By Todd Allen

As you’re probably aware, one of the marketing tactics Marvel is using to secure initial orders for their Marvel NOW! (Are you supposed to scream NOW! when saying that out loud?) relaunch is offering retailers variant covers tied to the number of copies of the book that are ordered.  This has started a little bit of grumbling and that grumbling’s starting to be a little more public.Brian Hibbs was the first one to broach the topic, commenting on the mentality that a retailer effectively has free inventory if he can sell that variant copy for the amount he paid for the “normal” run of a title.  How pervasive has it become?

Well, I counted up all of the comics being offered to me by the “Premier” publishers (Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse, IDW) to sell in October of 2012, and a full forty percent of them had at least one variant.

Hibbs is a little unusual in that he goes out of his way not to have any variant covers on the shelves of his store.  If you want a variant, you better better order it from him ahead of time.  I’ve shopped at some stores that don’t make a big deal out of the variants and either just shelve them with the “regular” covers or stick them in the subscriber boxes.  Other retailers will offer them for a premium price in the store or go straight to eBay.

What does Hibbs hear the rationale for retailers loving variants is?

On the retailer side, I frequently hear statements like “Incentive variants allow me the ability to find the ceiling on books that I would have otherwise had to guess lower on.”

Which Hibbs is quick to point out is really odd.  If you don’t have any idea how many copies to order, that doesn’t bode well for your inventory control… or you’re a subscription service disguised as a shop.  Hibbs suspects the real reason is:

I totally appreciate that many retailers like variants, but let’s at least be honest about it and admit that it’s actually because they like selling a comic that cost them $1.50 for a crisp $20 bill.

Hibbs suspects that part of how this works is the “completist” collector.

In fact, one of the reasons that we have eight printings of “AvX” #1 is that there’s a significant number of retailers who are bringing in more copies of each printing just for customers who want to have “complete” collections. They can generate a couple of thousand more unit sales with each printing that way.

Mostly he’s disgusted at the mark-ups on what are essentially new comics.

Enter Rich Johnston.  Rich has been known to cover the speculation side of things over at Bleeding Cool.  That will including talking about the odd variant cover.  For that matter, he’s accused of causing some of the speculation on comics.  So when Rich starts say “this is getting a little out of control,” it bears paying attention to.

Rich points out that part of the comics crash of the mid-to-late 90s was the speculators and collectors getting overwhelmed and getting out.:

The whole thing crashed of course, as the market over-saturated,  people could no longer afford to collect all the covers and instead decided to buy none of them. Suddenly shops were stuck with huge amounts of comics they could not sell, and retailers, distributors and publishers went bust.

And it _was_ pretty ridiculous back then.  Flash over substance and greedy publishers trying to cash in with no eye on sustainable revenues or circulations.  And while he didn’t mind hyping comics based on the _content_ of the comics (Chew being a book who’s early sell out he hyped to the heavens — good comic, low initial orders and with TV in play, now a really hot book), he’s starting to see flashbacks to the 90’s.

But of late, things are taking a worrying turn. The RRP variant, where retailers who attended a certain event received a special version of a comic, was followed by the 1:200 variant, where retailers had to order a tonne of comics to get a special version, joined by 1:150, 1:100, 1:50, 1:25 and :10 covers often on the same book. Again and again for first issues, for second, for third issues, across every line where every book is getting relaunched.

He sees the possibility of the variant covers reaching a saturation point.  This could mean the price going down for them or maybe collectors giving up on variants altogether.  So if you’re a retailer ordering extra copies because the price of the variant offsets the cost of those extra copies, you could suddenly be in a hole.  And be in a hole on a LOT of books.  Hibbs has that percentage as 40% for the major publishers.

But if it goes on like this, it will collapse. And then so will the shops that depend on them now.  Not the majority of shops, maybe, but the direct market is not the most stable beast. Can it really survive, at this moment,  ten percent of shops going bust owing tens of thousands of dollars to publishers and distributors to get variant covers that they now can’t sell?

