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Help a New Comic Reader Out: Variant Covers

Ali Colluccio

Staff Writer

Ali Colluccio enjoys comics, cocktails, and curling. She lives in Brooklyn with her adorably blind kitten, Minerva, and tweets with reckless abandon at @WonderAli.

Comic books and comics culture have a lot of nuances and traditions and continuity that can be a bit difficult to navigate. So in Help a New Comic Reader Out, we team up a rookie comic reader with a seasoned vet to show them the ropes. It’s just like your favorite buddy cop comedy. But with a lot more geeking out and a lot less property damage.

For our first time out, Panelteers Ali and Brian are in the squad car talking about variant covers.

Ali: I understand the basic concept of variant covers. Only a small(ish) number of the variant covers for a particular comic issue are printed, making them kind of a collector’s item. And there are, I guess I’d say tiers, so that some variants are rarer/more expensive than others. Is that about right?

Brian: Like most things in comics business, variant covers are a lot more complicated than they really need to be. Tiers is probably the best way to describe how variant covers work in today’s comics industry. In general practice, some comics will ship with multiple covers for their first printing that are more-or-less equally distributed. Sometimes a comic will ship with interconnected or interlocking variant covers – the image only makes sense if you link them together – to drive up initial sales of an issue, especially a first issue. Generally these books are sold for their cover price and are relatively easy to come by.

The second tier of variants are called chase variants, so named because fans are expected to chase after these covers. Chase variants are printed in much smaller quantities than the standard cover and are usually tightly distributed on a ratio system. It’s not uncommon for a book to have multiple chases variants, each distributed at a different sales ratio. So you may see a major comic having a 1-in-10 Variant, a 1-in-25 Variant, and so on. As you can guess, this means that there’s only one copy of the chase variant for every 10 copies of the standard cover a retailer orders. Because some stores will order more books than they need in order to nab a few extra variants, it’s common to find chase variants sold for a lot more than their cover price so the store can recoup its losses.

As a take off on chase variants, over the past decade or so we’ve seen the addition of Retailer Incentive (RI) covers, which are variants with very high rarity, say 1-in-100 or more, that are created to get retailers to buy significantly more issues than normal. These are usually among the most expensive type of variant cover and could be listed for $100 or more by a retailer. Besides Incentive covers, there are also Retailer Exclusive covers. These are variant covers than can only be purchased through a particular retailer and usually carry that store’s logo. Some of these covers are commissioned by the store itself, some are offered to retailers who have ordered several thousand copies of a particular book. Retailer Exclusives generally have their own particular cost that may not be directly tied to their rarity. There are even Convention Exclusives that can only be procured at a particular convention, which might even be months removed from the initial publication of that book.

Ali: That’s a lot of variants!

Brian: There are also any number of variant cover variants! Sketch cover variants, which utilize the uncolored art for either a standard or variant cover. Blank variant covers made with heavier card stock that fans can take to a convention and get an artist to sketch a drawing on. Marvel will usually launch its new number one issues with a Skottie Young Baby Variant cover or run a variant cover theme month, where a single character or theme appears on a variant cover to each book published that month (Deadpool, Women of Marvel, DC’s Harley Quinn month, etc.). Some variants are just the standard cover but without any of the titles, creator credits, logos or barcodes, usually called “naked covers.” Anniversary variants, commemorative variants, color-faded variants and many, many more. Marvel’s recent release of Star Wars #1 came with nearly 70 variant covers, with at least one in each of these categories.

Ali: Hehehe. “Naked.” Anyway. I know some of the smaller publishers like IDW and Boom will release multiple covers for a single issue. Do those count as variants covers?

Brian: Yes, they count as variant covers. Sometimes they’re in 50/50 or 60/40 distribution and might not be significantly marked up in price because they’re not exactly rare. The answer is also no, because sometimes the companies themselves don’t refer to them as a variant. Sometimes they’re called alternate covers, sometimes they’re variants, sometimes they’re just… covers. (That’s comics for you!) When Dynamite Entertainment launched its Red Sonja comic nearly a decade ago, every issue had two standard covers and a few chase variants. That’s a lot of variant covers!

Because IDW licenses a lot of movie and TV franchises, it’s not uncommon for them to have a photo variant cover, which utilizes a promotional photo or screen cap of the franchise in question. Some companies even have “Subscriber Covers” which are only distributed to readers who pre-order the book through a store or direct from the publisher.

Ali: Do they expect or want people to track down and buy all the covers? To make all the money?

Brian: Well, the companies would certainly like people to. I know IDW and Dynamite tend to print a little guide to all the covers for an issue on the inside front cover, clearly a way for fans to know how many covers they could get; kind of like a variant cover Pokédex. Variant covers are basically just another of the promotional tools that comics companies rely on. Sometimes they’re super effective and can double the sales of a debut issue. The five interlocking covers for 1991’s X-Men #1 are generally considered to be the best selling variant covers of all time.

