Collective Consciousness: Variant Covers

by Nick Devonald on November 24, 2019

Variant Covers are big business once again in the world of comics. So we thought we would get some of the CTG writers together to share their thoughts on Variant Covers. First off we’ll hear from Wes Greer, our Batman Correspondent and Review Writer.

When we walk into a comic book shop, what is the thing that grabs our attention most? Sure, sometimes it’s the half-naked busts of Harley Quinn, but I’m talking about the comics themselves. All arranged in Alphabetic order usually, the covers all catch our eye. We literally throw out the old adage of “never judge a book by its cover” because honestly that is the first thing we do as comic readers. We might have read a review, or a description, but we don’t know the story and it’s not like we can take a peek. Then we get to the books we want and we are met with another dilemma. There is more then one cover available for that issue. We can get the regular publishers cover, which is always great art already, or we can fork over a couple extra bucks and buy the same exact book, but get a cover done by a different artist. Sometimes, variant covers are actually really cool and I love to see the limited edition ones come out every once in awhile, but as of the last year or so, variant covers are flooding the comic book shelves and publishers are getting over zealous with them. The “big 2” are the worst offenders. DC and Marvel both within the last year have released a Cover A and a cover B for almost every book published. They are not alone though. Even your smaller publishers such as Archie, image, IDW, and BOOM all use the variant model as a way to get a few more quarters out of your pocket to raise sales numbers. This is nothing new to the comic industry. This has been going on for years and in the early 90’s, variants almost destroyed the comic industry. Now, here we are in 2019 where history seems to be repeating itself. With the comic industry struggling as it is already in the digital age, they may be their own demise.

Most recently, DC released DCeased #1 with seven different publisher variants, as well as serving up store exclusive and creators exclusive covers, equaling 47 more covers. That’s one comic issue that is the exact same book with 54 different covers to choose from! Some of them are really amazing work and are gorgeous, but about 50 of those covers are unnecessary. Marvel is following suite with the recent releases of Deadpool #1 and 2099 titles. All have about the same amount of available variants.

I know a lot of you are thinking that it’s just different art and how is that affecting the industry?  Here is a break down written by Mike Avila that explains what the two variant types are and how they are hurting your local comic shop.

“Cover variants are standard comics with unique covers drawn by various artists that publishers allow stores to order, depending on how many copies of the standard (version A) they order. The ratio could be anywhere from 1:25 to 1:100.

Incentive Variants are actually designed to help comics shops. If a store orders a certain number of copies of a new Spider-Man comic, they qualify for a copy of a special, ultra-limited variant. The idea is selling that incentive variant for big money will help the store owner break even on the larger order.

Because, in case it's not clear yet, the new comics business is really, really tough. Imagine being a comics shop owner and your business model was reliant on buying a certain quantity of a certain product to qualify for a SINGLE, slightly different version of that product, in order to break even. Does that sound like a healthy business to you?”

In my opinion, these publishers all need to stop and re-evaluate the variant model. I am not a fan of the current variant model, but I don’t want to see them gone altogether. I think landmark issues should have variants. I also think if you go to a convention, a variant is an awesome idea to have available there only. It’s a great item to remember your experience, and it becomes a true collectors item because it isn’t widely available to the public. Having at least two different covers for every single issue you print though is just insanity. Why would I want to get a special variant cover of a book that is of no significance like say Batman #80. There’s nothing special about that issue and yet they put out a special version of that issue to try to boost the sales of it. A comic should not have to rely on what’s on the cover to meet sales demands. If that’s the case, why even bother writing a decent story? Why bother writing anything at all? It will just end up bagged and boarded and stored in a box and because so many of them are printed, in the end you lose money if your plan is resale. I really hope that the publishers are paying attention to our warnings. Without them, I don’t get to do what I love and bring you guys all the reviews and get to interact with all of you. Without them, there is no us. Limit Variants to cons and landmark issues, and do it soon before it’s too late.

Quite an interesting insight into how variants affect the local comic book shop, with a word of warning at the end.
Next up we’ll hear from Nick Devonald, one of our Reviewers.

There is obviously some debate about whether variant comics are harmful or beneficial for the comic book industry. I don’t have enough information and the internet is quite conflicted over the reality of it so I’m going to look at it purely from a consumer point of view. I think variant comics are quite cool, but we have far, far too many of them. Like Wes mentioned I’d be quite happy to get one for special issues, but as it stands where’s the need for a variant issue for every single comic? Then there’s second printing variants, even 3rd or 4th for the more popular ones. If you wanted to collect every single variant for a particular run you’d end up spending an absolute fortune on every issue.

So far I have managed to resist buying more than one copy of a comic, but I will bet there are collectors out there who have to have them all. There’s a part of our psyche that demands we collect them all. The games industry is proof of that. I suspect it started with Pokémon where you’ve ‘gotta catch em all’. It’s now spread to games in general where people try to get 100% of the trophies, which nearly always involve hunting around for difficult to find collectables. What do we gain from that other than bragging rights? Absolutely nothing. Yet we still do it (I should note I’m guilty of it).

I feel it’s a really slippery slope. And once you’ve gone down that route it’s going to end up snowballing and spiralling out of control. Say there’s a series you really like and you decide to commit to buying all the variants because there isn’t too many. You complete it, possibly displaying your favourites, then the rest go away in storage. That’s great. But then another series comes along and it’s even better than the last one. Well it only makes sense to collect all the variants for that too right? Only this time there’s three variants per issue.

Where do you draw the line?

