Variant covers! Those exciting, colourful often “rare” comic book covers that we all love (to hate). But what are variant covers? Why do they exist? Why does your local comic shop not have the one by your absolute favourite artist? And what does their existence mean in the greater comic book landscape? Here’s my primer on this surprisingly complex component of your local comic shop culture.
What is a variant cover?
Variant covers are different covers for the same comic book. They’re often very well advertised and very regularly feature gorgeous art made by amazing up and coming creators. They’re sometimes collectable, and yes, occasionally rare.
They’re a very normal part of the comic book landscape and are offered to retailers in a few different ways: A and B covers where a shop will get an equal amount of the standard cover and the B variant. And Incentive Variants where a retailer has to order a certain amount of A issues from Diamond to get issues with the B cover, or occasionally separate covers for the same issue with Separate Order Codes that shops can order as they wish.
Variant covers are a really popular part of comic buying for fans, but can be a real struggle for retailers, as they encourage speculation, where collectors buy rarer books specifically to resell them at a higher price. If a shop takes a risk on a large variant scheme that doesn’t land well, it can really damage a business.
The Origin Story of Variant Covers
Though the first recognised variants were the two drawn by John Byrne for 1986s Man of Steel #1, to truly understand the variant cover phenomenon we need to look back at the comics boom of the early ’90s. When books would regularly sell in the millions and the whole industry was lost in the proverbial sauce. Golden Age comic books were being sold at auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars, sparking the huge speculation trend, which would ironically end up almost bankrupting both Big Two companies and capping the sales boom mere years later.
Different editions of Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man #1 in 1990 began enhancing the collectability of the comic when Marvel started putting each separate reprint out with a different colour background, not to mention polybagged editions and signed editions directly from the publisher. This drove up the demand for these slightly varied books. Whilst these weren’t exactly like the variants we see today, it was the first moment when the Big Two realised there was money to be made from different versions of the same issue.
The following year, X-Men #1 sold (shipped from Diamond to comic stores to languish in discount bins forever more) 8 million copies while utilizing the first variant scheme of five separate covers. It’s still the biggest selling issue of all time, which made it clear that variant covers were another profitable entry into the toolbox of comic book publishers. Early variant covers were often gimmicks as well: gatefold variants (X-Men #1), photo variants (Rob Liefeld’s bad girl books), foil variants (Tribe #1), hologram variants (X-Men #25), polybagged variants with collectibles (Superman #75), diecut variants (Wolverine #50), and many, many more (just do a quick search for “bloodstrike rub the blood” for a fun blast from the past).
Variants and their gimmicks proliferated so much that publishers looked for any event or excuse to run a variant scheme or announce a one-off cover. Often the direct market edition (a.k.a. the comic shop version) would only come with the special cover, whilst the newsstand version would be printed with standard coloring on standard paper. Though this wasn’t the only factor contributing to the demise of the newsstand model, gimmick and variant covers meant that collectors began relying more and more on special interest shops (mostly comic bookstores) to get the books they wanted and less on newsstand distributors (supermarkets, drug stores, and magazine vendors).
How do variant covers work?
Remember when I mentioned some of the different kinds of variant covers? I’m going to expand on their impact here. There are multiple ways that a variant cover can be offered and they usually fit into one of these three categories:
- A/B covers – Shops will get an equal amount of each cover in their order.
- Incentive Covers – You have to order a certain amount to receive the variant.
- Separate Order Code Covers – Stores can order any amount of each variant.
One of the most interesting things about variant covers is they are always sold to shops at cover price. So the inflated prices that you will often see for the rarer books are set by whomever is selling them. Comic shops will usually set a price close to what the book is being sold for online, as this means that they won’t just be selling it to someone to sell on at a hugely inflated rate.
Variant covers can impact order numbers in different ways. They can drive initial sales up as shops order to get specific covers for customers, but sometimes they actually lower numbers by spreading them out among different codes, which can cause sales to be completely misreported. A separate order code is typically used when a variant cover has a higher cover price than the standard cover. Also, the number of comics sold by Diamond in no way equates to the actual number of comics sold.
When Marvel recently announced that Secret Empire #1 was the highest selling comic of May 2017, much of the comics community was confused and disappointed that the controversy-hunting Nazi Cap storyline had seemingly hit its mark. But all was not what it seemed! See, there were two other books which actually outsold Secret Empire #1 in May: Batman #22 and The Flash #22. Those books both sold more copies, but due to the lenticular variant covers being listed as separate order codes the official Diamond numbers didn’t collate their two sets of numbers together, listing only the more expensive lenticular variants in the top 10 for May.
Why can’t my comic shop get the variant cover I want?
If your comic shop can’t get a cover it’s likely because it’s an incentive cover, which means that a shop has to order a certain amount to receive it; sometimes even a small amount is too much for a local comic shop. Often smaller publishers will offer a 1/10 incentive cover to encourage sales of a book that shops may have only been regularly ordering four or five copies of. When a larger publisher like DC or Marvel launches a new book, they may do a 1/500 cover or even sometimes a 1/5000. These covers would only be aimed at huge stores that can afford to order tons of one title. As most comics aren’t returnable, shops often take a risk when ordering high numbers to get incentive variants. For example, Dark Knight III #1 was released by DC Comics with a 1/500 cover by Jim Lee. Many shops ordered the 500 copies, driving the book’s sales over 500,000. Over a year later, many shops still have tens if not hundreds of copies of the book left as dead stock. These over inflated sales numbers that we see for flagship comic books are based on how many books Diamond ships, not how many people actually buy them from a shop.
But a lot of my fave artists do variant cover work!
One of the inarguably positive things about the huge quantity of variant covers is that they create a lot of real estate for lesser known artists to create and get paid for art. This is one of the best things about the variant cover trend. This space gives artists the chance to share their style and work with an audience they may not reach otherwise. Which may lead to them getting more work and inevitably building an audience.
Are variant covers…bad?
Variant covers in and of themselves aren’t innately bad. But they do encourage bad behavior from companies, like Marvel’s constant reuse of interior art from artists who no longer work for them–like Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane–as super rare 1/5000 variants. The major problem with variants is their place in the Direct Market, which gives retailers only one way to buy and sell most comics. Variant schemes are often forced upon retailers and drive retailers to order more books than they need. Also, books needing to be ordered months before they’re actually released means that variant schemes which are widely popular at the time of announcement can be forgotten by the time they’re on shelves.
One of the most telling examples of this was Marvel’s much publicised Hip-Hop variants, still going on today. These covers were advertised on every major comic site as well as many music, hip-hop, and culture sites, garnering huge coverage and massive interest, including pre-orders. Many of the people pre-ordering or showing interest weren’t regular comics fans, which is good because new fans are always great. Sadly, the comic book industry is unique in making people wait for months for an announced product, and by the time the books had come out many people were completely uninterested. This left stores with hundreds of copies which quickly became dead stock. Over the last year, many of North America’s independent comic shops have taken a downturn with some even shutting down, often citing ever-growing variant schemes and events as being reasons their businesses failed.
Hopefully, this article has given you a bit more background on what variants are and how they impact the industry! What it really comes down to is personal choice. If you love variant covers and enjoy collecting them, that’s rad. But if you decide you dislike this trend then remember that the problem is the bigger business model, not the artists who create these lovely looking images to fulfill a demand!