And, even if they believe their customers are too savvy to buy more than one version of an issue, the enticement of a favorite artist creating a variant cover can often be enough to get someone to buy a chase variant. This might mean a retailer will order more copies to get more chase variants to meet customer demand. I’ll admit to having chased a few variants in my time, in particular Frank Quitely’s Gil Kane homage variant for Green Lantern #60. But I usually only buy the variant cover or the standard, never both.

Ali: I think my main source of confusion is I’m not sure who the audience for the variant covers is, especially when there are so many variants. Are they made for collectors only? Or are they meant to get people who wouldn’t normally buy a series to try it out?

Brian: Variant covers are a marketing ploy, so they’re definitely there to entice new readers to check a series out, even if they’re only buying it for a cover. But variants were designed more for the collector crowd. Again, it’s all about increasing sales, even if those sales are to the same customer base. It’s a bit self defeating, as it doesn’t really add new sales to the pool and might even dilute the sales of other books. But… comic companies know that collectors are still around and are very likely to try and buy many – if not all – of the variants.

Variant covers originate from the Direct Market days of comics distribution, the time when sales of comics through newsstands were on the decline and buying directly through a specialty store was on the rise. Some major comics would ship with a “newsstand” cover which had a UPC barcode box or a “Direct Market” cover which did not have a box. [Editor’s note: We flipflopped these definitions, initially, but they’re correct now!] Because many companies were already prepping two cover treatments, it seemed logical that they could splurge and pay a second artist to create another cover for one of the two markets. John Byrne’s Man of Steel #1 (1986) is credited as being the first variant cover in comics. From there, the application of the variant as a sales gimmick increased and was especially prevalent during the 1990s, when collecting and speculating on comics was at its peak and fans would snap up each and every cover. Many cite Wildstorm’s Gen 13 #1 as ending the late 90s variant craze because it launched with 13 variant covers; there were just too many for fans to purchase and they were too common to become a collector’s item. There’s some truth to that assertion, although variant covers never really went away, they just became a little less common. In recent years, though, they’ve come back and often in larger numbers than the variants before it.

Ali: Shouldn’t the variant cover reflect what’s in the book, at least a little bit? Why is there a Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader variant cover for the Princess Leia series? It’s a beautiful piece by Alex Ross, but shouldn’t it be on the Vadar or regular Star Wars book?

Brian: Yeah, you would think that if a book was going to have multiple covers, all the covers would still be relevant to the book in some way. And this is probably true for the most part. The main character(s) of the book usually feature on variants. But there are times when the idea of the variant might drive up sales, even if it doesn’t feature the characters. In the case of the Alex Ross Prince Leia variant that doesn’t feature Princess Leia, it seems that Marvel and Ross are banking on fans wanting that piece of art more than the book itself. The variant is being sold direct through Ross’s online store, so they may be hoping fans will want to collect all the variants and some will go to Ross’s store and buy items besides the variant comic. The Inception of sales gimmicks. I still think it’s poor form to not have Leia on the cover, though. It’s her book! And I’m sure Alex Ross would paint a wonderful Leia. I think it also sends a bad message to comics readership about the value placed on a title when the variants get farther and farther afield of the actual comic.

Marvel’s Wolverine Variant Cover month tended to straddle a line between covers that featured the star of the normal book with Wolverine or just straight up Wolverine by himself on the cover, even if it was the variant cover to Iron Man’s book. Many of DC’s Harley Quinn books feature Harley by herself with only a relatively minor tie-in to the book the variant is on. It’s all aimed at the collector mindset. You don’t necessarily need the the variant cover to reflect the content of the book because a collection-minded fan will buy all the issues. They’ll have their standard version that matches the content and then the variant that fits into a theme or is just special because of its special specialness.

Ali: Since we’re talking about variants, I can’t NOT ask about the Milo Manara Spider-Woman variant cover that blew up the Internet a few months ago.

Why would a variant for a comic seemingly aimed at a female audience have a hyper-sexualized variant cover that is clearly for the male gaze? Not that I want to put you in the hot seat for this. It’s just something that I struggle with as a lady type who reads comics.

Brian: Comics readership has been changing for the better for a while now. It’s more diverse and the titles are finally starting to better reflect that readership. The problem is that many companies and retailers still don’t view these newer readers as their bread-and-butter, which is unfortunate for them. They want to cater to the stereotyped male fan who they believe drives a significant percentage of their sales. So while a book like Spider-Woman is aimed at a female audience, companies feel they can still put out male gaze-y variants that will be snapped up by their “traditional fans.” I think it also provides comics companies an out. They can produce “all audiences” covers for books but still offer t-and-a covers under the guise of “It’s just a variant that doesn’t reflect the book” or “It’s just this artist’s style.”

But even this trend appears to be breaking. In February, Diamond released their reorder sales numbers – comics that retailers are buying in addition to their initial orders – and the Skottie Young variant to Spider-Gwen beat out additional sales of Star Wars variants!