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Industry Watch: How much are Hip Hop and other variants propping up Marvel’s sales? — UPDATED

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UPDATE: Just to make things clear, far from being a secret image leaked from a fearful retailer, the above was created by Calum Johnston of Strange Adventures as a direct response to a tweet from Marvel. He also wrote about it on his blog!

To get the hip hop covers, a store has to order the regular cover in quantities ranging from 125% to more than TWICE what they ordered of a previous or related issue. If a store does that, they’re going to be stuck with a lot of extra copies that will be unsold, yet the store has to pay for them. This results in the variant covers having to be sold at a much higher price than they should be. A real shame as we think they would sell very well if we could order them for the shelf.


Johnston also points out that this is a loss for Marvel because here is so much attention and interest in the covers; potential new customers arriving in stores being told they can’t purchase them is not ideal.

We’ve already seen today that just jumping on a new, fresh direction isn’t enough to make a sales success, but what about over at Marvel? As I’ve noted their whopping sales have been led by the astonishing success of their Star Wars comics, but variant covers are also strong in this one. Star Wars #1 had over 100 variants, for instance. The upcoming hip hop variant program wasn’t just problematic from a creator standpoint, however, it’s also set new levels of frustration for retailers who have to order high on other books just to be able to ORDER copies of the variants, as revealed on Reddit by retailer Calum Johnston and explained at the Outhouse. Apparently a frustrated retailers posted the above annotated order sheet for the variants, showing how high order would have to be.

In case you are not familiar with the variant game, btw, while some are “freely ordered variants” as our own Dave Carter puts it, many more are incentivized. So if you want to order some of these reasonably cool Karnak #1 Hop Hop variant covers by Kaare Andrews referencing Schooly D, you must order exactly twice the number of Karnak #1 as you do your regular Ms Marvel issue that month. Given that Karnak is by Warren Ellis, that might be okay but oh the math. And this is one of the simple ones. You need to figure out how many your order, multiply it, and then figure out how many customers actually want the thing. Aren’t you glad you are not a retailer? The Outhouse:

Now, you may rightfully point out that this image comes from Reddit without a verified source, but we have seen frustrated retailers making reference to both the high requirements and the confusing nature of the All-New Marvel NOW! reboot orders on social media, so we’re inclined to believe this is for real. We did put out a few calls to retailers for verification, and though no one has offered to speak directly, presumably for fear of Marvel’s wrath, we have gotten confirmation that this “looks about right,” and if these aren’t the exact numbers, the concept is basically the same. We can verify that one retailer (who did not wish to be interviewed) revealed on Twitter last week that the variants required “VERY HIGH” order percentage increases of regular covers  based on past orders, and, when combined with “months of poorly-selling Secret Wars tie-ins” and an already difficult to project line-wide #1 issue reboot, was “approaching the Heroes World debacle” in terms of how damaging it could be to the retail market.


Well, some retailers may have been afraid to speak out, but just the other day David Harper offered an entire column called Retailers Talk the Trials and Tribulations of Marvel’s All-New All-Different Ordering Month which drills down. As usual when retailer speak I advise READ THE WHOLE THING, but a few selected quotes:

John Hendrick, Big Bang Comics, Dublin, Ireland: Well, we’re one of those stores that waits until the last possible moment to do Previews so we have as much information on hand as we can. But this month we spent about twice as long as normal doing the order, going over information, scratching our heads and generally guessing trends in October and taking into account the variants we could and couldn’t get. Some titles we upped for certain variants, generally for the Skottie Young ones, but others the distance was too far between what we knew we could sell and what was required to then be able to order some of those so on a few titles we just played it safe.

There was just so much and the majority were at a higher price point too which drummed up the total spend. I get that a lot of books have higher page counts but I think it’s 45 or 46 issue 1’s in a 4 week period with a lot requiring you to order in excess of 125%, 150% or even 200% of previous orders books from different series.


