Home Retailing & Marketing Variants — threat or menace?

Variants — threat or menace?


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.


  1. There have been plenty of variant-cover novels, but the variance has a point to it; they’re specifically intended for different audiences, e.g. the Harry Potter adult/child jackets.

  2. I miss the beginning of the 2000’s, when there was almost no variant anymore.
    Crossgen: not one variant during its whole history.

  3. Yeah, I’m pretty sure this died for a while, only to have Marvel resurrect it and now it’s gone nuts again. I’m always boggled by people who buy six issues of the same comic, just because it has different covers. HOW much extra income do you have to waste?! Wow. There are many times the variant covers are better than the normal (which I think they do on purpose) but my comic shop immediately prices variant cover books from $8 – $25 so I refuse to pay more just because it has a different cover, no matter HOW much I love it.

  4. I think I’m reading the rare, variant infinity edition of this post.

    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.
    Is this the last sentence?

  5. PS – I was noticing a while back something interesting over on comicpriceguide.com that pertains to this, as well. If you look at say, Uncanny X-Men (but I’m sure it’s any title) pre-variant cover you’ll get little notes to various issues like “this persons’s first appearance, the death of…, etc.” which I always find interesting! Then, after the early 90’s issues, all that goes away and all you get noted are “Fanboy Flash variant issue, Holy Crow variant issue, etc.” and I thought that was kinda sad. The big noted occurences that happen in the comics had been replaced with whatever grand variant cover had been printed that month…

  6. FYI, the cover that is pictured above in this post — X-O Manowar #0 — was not a variant cover. It did have a super-shiny special “chromium” cover, but all copies of the comic had that cover. Special covers like that were a big thing in the 90s, but not as much today, although they were used to further the same goal as variant covers do now: more sales.

  7. As somebody who just buys whatever cover is the coolest, I’m happy variants give me more options. There use as a sales-boosting gimmick is, of course, just as bad as everyone says.


  8. The big problem with variant cover is also that, seing that the budget to make a comics isn’t infinite, the cover part becomes more important, letting less budget for the interior pages/ artist.

    So finally,in the end, it makes comics more attractive from the outside, and less attractive inside.

  9. Not a single mention of Walking Dead #100. A book everyone was going apeshit selling so many copies, behind, what 14 variants? “This is huge for indie comics!” No, no it’s not.

  10. I stopped ordering all variant covers months ago.

    We never did mark-ups on them to begin with, instead randomly replacing a sub file’s regular cover with a variant cover. The problem is that there are so many variants these days that it was taking a larger amount of time each week just to do that. Spending large amounts of time ordering and handling product that made me no extra money was the breaking point.

    An occasional variant for something REALLY special is fine, but just like with hardcovers, not every title or issue deserves one.

  11. “Not a single mention of Walking Dead #100. ”

    There’s a fundamental difference between what I’m talking about and TWD #100 — TWD variants that were offered to the whole market were all “open to buy”… there were no strings nor conditions to any of it, and there’s clearly no expectation of market after-value for those. That’s different than forced variants (like the Boom/IDW forced 50/50) or limited ones (like 1:10 and so on)

    This was broken after the original 9, as they then went limited-release (the San Deigo cover, the retailer appreciation one, et al), but the initial plan was ethically sound.


  12. Fascinating if (deliberately?) provocative analysis. As a comics fan of 20+ years who has occasionally parted with cash for variants I think a few counter points need to be made.

    1. It is not necessarily wrong for retailers to sell variants (or any other hot comics) for well above cover price if the market is genuinely dictating the inflated figure i.e. if demand is outstripping supply to such a degree that customers people are willing to pay the premium. This type of sticker pricing is not necessarily unethical or damaging to long term business success if it’s done honestly.

    2. It’s not fair to simply seek to align individual product price with it’s cost to the retailer. Surely retailers analyse and balance profits and losses across the entire store and product range, rather than each individual product? If so it is surely the case that while some items are priced well above cost ( in accordance with market demand) they’ll be taking a hit on others.

