Variant Covers - Too Much of a Good Thing?

Jul 26, 2020
Two John Byrne Man of Steel comic book covers side by side showing Clark Kent tearing open his shirt to show the Superman logo

Any hobby has its niche corners and comic book collecting is no different. The field of variant covers is one such niche and although most of us have an idea of what the concept involves, digging a little deeper reveals a wide and fascinating branch of the industry which brings together the completist, the art fan and the Superman stan and sets a challenge for the comic book store owner which most casual customers would not normally encounter. 

Variant covers have existed almost since the start of the comic book industry: I can remember my dad showing me how an error in the perforations on a particular sheet of British stamps made them far more valuable to philatelists than their much more available perfect versions, and so also it is with comic books - accidental variations in printing can make certain runs of books a novelty, creating 'chase covers' such as Fantastic Four #110. A printing error produced a small run of this cover with red-green and pink-blue colour switches - collectors seek out the 'pink Johnny and Sue' version.

side by side images of the cover of Fantastic Four 110 showing the team with multiple Reed Richards, right hand version shows green Thing and pink and green Storm siblings
Fantastic Four #110 correct version and sought after 'pink Johnny and Sue' version
Deliberate variations also existed from early days for practical reasons: due to differing rules on sale or return between newsstands and comic book stores in the US, some comics were printed with a different logo on the cover to distinguish the type of outlet to which it had been delivered. The Whitman publishing company distributed DC comics with a Whitman logo covering DC's for this purpose. 

Wonder Woman comic book cover showing El Gaucho astride a black horse, holding a lasso around WW's waist
Wonder Woman #263 cover with Whitman logo
The variant phenomenon in the form we might recognise made its debut, perhaps surprisingly recently, in 1986, with John Byrne producing two versions of his cover art for Man Of Steel #1, one showing Superman full height, superimposed against a world in peril, and the second zooming in on the famous symbol on his chest as he tears open his Clark Kent shirt. The two versions were a deliberate attempt to increase the number of sales - one was available at exclusively at newsstands and the other via the direct market. 

In the nineties, the variant cover phenomenon exploded, as publishers discovered the rich market brought by completist collectors and the boom in speculative comic book purchasing - investment collectors would buy up every possible version of a comic book issue in order to mothball them with the intention of selling them when their value had risen, and so creating multiple versions, especially where some had additional scarcity value, extended the earning power of an individual issue.

Quadruple width gatefold cover showing 12 X-Men in battle with Magneto
X-Men Vol 2 #1E Gatefold
It was this boom which fuelled the demand for the biggest selling single issue comic book of all time, X-Men Vol 2 #1, with its five Jim Lee variations; four depicting one or more of the main characters and a fifth, a gatefold cover, revealing how the first four fitted together to form a single image. Each of these issues sold well over a million copies apiece - breaking 8.1 million altogether and heralding a seismic move by publishers to generate collector-friendly editions.

Almost inevitably, this was followed by a backlash from those considering themselves 'true' comic book fans, who struck back against their beloved industry becoming awash with those who were only in it to make money: quite reasonably demanding that comic books should be for the reader and complaining that variants inflated comic book prices unrealistically - and the madness abated to some extent, particularly when the so-called 'speculators' realised many of the books they were buying multiple copies of failed to hold their value. 

In recent years variants have seen a resurgence for a number of perhaps more positive reasons. Variant covers are often generated in celebration of an event such as the 'Decade' event celebrating 70 years of Marvel, each variant drawn in the style of a decade of Marvel's history. 

