Retailer Brian Hibbs takes on variant covers in his latest column, and given that he uses the word “heinous” in the title, as you might surmise, he is not a fan. Hibbs traces the origin of the variant back to 1989’s “Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight” #1, where four different covers sold like gangbusters and publishers could no longer resist the lure of boosting sales with the method. The practice has grown to where, by Hibbs’ count, 40% of the comics from premier publishers in October have variant covers.
40%. A lot.
Hibbs goes on to explore culpability among retailers, publishers, and consumers. Here’s the publisher nut ‘graph:
And if you ask Ross, or other publishers in the same boat as him, why in God’s name they engage in the Franklin Mint-ing of an artistic medium that they truly love, of why they’re actually debasing the thing they are the most passionate about in the name of Mammon, of greed and foolishness, they’ll tell you, quite earnestly, that many of the largest retailers have indicated that they’ll cut their orders by half or more if there are not 50/50 variant covers (or 50/25/25, or whatever other permutation you can think of) on every launch. And, thus, the publisher’s business plan effectively becomes “We hope enough people will buy two (or more) copies of our comic.”
As usual with Hibbs, you need to read the whole column. We’ve been noting the variant cover explosion from the sidelines ourselves. It’s fairly evident that Marvel and DC are locked in a squid vs whale battle for the top of the charts and are rolling out variant covers like cauldrons of buckshot, but everyone down the chart is doing it too, because, as Hibbs notes, it WORKS. No one can resist making, ordering and buying more of those tasty variants. Is all the money being lavished on variants being diverted from buying more copies of other, worthier comics? Possibly, but Hibbs’ main argument about the practice is that…well, it’s cheesy on some level, and sleazy on another.
I don’t like variants either, but on some level comics are still a collectible thing, so I do get the coolness exclusivity factor for some. I can’t say that there are any comics that I’ve longed to own a variant cover of, even though a lot of them are cool. But when I see one I like I just put it on Pinterest.
As I’ve often pointed out here, comics, the medium, are doing GREAT. Some delivery platforms for comics are not doing so great or at least are under suspicion. Is the direct sales market being propped up by variants? To some degree. Yet bookstores don’t have any variants and they aren’t doing so hot either. My guess is that variant covers will be with us until the direct market curls up into a ball and gets swept under a radiator, however far away that day is.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.