    3. There is some rather unpleasant snobbery on show here about what constitutes the ‘right kind of comics fan’. Yes, speculators with little genuine appreciation for comics are problematic, but we shouldn’t dismiss people who value the collectability of comics. Compiling complete collections and hunting down hard to find items is a big part of the comics experience for many people which its unfair to dismiss.

    So I guess my overall point is that yes, maybe variant covers have got a little out of control and there’s a bit too much smoke and mirrors, but in principle they are not necessarily a bad thing.

  13. Love that image above. I’m sure I’ve seen that issue more than a few times in the quarter bins. Yep, nothing like making your comic book into a trading card.

    Buy the cover you like, ignore the rest. Speculating is for chumps.

  14. Lessee… I bought the “Issac Newton” variant from Marvel.

    There’s the Star Trek “Captain’s Log: Sulu” photocover, which actually ended up on the wrong comic.

    If it’s 50/50, like Boom’s Disney comics, I pick the coolest cover.

    Otherwise, I figure they’ll be reprinted in the trades.

    There is a distinction between “cover gimmicks” (numerous in the ’90s) and “variant covers” (Millennial, possibly started with Identity Crisis publishing variant covers for reprints in 2004).

    IDW might be the most egregious.
    >>> Godzilla (80 variants), Mars Attacks (58 variants), convention editions, retailer incentives

    Although Dynamite Entertainment (and Dynamic Forces) helped popularize the feeding frenzy.

    You know what a variant cover is? It’s a varietal. It’s the Semper Augustus of comics.

    How soon before comics are sheathed in chrome polybags, and you don’t know which cover you’ll get until you open the bag (instantly rendering the comic “near mint”)? It works for chase figures… why not comics?

    Or revamp the classic Whitman 3-pack… three comics for $10! One issue is a variant! Or one issue isn’t even solicited, it’s a complete surprise!

    “RETAILERS! Introducing “Acme Mystery Comics #1″! This new, groundbreaking, historic series will set new sales record fueled by tremendous buzz! We won’t tell you who the creators are, who the characters are, we won’t even show you the cover! Each issue is shipped in a tamper-proof chrome-mylar bag to provide maximum suspense! We’ll even mix a few variant and sketch covers into the shipping to make it fun and exciting! Order now! No reprints ever, not even a trade paperback!”

  15. When I first saw this title, I thought it was about our show the Variants! (Season Three just launched btw)

    My audience at Zeus is an equal mix of reader and reader and collector. As a retailer, I’m not going to turn away an audience that wants a comic for its collectability.

    That said I also don’t like to price variant covers to make a large buck or ebay them. The fun is getting them into the hands of the true fans of the books. Sure its a little extra work but its a great way to reward consistency and fandom.

    The only time I get frustrated with variant covers is when it moves past fandom and into greed. I prefer to let the secondary market handle that.

  16. Yeah, I’m with Mark on those same questions — I’ve never understood why making some part of a print run limited/collectible is such a terrible thing.

    Some people enjoy searching for and then owning something rare. Variant covers seem to have solved the problem of making a real collectible while also printing enough product to meet demand and turn a healthy profit. And if you don’t like them you’re welcome to just buy the regular edition.

    Unless there’s something I’m missing . . . I should just read Brian’s full piece, I’m sure he explains it!

  17. I was putting together the lists of November-shipping titles for CBGXtra.com earlier and noticed that IDW’s My Little Pony #1 has SEVEN variant covers. Six feature individual ponies, while the seventh is by Jill Thompson. Is any retailer actually going to stock enough of these to satisfy every fan of each individual pony? Seriously?

    The six variants can’t even be ordered separately, but are distributed in a more-or-less even ratio. The Thompson cover is available on a separate order line.

  18. I’m still longing the Jason Pearson Rolling Stones cover from Gen 13.

    I don’t mind the variants, if I like it (and can afford it), I but it.

  19. The main problem with variants is that they distort buying patterns. Customers should be buying the comics on the basis of what they want to read, not on the basis of some theoretical or imagined value of the variant cover. Most customers have limited budgets; money spent on a variant could have been spent on another title. And since buying patterns for comics aren’t comparable to consumption of other media–how are “different” comics supposed to compete, if the publisher is issuing variants for other titles and not marketing the different ones? Sales tactics in niche markets can easily become destructive to the market as a whole.