And I’ll admit, I’ve been concerned about this sort of thing happening.  If you look at the comics industry, particularly since DC and Marvel have become more closely intertwined with the quarterly corporate balance sheet, you’ll see a tendency to overplay gimmicks until they’ve broken the model.  Variants were a big one in the 90s.  Crossovers have come and gone a couple times.  Right now the variants are the gimmick du jour.

The mechanics of a variant crash are a little more complicated.  When both the anti-variant store owner and the guy hyping speculative comics agree that variants tend not to hold their value for more than a few weeks, this does give it a little more credibility as a potential problem.

The first question, and this is a bit more specific to Marvel NOW! is whether the single copy consumer demand is anywhere near in line with the incentive levels.  Let’s be honest, Avengers Vs. X-Men seems to have sold through pretty well, so everybody made money.  If the new title launches sell through like the titles they’re benchmarked against, the worst case scenario in a crash is the retailer doesn’t make out like a bandit on the variant.  This was the same question when DC did their New 52 relaunch: some of it’s returnable, but if it doesn’t sell what the cash flow going to look like while the shops are waiting for the refund.  With the New 52, that didn’t end up being a problem.

But that’s more a DC/Marvel facet of the potential problem.  You go down a level and you see a lot of smaller publishers with variant covers.  Boom, Dynamite and Avatar (the publisher of Bleeding Cool), for example, all have variants baked into their business models.  How badly does an over-all variant crash — regardless of whether a variant crash would close shops — effect smaller publishers that highlight variants?  The stakes could be higher for the little guys.  For that matter I’ve had more than one retailer tell me that Image second printings are effectively variant covers, as are DC’s titles that include a digital download code for an extra $1.

Nobody really knows what the saturation point is for variant covers or the extent to which completists are driving the overall comics economy.  It doesn’t seem likely there’s rampant speculation going on, but we’re not far removed from the lowest point the Direct Market has seen, either.  Nobody wants to backslide.

It’s important to separate out the convention-specific variant covers from this conversation.  Those aren’t being tied to retailer orders.  They have more in common with a concert t-shirt.  You were at the convention and got the special edition of your favorite comic.  It’s a slightly different ecosystem.

In a way, this tendency towards an over-emphasis on variant covers reminds me a little bit of crowdfunding.


No, hear me out.  If you look at something like the Cyberforce crowdfunding project, you’ll see that ~1,400 people financed a mini-series.  If variant covers are really generating extra orders from retailers for comics that sit in inventory, unsold, that means that a small number of completists paying premiums for variants are subsidizing (at least parts of) the industry.

Are we due for a variant crash?  It’s too soon to tell.  The current boundaries for variants don’t appear to have been discovered yet.  But that could well change by January.


  1. “Right now the variants are the gimmick du jour.”

    Well… they’ve been going on pretty strong for several years now, to be honest. Though it does seem like variants have been a growing crescendo, I’m not sure they’re more than 10-15% more prevalent than they were a few years ago.

    I’m honestly surprised the variant thing in and of itself hasn’t crashed already. $20 for a different cover? In a market that has had people complaining about $3 (and now $4) comics for years and years now? I just don’t get how there are that many speculators left in this tiny industry. It isn’t even like these variant covers have chromium or shiny holograms on them — so there is literally no difference between just looking at the easily available variant cover image on your computer screen for free… or shelling out $20+ to get the same damn image slapped on a comic.

    That said, I think the ’90s comparisons are a bit belabored. Variants in and of themselves weren’t THAT big of a deal in the ’90s. Variants were only a relatively small part of the speculation boom, which, to be honest, was not the entire cause of the crash of the mid-’90s (distribution wars and the decimation of the newsstand market was at least as big an issue).

    In the ’90s speculation had more to do with #1 issues and events. There were variants, but nowhere near as many as there are now; the practice was nowhere near the figure of 40% that it’s at now. In 1993 or whatever, yeah you’d see a handful of variant covers for the odd #1 issue. But now we’re seeing literally 40% of all random titles, including issue number 14 of random mid-list Big Two titles, have multiple variants. That kind of thing was unheard of in the ’90s, because back then the “midlist” titles could basically just sell 100,000 copies a month on their own anyway.

