #1 on the shelf. Sometimes variants are printed in equal quantity giving them equal collectible value. If there are only two different covers for an issue, they may be released as a 50/50 split. This is a common practice for Dark Horse titles like Buffy. When a book sells out and needs to be reprinted, there can be a “second printing variant” as well, which is often similar to the original cover but different enough to appeal to readers that may have already picked it up. The more obscure 1/100 or 1/50 variants are most likely to be produced by Marvel and DC. If you ask a retailer why they don’t have a specific variant, you could get a lengthy explanation which may sound similar to a sweepstakes rules and regulations: “Well, we didn’t order a certain number of at least 20 ongoing titles from this publisher, so we were not eligible to order that variant. But since we met the minimum order for this OTHER title, we got the less rare variant you probably aren’t looking for.”
Your brain may be tired at this point (mine is). But what about the beautiful, must-have artwork I saw online months ago, you may be asking? Why didn’t they just use that as the “main” cover? Because publishers want you to want that variant more than the regular cover. This is how we end up with an entire month of DC bombshell variants, or Skottie Young covers of every other new title from Marvel. They know you want those and they’re hoping you’ll either increase demand for that title, buy all of the covers, and in general be more excited than usual about that title. Variants: gotta catch ’em all!
Another trend for variant covers is as a vehicle for publishers to takes more risks with their artwork. This could mean featuring an unknown artist, or going for more stylized artwork that might not appeal to mainstream audiences. This also includes covers that appeal to an audience looking exclusively for pin-up artwork. The recent ill-received Milo Manara Spider-Woman cover proves that it is difficult for publishers to have their cake and eat it, too. Even a sexy pin-up variant represents the book whether it is the “main” cover or not, and offering variants that appeal to different audiences can send a mixed message.
So what’s a reader to do when their favorite artist creates a variant? Talking to your local comic shop about whether they carry them is a good place to start. Many stores forgo variants for what they represent. Not only are they a pain to order, but their existence creates inflated sales numbers for the titles. Many retailers know there is a collector’s market willing to pay dearly for the rare ones. So if that means buying an extra 30 copies that will just sit on the shelf in order to be eligible to sell the rare variants for upwards of $100, it makes financial sense but does not reflect the actual demand for that title. Many creators are also reluctant to offer variant covers of their titles for creative reasons. Brian K. Vaughn recently proposed the idea of doing a variant for an upcoming issue of Saga, but decided against it, saying he’d rather Fiona Staples be the only artist to create cover art for the entire series. Many longtime fans recall the not-too-distance past when “rare collector’s item” die-cut, holographic covers of the 90’s became so common practice that they contributed to the creation of a grossly inflated market that nearly crashed the whole industry. The speculator market is much smaller than it was back then, but collectors still play a role in what your shop orders.
Considering the unintended consequences they create, it is wise to buy variants with caution. Consider the source, whether it is from a store that ordered heavily on that title so you could buy that rare cover; or from an online vendor that is betting on your demand to turn a quick buck. In the end, many fans are attracted to the art itself, not the rarity. Publishers will continue to save some of their best cover artwork for smaller print runs as long as we keep buying them. How badly do you want it?