    Imagine what would happen if, say, food packages used variant packaging to boost sales. “What kind of macaroni & cheese should I buy? Oh, Kraft Spirals has four variant boxes! I’ll get four of those!”


  20. I see variants as a simple symptom of a larger problem… publishers focused on a limited (and shrinking and aging) demographic.

    For the sake of argument, let’s grant that Hibbs is correct to say variants damage the market, and variants are the product of over-catering to a limited audience. Doesn’t publisher treatment of story and character create much more of the exact same type of damage? I think the audience cares way, way more about story and character, and retailers become over-sensitive to the variant issue because they’re directly tapped in to the relatively small segment of the market that gives any shits about variants.

    Ultimately, isn’t this a complaint about the same publisher fan-service that produces Catwoman rooftop sex? I’d wager the variants do less audience-skewing damage than the roof sexing.

  21. I would say customers should be buying comics on whatever basis they want, whether that’s to read, collect, for toilet paper, or for a real or imagined value of the variant cover.

    I read Hibbs’ article and defer to him on whether or not variants hurt the industry in the long term. But I completely disagree with the “unethical/immoral” part of his argument. I feel the “free market” argument is all that’s needed to justify a retailer marking up the prices on variants. The comic is worth whatever the customer is willing to pay for it.

  22. Also, I have seen “variant” food packages (cereal boxes certainly, and I’m sure there have been others I am forgetting), as do peridoical magazines (Entertainment Weekly in particular). Of course the prices of these items at retail aren’t jacked up higher, but I’m sure if they thought someone would pay $20 for a Olympic Fab Five box of Corn Flakes they would do it.

  23. @Richard, good point.

    I’m not a retailer, so I don’t have a frame of reference there… does that happen often? Any retailers on this board that can give us info on how common a problem it is for new readers to accidentally pick up A & B covers thinking they’re different issues?

  24. I’m not a fan of variant covers but bringing moral judgments into an argument like this is a bit extreme. If variant covers are unethical, then anyone arguing in favor of them is, by default, unethical. We see this a lot in politics and it greatly hinders discourse.

    Unless the production of a product or the selling of a product is done in a dishonest or unlawful way, I don’t see how you can label it moral or immoral. It may be a bad business decision to produce or sell variants but attaching some sort of good/evil value on the practice is unjustified.

    Not brushing your teeth is bad for your health but it is not immoral. It’s just a choice. Not every choice is attached to morality.

  25. @Greg Every choice is attached to morality. And obliging readers (or collectors, really, which are not the same) to pay the full price or more when the only difference is the cover is pretty small. There is absolutely nothing ethical about Capitalism.

  26. @Richard Caldwell.

    If every choice is attached to morality, then help me with a choice I often face in the morning — do I wear a button-up or a T-shirt? Which choice is the immoral one?

    I’m not sure I understand your second statement.

    As for your third, that topic is entirely too broad to apply to this argument. If capitalism is unethical, then the entire comic book industry is operating within an unethical system and therefore, unethical. Which makes all of this discussion a moot point.

  27. @Greg Read this real slowly so the points sink in for ya.

    Expecting persons to purchase multiple items that are virtually the same thing (minus the cover) is not better than a scam.

    Even in the oxymoron of a creative industry, services are expected to be provided, but if multiple products are 95% the same then what service is provided? It’s a system setup for entertainment, but instead is molested into nothing more than draining the money from consumers. So yes, the entire mainstream industry is unethical, and defending its practices speaks volumes for your own lack of character. For more info, eat this:


  28. don’t like variants, don’t buy them. do i buy them? no. i’m happy with the plain standard cover of the issue. now the completist collector in me understands the lure of variants, but the crassness of the marked up prices of these items leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but if other people want to buy them with those inflated prices, well that’s up to them. but this doesn’t mean i’m variant free. i do score those blank variant covers, take them to cons and have an artist or three whip up a nice piece of original artwork on the cover making the variant a truly unique collectable piece and helping a few artist make some dough at a con. as far as the blank variants are concerned, it seems like a win-win.