    And the entire ’90s speculation era lasted, what, four years before things started to crash? The current variant-fetish boom has already lasted at least five years. I’m not saying it isn’t ridiculous or that it isn’t going to crash, but I don’t think the parallels with the ’90s speculation stuff are all THAT similar.

  2. Too soon to tell? I think it’s pretty much guaranteed to crash. In fact I will say that without a doubt there is zero chance of avoiding a crash.

    The variant market is a lot like buying a car. In fact, it’s exactly like buying a car. 99.9% of cars drive off the lot and instantly lose 40% of their value. Go try to sell a $20,000 a week after you buy it and see if you can get $14K for it “used”.

    Except that a car isn’t meant to be resold instantly or ever. Sure, some of them go up in value (Ferrari’s and the like) but most go down.

    Back to variants. Go look on ebay and see just how many variants go for 20-50% of the so called retail price. Mix that fact (i.e 99.9% of variants are instantly worth less than you paid) and add in a graying comic book market and you get the perfect recipe for a crash.

    At some point, somebody is going to sell and then somebody else will sell and the market is going to be flooded with variants that nobody wants…because nobody in the secondary market wants them now…and people are going to see this and think “wow, did I really pay $25 for a variant that is now worth $4” and stop buying them.

    It’s not a question of “if” but “when”. Collecting is by definition a secondary market thing. If you cannot resell something that completely changes the hobby and variant buyers are essentially suckers buying at the height of the market.

  3. Any retailer who is willing to bet the survival of their business on selling through 100 extra copies of a comic in order to sell that one variant cover is an idiot.
    Of course, Marvel could play nicely and make their Now comics returnable…

  4. I have been complaining about the evils of variant for several years and how they are nothing more then a short term sales stunt/gimmick. So none of this comes as a surprise to me.

  5. Heh. Yesterday, at the Asbury comic con, I paid $3 for a Reign of the Supermen comic that was signed and numbered.
    An edition of 10,000.

    Yup, I own the omnibus. It’s just kinda cool.

  6. Don’t forget Marvel are also narrowing the initial sales window by shipping issue 1 and 2 in one solicitation month.

    There are people out there who already think they have ‘missed out’ when issue 2 hits the shelves.

  7. I am also worried by this variant cover trend. I never really understood the appeal of it. I Mean, onc ein a while, I canunderstand how you would like to have a variant cover of a comics yu really love, but to pay for this every month, for several variant? It’s not only freaking crazy, it’s unnatural to the core being of selling comic books.
    As sson as the major appeal for you in selling a comics is not its content, I think you really have to worry and wander if your job is really to procude comics or to sell paper…

  8. My only thoughts on this are that, if it’s a variant cover then make it special. So many of the AvX variants were terrible sketch covers, that just looked trashy. You have so many artists working for you, surely some of them would be glad to offer up a variant to get more of their stuff out there. Instead so many of them just came across as lazy. Just my opinion, but just being a variant shouldn’t be the only appeal.

  9. For me, the variant glut has worked a bit like the spin-off glut (although I’ve never bee huge on variants).

    It’s been a long time since I was able to buy, for instance, every X-book. Once you break that barrier of completism, it becomes easier to be selective beyond the purely financial.

  10. It wouldn’t be so bad if retailers could order the variants in whatever quantities they choose, instead of publishers trying to force them to buy more with the ratios.

    It’s possible they might sell more comics that way. Some stores can’t justify the extra books in order to get a variant. It would be an interesting poll to take among retailers. How often do they *not* bump their orders because the ratio is too high, but would order the variants if there were no ratios attached.

  11. I’m not sure it’s “speculators” buying up the variant covers to resell, but completists who need it for the collection at home. There might not be much of a secondary market for “new” collectibles; folks can just get them right from the store, and the loop closes there.

  12. I honestly do not see any problem with variant covers or retailer incentives. They are often times wonderful pieces of art and if someone is willing to purchase them, what is the problem?

    This entire article seems too nit-picky but maybe that is just me. I know that one of the shops I frequent will sometimes put the variant covers at $10.00, where as another shop I go to will just toss them in with all the others and not charge anything extra. Obviously, people want to get them at the regular price but if someone really, really wants to get a certain cover because they might want to place it on a mantle, wall, etc., then I think charging extra to ensure that someone who really wants it will get it is just fine too.