I’m lucky in a sense that my local comic shop is really small, and only gets variants in by request. It stops me from having that temptation. Although recently I took a trip into one of the bigger cities near me shortly after the Absolute Carnage event started and ended up coming home with a bunch of variants for the tie-ins. No doublers mind you, but I was almost overwhelmed by the sheer number of variant covers.

I have a confession to make about variant covers though, I am a real sucker for connecting covers. I think they look awesome and have plans at some point in the future to display them all on the wall. I grabbed the connecting covers for Absolute Carnage: Scream and Lethal Protectors. Neither comic was outstanding (although I did decide to commit to grabbing all the tie-ins for Absolute Carnage so why not get the connecting covers?) but I like the art and want to display it.

And there in lies the problem for me. I’m planning on displaying comics that aren’t amongst my favourites, purely because of the cover art. While I was going to buy those issues anyway they would most likely have been put into storage after that, and only taken out if I wanted to go through the whole Absolute Carnage event. On the plus side it didn’t cost any more than a standard issue.

Which leads onto my next problem with variant comics. The expensive ones. Some of the artwork is fantastic on the expensive variants, I can really understand why you would want to display it. But it’s a comic. I get a regular email from an online comic shop which specialises in variant covers, and you can pay anywhere from £25 - £100+ for some of the limited variants. (Sorry for our U.S. readers, I’m based in the UK and rather than deal with fluctuating exchange rates I’ll still with UK £, but to put it in perspective I pay £3.30 a comic, so we’re talking over 30 times the value for any that are £100+).

Admittedly we’re talking CGC graded 9.8, Virgin covers, limited with a Certificate of Authenticity. A real collectors edition. And this is where things get into a bit of a grey area for me. Calling something a collectors item, making it limited with a COA and grading it, does it make it a collectors item? It feels like a way to artificially boost the price of something. And I’m sure there is plenty of people out there who would disagree with me. I’m only sharing my opinion here.

I also want to make it clear I’m not telling people how they should spend their money. That’s entirely up to them. One mans junk is another’s treasure and all that. I’ve bought and framed a few Hellboy prints which I love and don’t regret buying. I intend (once I’m in a financial position where I can justify it to my wife) buying some original comic art.

But, and this is where I make a distinction, that is art that I have (or will) purchase. Variants comics are still comics. You might be paying for the art on the cover but it’s a comic still. If you wanted to buy a print (or original copy) of the artwork I would encourage it. But as a cover on a comic I go wait, hold on a second, it’s a comic you’re paying how much for? Because at the end of the day that’s exactly what it is, a comic.

I’ve criticised variant covers a lot here and made it sound like I’m dead against them. But I’m not. There are some pretty cool ones out there. I just feel there needs to be a limit. Not everything needs a variant. Make them special again. Only special issues or events.

So do any of our readers feel the need to collect them all? Last but certainly not least we’ll hear from Stephen Gervais, co-founder of Comics: The Gathering.

I started reading and buying comics in the mid-80s. At that point in time my friends and I were lucky enough to have a couple of comic stores close by and of course the corner stores still had spinner racks full comics for our purchasing pleasure. I don’t recall variant covers at that time but that all changed in the early 90s and as young consumers we were pretty much sucked into the publisher’s marketing scheme. We bought them all even if there was only a slight difference in the covers. I remember Legends of the Dark Knight #1 had 4 covers, all identical except the border around the image came in different colours! I was guilty of buying two different colours. I remember McFarlane’s Spider-Man #1 coming out in a regular cover and the same cover with a black and silver colour scheme. Again, I bought both! I apparently wasn’t alone because after that the flood gates opened and the variant age began. I’m not sure when the original variant craze crashed as I stopped reading and collecting comics by the late 90s but when I slowly started back up in 2010/2011 I don’t remember seeing any on the racks. There probably was the odd one but for the most part it was one title, one cover.

How the times have changed in the 8 years since I once again embraced the world of comics. Variants are once again a force to be reckoned with but I am now a wiser consumer that doesn’t buy into the speculation market of variant covers or the comic industry in general. Or so I thought! A few years back I found myself buying multiple copies of several issues because the variants were so damn cool! Funny thing is I slowly started to regret those purchases. I’d think to myself ok I bought 2 of this comic solely because I liked the cover image now I’m shoving it in a white box and will probably not look at it again this year. Considering the cost of a single issue these days I really felt like I was wasting money. So I stopped cold turkey which was hard at first because I was hooked on those Skottie Young baby covers! I’m lucky enough though, that my local comic bookstore gets a ton of the variants so I do get to see most them. They also have a good number of them at cover price. I now pick the cover I like best and just get the one.

There have been some exceptions since I renounced double dipping on issues. I did enjoy the Marvel hip hop variants and any time Jeff Lemire or Mike Mignola do a variant I will hunt those down for my collection. My variant white whale is Lemire’s Harbinger #8 variant. If I ever do get that one I will frame it and put it up.

I’m most definitely not anti-variant and see nothing wrong with people enjoying the different covers. I’m positive it helps the comic shops survive. I’m sure if they sell a few exclusive covers and/or get some customers to pick up an extra cover or two it helps them stay afloat and I’m all for that! As well, I’m sure the numbers people at the publishing houses have calculated how much more return they get on books that have multiple variants. I don’t have the stats but it must help their bottom line which I hope will help the smaller publishers not only stay viable but stay in business. I’ve discussed this with others and they feel variants harm the industry where as I see it as they are helping the shops and indie publishers. I see no harm in that. Now events with endless tie-ins that’s another story...

And there you have it. The opinions of three of the CTG writers. And our potential next topic as well. What are your views on variant comics? Did you enjoy hearing the opinions of some of the CTG writers? Let us know in the comments.