  29. @Richard Caldwell

    You insulted my intelligence AND questioned my character in that post. Was that necessary? Did I provoke that in any way?

    Ironically, you proved my point. It only took you two posts to suggest I lack character for even defending a publisher’s right to print variant covers. Which was my concern in making the variant covers debate a moral one. Instead of arguing the merits/drawbacks of variant covers in the industry, the debate devolves into a “you’re unethical and you lack character” insult match.

    Also, there is no precedent for the application of the Unfairness doctrine to selling variant covers on a comic book. Unless the comics are bagged and customers are led to believe the variants are different issues rather than different copies. But that’s not the case. The variants are clearly labeled and the consumers are fully aware of what they are buying.

    I’m not defending variant covers, I’m merely defending the right of the publisher and retailer to sell them.

  30. The book trade has been propped up for decades by the oldest premium cover scheme in publishing: hardcovers. The pricing on new hardcover releases is “justified” to the end consumer by the production of a durable collectible format. When the collectible buyers run out, they then produce the much cheaper paperbacks for the readers only market.

  31. An economic argument against variants is that comics, as reading material, are bought as entertainment, and the cover price influences the consumer’s buying decision. If the cover price of an issue makes it a bad value, he spends his entertainment money on something else. To people who buy variants simply because they’re variants, the cover price isn’t an issue. A guy might not literally be spending $8 on a single floppy comic, but he’s spending far more than the cover price.

    If variants are bought on a large scale because they’re variants, then the sales figures for the various series are inflated. The comics aren’t being bought as entertainment; they’re being bought by many as collectibles at inflated prices. The sales volume and pricing in the market are artificial. If there’s an economic downturn, and many people have to cut back their entertainment budgets, using limited funds to buy variants becomes foolish. The (superhero) comics market could implode very quickly.

    For the comics market to attract investment, and grow or shrink predictably, the value of comics as entertainment has to be comparable to other forms of entertainment. Relying on variants for sales makes the market unhealthy.


  32. I really think that lumping Boom in with the rest of the ‘guilty’ is a tad unfair.
    Boom’s variants are FREE to the retailer!
    All those lovely Adventure Time variants are a GIFT for supporting the title and who wants to deprive an affluent collector of choice let alone talented cartoonists the dosh for creating them.

    And IDW?
    Well how about their nifty variant covers offered to retailers as an incentive to customers willing to subscribe.
    SUBSCRIBE Brian, in your STORE to an EXCLUSIVE product like the ‘Judge Dredd’ foil stamped badge cover (SEP120281)that by the way can be ordered in UNLIMITED QUANTITY for the same cost as the regular cover.
    Jill Thompson,lovely Jill Thompson’s EXCLUSIVE SUBSCRIPTION VARIANT for’My Little Pony #1′(SEP120302)

    Is anyone suprised that maybe Marvel doesn’t really have the long term health of the industry as their number one priority?
    And I’ll forgive DC because they backed the direct market BIG TIME these past 12 months.

    (I LOVE YOU Brian your words have made the store SO much stronger over the last 12

    Still friends?

  33. I think “subscription” variants to be nearly the stupidest variant idea ever in the history of anything.

    And Boom! *forces* variants on my racks, so screw that!


  34. Is there any evidence that variants have any actual resale value?

    As reading material, the resale value of a random Big Two comic book is close to zero. The value of a variant cover to someone who already owns it would also be close to zero, wouldn’t it? About the only situation in which a variant could be sold for a goodly sum would be a buyer who had a partial set of variants and wanted to complete it. If someone wanted to buy a run of issues but wasn’t collecting variants, he probably wouldn’t want to pay money to acquire them.

    Personally, I’d rather buy lottery tickets than use money to buy variants.


  35. Just a thought: The comics biz must be pretty solid now for retailers if a screed about variant covers is lighting up the boards.

    I have played all sides of the variant thing— from the days when I completely ignored variants and interested customers felt I was completely ignoring them, to the present, when I deal in variants because there is a market for them (and I am a comic book seller by profession), because I try my best to respond to the requests of my customers, because variant buyers are a mix of all kinds of customers.