The bottom line is that some stores will not be able to get the variants that their customers want. And Patrick Brower of Challengers in Chicago had more to say:

Brower: They are ridiculous and hurt the industry. Normally, when a Marvel incentive is a % of another specific issue, we completely ignore them; we just won’t order them. For this recent slate of hip-hop variants, we actually had a number of people request them. Our rule has always been, ‘if we qualify for them, you can have it’ and if multiple people want a cover and we only get one, it goes to the first person that asked, and for cover price. With these hip-hop covers, we actually sat down and did the math. For the first batch of 17 covers, we wound up ordering 6 of them. Of those 6, 4 of them were not quite in our ordering range, but only off by a few copies, so we ordered the few extras to be able to make some subscribers happy.

Unfortunately NO subscriber will be getting every hip-hop cover they asked for. Marvel is asking retailers to order far more copies than they can sell, for books that all have an inflated cover price of at least an extra $1. There’s NO WAY this is good for anyone other than Marvel. I’m not saying stores will go out of business as a result of this month, but I know we will be cutting it dangerously close to our budget this month. Oh, by the way, above I said I really wanted to get behind Doctor Strange #1. My “really getting behind it” number was still 26 copies beneath what I’d need to order for its corresponding hip-hop variant—and that is for a book I am going out of my way to over-order. *sigh*


It’s no secret, wars or otherwise, that variant covers are a huge part of what keeps the periodical industry afloat these days. I remember when people used to tut tut at Dynamite’s Nick Barrucci at and Avatar’s William Christenson for living on variants, but now no one could cast the first stone—although Dark Horse and Image have resisted for the most part. 

Some of my pals see Marvel’s sales as part of a fragile comics economy that could tank at any moment, just like the world at large is doing this week. It’s a big chocolate rabbit made of variants and Star Wars with nothing inside! Others say that Marvel is rock solid. And their safe, boring post Secret Wars reboot certainly looks smart after DC’s floundered. One thing you need to remember about Marvel’s sales is that they need to show growth every year in order to make main man Ike Perlmutter happy—in the past this led to nearly arbitrary layoffs for well paid execs, double shipping and other “lighten the lifeboat” strategies. From that standpoint, variants are like printing money, and even as retailers grouse, they up their orders. But will the game come crashing down? As always, feel free to share you opinions in the comments or in an email

6 COMMENTS

  1. Whenever buyers of variant covers will be bored and will go to the next trend, don’t expect me to have any tears for all those top publishers with suddent declininng sales and who planted the nails of their own coffin.

  2. Two things:

    1) This level of excess is a natural and native result of supporting variant programs all along. When retailers change behavior to get variants OF COURSE they’re going to try to find out just how far you’ll let them push it — that’s capitalism. That is to say that retailers who have been happily playing these variant games for years are the architects of their own petards.

    2) Having said *that*, I don’t think that some/most of those requirements are Too Much — I certainly think that I will sell, say, 150% of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #1 as part of a line-wide relaunch as I did of ASM: RENEW YOUR VOWS #2 — an ASM #1 tends to have much much much longer legs than the second issue of a mini-series. *Conceptually* Marvel’s relaunch could function as well or better as DC’s New 52 reboot, and if THAT happens — with the lapsed returning to look, even for an issue or three — these projected numbers will be a tiny fraction of what the market might need. I remind you that the *last* ASM #1 sold-in 560k copies just two years ago, and ASM:RYV #2 sold-in 93k. Giving the market a target of ~140k doesn’t seem all that preposterous under that circumstance?

    -B

  3. These numbers don’t really seem insane. There’s nothing saying you MUST chase the variants. You literally aren’t required to fulfill that option.

  4. I think there would be a far greater interest in variant covers if Marvel released very few of them, but made them easy to access. For instance if each month a different series or a milestone issue had one, or maybe two, variants and made them 50/50 in the orders you might see more interest. Instead of the 100 plus a month that nobody can afford all of or even keep track of.

  5. I love how you guys slag off DC (fresh direction not sales success) while trying to make a point about Marvel. You guys really don’t let up about DC, do you, even when they’re trying to create positive change in the industry and reach out to new audiences. It’s clear you guys want DC to fail bad, to satisfy whatever unresolved self-made problem you have with them.

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