  13. There is a “dungeon” shop in my town that plays this game. They have this giant new release wall, often books are falling off the shelves literally. Dozens of copies of every printing for big 2 books. Sometimes stacked on the floor like trash. And a giant “Variant wall” behind the counter…some of them slabbed. Its obvious they bank on the variant premium prices ($20-$50 or more) and horde thousands of copies of “disposeable” common floppies to get them. Those comics turn into trash as they fall on the floor and get messed up. Eventually getting tossed in Quarter bins that sit on the sidewalk every day.

    I won’t spend a dime there. Its every negative stereotype of a dungeon comic shop (complete with permanent BO smells), but this place has been in business since the 70s so they must have figured out how to stay in business.

  14. “Once you break that barrier of completism, it becomes easier to be selective beyond the purely financial.”

    I think that’s an important point that publishers miss. Once you’ve squeezed that dwindling fanbase until they have to stop buying, you permanently lose a lot (if not all) of that business. Multiple titles, multiple covers, disposable storylines that are retconned in a matter of months, re-launches, all of it gives the completist reasons to quit and convenient exit points.

  15. 100% agree. Marvel’s double shipping at $3.99 drove me out of reading any Marvel Comics mostly based on how expensive it was getting. Now all I do is flip through the Marvel Previews book and realize I am not missing anything. DC’s bad rebranding attempt is rapidly cooling for me as well since I just shaved off 5 books and bet there will be another 5-10 in the near future.

  16. Not the way it works at my store. They pull the variants and sell them on-line for the most part or mark them up. If Variants were truely meant for the reader to enjoy vs a bonus cash cow for the store there would not be such a high ratio of scarcity. Letting the variant percentage be set by the retailers based on their ordering of it would allow the print run of a book to be set at actual demand. Whether that be 50/50 of the run or 75/25 etc.

  17. At our shop, I used to order DC variants when we happened to qualify, most of which one or the other of my assistantss would grab, with any rejects going on the rack, where they’d tend to be picked around. Neither of them seemed to feel particularly strongly about them, so I’ve mostly stopped bothering. Marvel books tend to have both lower sales and higher sales targets, so I don’t think I’ve ever ordered one. When they ship freebie copies of excess stock (usually a month or two later, when the novelty has worn off), I throw them on the rack, but they generally don’t sell unless the regular version is sold out. Dynamite and IDW variants generally seem to provoke more confusion and annoyance than anything else, the worst instance being the ROCKETEER ADVENTURES variant that features the story-specific art (with matching original sales copy) from the Eclipse ROCKETEER SPECIAL, which nobody would touch because it looked like a reprint. Other than the one RED SONJA subscriber who requests “the sluttiest cover,” and a couple of folks who request the Darwyn Cooke cover in instances where that’s a factor, I only get one or two variant requests a year, generally from out-of-towners passing through.

  18. Don’t confuse variant cover books with books that ship with multiple covers, either in some percentage, or each cover with its own Diamond order number.

    One puts a much greater burden on the retailer than the other.

  19. It seems a bit exaggerated, there’s no evidence of inflated orders that go beyond the realm of reason. Variants create an extra amount of orders, but they don’t seem to be generating books that are ordered to be stockpiled and sold months or years down the line for insane prices.

    I don’t see anything wrong with paying 25 bucks for a variant cover (even though it makes no sense to me and I wouldn’t pay anything more than cover price for a new comic), as long as you are not doing it in the hopes that you’ll sell it for 50 bucks a few weeks, months or years later.

    Variant covers have no value for me, and I guess that they have a lot of value for other people, but it’s ultimately a case of a retailers knowing how many copies they can sell and figuring out if the extra copies they’ll have to order to get the variant will be financed by whichever way they choose to manage their business, if not, then they are irresponsible idiots.

  20. Instead of dozens of comics with the same story how about utilizing that space for other publishers and titles thus creating more variety and choices for alternative comics and small companies.

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