    Some publishers, BOOM!, for instance, use the “order ten, get one free” variants as a way to compensate for the lower discount retailers get on their products as opposed to The Big Two. Other publishers use variants in such ways that it makes no sense to order them (like listing “incentive” covers at higher net prices than regular editions— um, that’s no incentive, Mr. Avatar, Mr. Aspen, et al)

    Do Marvel and DC over-use variants? As in all commercial ventures, the basic answer is “let the market decide.” I guarantee you that if a there is no ongoing market for any particular title’s stream of variants (like those from BOOM!, IDW, Dynamite and many from Marvel & DC), then I won’t order them. The information is in my POS to let me know what’s working and what’s not.

    Marvel has been very good about incentivizing many new titles with increased discounts and variants that do allow me to find a higher ceiling on titles than I normally would. In many cases, Marvel has made it cheaper to order more copies at steeper discounts than if I ordered what I “thought” I could sell. No way I would have bought and sold more than 400 copies of Avengers Vs X-Men #1 without the incentives.

    I believe comics are meant to be entertainment first, last and always… and the truth of the matter is that some buyers are entertained by acquiring variants.

    You could, like Brian does and like I used to, sit on the sidelines and not play. That’s a valid, if somewhat short-sighted view of the business of comics.

    I choose to try to take care of my customers.

    It’s just that simple.

  36. I choose to try to take care of my customers.

    It’s reasonable to avoid selling collectibles which aren’t actually collectible in a meaningful sense. If someone is interested enough in artwork to want to buy variants, he could be advised to buy original pages or to commission drawings. At least those things are actual collectibles which can be resold.


  37. @Joe Field

    Really well said.

    As strange as it sounds, this whole debate has me thinking about variants in a completely different light. I may not get the excitement of collecting variants but “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.”

    Collectors are the lifeblood of this industry and if their love of variants enables retailers to make a few more bucks and allows them to order more copies for their stands, what’s the harm? These collectors aren’t speculators – they’re fans. They may be a different kind of fan than I am but who am I to judge how someone buys and enjoys their comics?

    We like to tell ourselves (as an industry) that there are a wealth of potential new readers out there, just waiting to get into comics. But they haven’t shown up yet. So why keep knocking the guys who continually spend their hard-earned money on comics, month in, month out? Why knock the guy who gives a brick and mortar store $20 for a variant cover? And why knock variant covers if they’re helping a publisher/creator make money and continue producing the book?

    Maybe if THOR THE MIGHTY AVENGER had employed the use of highly-desirable variants, we might not have ever lost the series.

  38. @Brian — There are honestly no “rubes” in the variant game. But you wouldn’t know that because that is a part of the comics market you choose to ignore.

    @ Synsidar —
    If your only meaning to “collectible” is about the resale value of a comic (or original art piece, for that matter), then you are not seeing the reality that some are collectors because of a desire to “have” not a desire to sell later for more.

    @Greg — I sure wish something would/could have been done to save the Langridge/Samnee Thor title. Not sure that variants would have worked there, though.

  39. Suppose that Marvel started putting serial numbers on its comics, and comics fans decided that getting copy #1 of any given issue justified paying more than the cover price. Would that be fine–if someone thought that having copy #1 of IRON MAN #117 justified paying $10 for it, it was worth that to him–or should the fan be protected from himself?


  40. MAD used these gimmicks years ago.


    The first variant cover?
    Mad Magazine #60 January 1961

    MAD also produced special editions for Desert Storm, including a flag-burning cover which MAD had pulled from the domestic market.

    Then there was the 4-cover edition of MAD Magazine #359 – July 1997 (Batman & Robin)

    In the early 1990s, MAD ink-jetted serial numbers on their quarterly specials. Was the December 1968 issue also serialized? (Nope… just four different covers.)

    What is the history of regular magazine variants? TV Guide had seven covers on 9/3/1994 for “The NFL Now”.

    The most notorious?

    X-Men #1 is believed to be the first comic book with distinct variant covers (A-D,E), although Spider-Man #1 used different color treatments (four initial covers, plus two second printings and a platinum retailer edition).

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