Covers showing Deadpool posing with daisies and She_Hulk in discowear with long spiky red hair and Loki style horns
Variants from '1960's Deadpool' and '1990's All New Savage She-Hulk' 2009
Variants have become a way for fans to purchase work by their favourite artists, even those who might not have been creating an ongoing book at that time. Many enthusiasts now look out for quirky artists such as Skottie Young whose cartoony baby versions of classic characters have become icons in their own right, as infuriatingly appealing as Funko Pops. For those whose heart's desire is to own a copy of everything ever published in the name of a particular creator, there are variant covers with art by creators who are normally best known for writing: Jeff Lemire, for example, often generates a variant cover for a book he is writing and for which the art is in the hands of an artist such as Andrea Sorrentino. 
Comic book cover showing baby versions of X-Men looking guilty around a smashed Ice-Man baby, in the shadow of a huge Wolverine silhouette
Skottie Young Marvel NOW! baby variant covers 2012
Variant cover art has also moved further towards art for art's sake, with fans shelling out sizeable sums for a comic with a specific cover and then slabbing it immediately to preserve its perfect, pristine unread status. To old-school comics readers, whose favourite issues tend more to the well-thumbed and dog-eared end of the scale, this often seems preposterous behaviour, but just because an artform appears sequentially, it doesn't mean it's not still art - I can see an argument for preserving any artwork in mint condition - but I think I'd want to buy a cheap and cheerful second copy so I can say I've read and enjoyed the contents as well! 

As well as artist and character variants, publishers also tap in the collector markets with what might be classed as 'luxury' variants, with embossed images, foil surfaces or acetate overlays - because what isn't improved by making it shiny? (although, in the current climate, a textured cover which positively encourages handling may not be the best idea!) - and then there's the range of variants falling into the 'less is more' category - with no wording, or no colours, or even no images at all. But why a completely blank cover? What could be the appeal? It seems bizarre until you see examples of creators at comic cons live drawing the cover image on a blank issue - what could possibly be more special to a fan than to have their very own unique cover drawn specially for them by their favourite artist?

Comic book cover with handdrawn stickman Batman falling from a cliff
Tom King unique Batstickman cover for Heroes in Crisis
Comic con variants form a subcategory in their own right, with con-exclusive variants now the expectation for the big US comic conventions, such as SDCC and NYCC.

For the comic book store owner, variants can be a mixed blessing. Get your hands on something rare and special, and you have a money spinner, but predicting what will sell well, and especially what will gain value, is a tricky business. Variant ordering plans are a miasma of complication: stores are often offered incentive variants - something a bit special, but only offered on a ratio basis of one for every five, 10, 25, 50 or 100 standard copies sold - fine if you usually order about 45 of a particular book and you can offset the cost of a few additional copies against the higher value variant - not so great if your standard order is 30: the margin is insurmountably wide. 

Yet more challenging is the incentive which asks retailers to qualify for a variant of a popular book by up-selling a less popular one. This seems, if nothing else, to be an environmentally unethical process: forcing retailers to buy something they will not sell and which will end up as overstock, possibly eventually literal garbage - like buying the cereal for the free toy and throwing the cereal away. Arguably worse is the retailer incentive scheme which requires store owners to send the torn-off covers from a shortlist of other titles back to the distributor to qualify for a special cover: literally trashing the competition. 2010's Wolverine #1 Deadpool Variant required Diamond registered retailers to send 50 covers to Marvel to obtain one artificially rare copy. 

Comic book cover showing Wolverine in Deadpool's suit
Wolverine #1 Deadpool 2010 R.I. variant
Variant covers for second and successive printing also further complicate the life of our hardworking comic store owners: under-order an issue which turns out to be popular and you can end up having to mollify customers who see the clearly differentiated later printing as less desirable than the first printing - another good reason to let your LCS know what you want well ahead of time! I find myself wondering what the purpose of this is - a way to use a wonderful cover that wouldn't otherwise have seen the light of day? Perhaps one which includes spoilers which might be out of the bag once the first printing has been released and reviewed? 

First and second printing cover of Dark Horse's Bang!
Bang! #1 2020 first and second printing cover
There's so much more to investigate with variant covers, so this has just been a snapshot: for a longer read, I can strongly recommend Drew Bradley's three part article for Multiversity Comics from 2014 - full of stats and research, it's a great resource that stands up still. 

After a boom and bust history, it looks as though, love 'em or hate 'em, variant covers, in all their myriad forms, are here to stay.

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