Comics/Graphic Novels

Do Variant Covers Matter?

Jessica Plummer

Contributing Editor

Jessica Plummer has lived her whole life in New York City, but she prefers to think of it as Metropolis. Her day job is in books, her side hustle is in books, and she writes books on the side (including a short story in Sword Stone Table from Vintage). She loves running, knitting, and thinking about superheroes, and knows an unnecessary amount of things about Donald Duck. Follow her on Twitter at @jess_plummer.

If you’re reading this, I assume you’ve already heard about the Joker variant cover for Batgirl #41 and the ensuing controversy. The cover has been pulled, and in my opinion, rightfully so. Opponents of pulling the cover have protested this, loudly. Leaving aside threats and harassment (unacceptable) and cries of censorship (the government didn’t pull the cover, so…that’s not what censorship is), one of the arguments I keep seeing is: “It’s just a variant cover! Variant covers don’t matter!”

I heard this, too, when Marvel hired erotica artist Milo Manara to do a variant cover for Spider-Woman, a cover that was also subsequently pulled. I heard it when they released an Alex Ross variant cover for Princess Leia that featured only Luke and Vader, no Leia.

“It’s just a variant cover! Variant covers don’t matter!”

They do, though.

First of all, it’s ludicrous to argue in 2015 that these covers won’t be seen because they’re more rare. (For a fantastically informative explanation of what variant covers are, by the way, and how they work, check out Ali and Brian’s breakdown here.) You are reading this on the Internet, my friend. No one is getting their news from an informative chat with their friendly newsstand attendant. Comic book publishers announce their variant covers along with the rest of their monthly solicitations, and covers like the ones mentioned above quickly go viral in the online comicsphere due to their controversial nature. Don’t pretend you have to stumble across a variant cover like it’s a golden ticket to a chocolate factory.

Plus, variant covers are meant to be seen. They’re marketing materials. They only work to drive sales if you already know what they look like! That’s why publishers issue special press releases for variants with big name artists, and comic book shops display them in highly visible places. That Manara cover wouldn’t have come wrapped in brown paper; it would have been on the wall along with all the other collector’s items.

And it’s their very nature as marketing documents, as (the publisher hopes) highly sought-after collectibles, that makes variant comics matter. Because the kind of marketing a publisher does tells you what kind of audience they’re hoping to attract.

I’ve been reading comics for over a decade, and for much of that time, it’s been an uphill battle just getting publishers to acknowledge that female comic book readers even exist. Which: they do, and they have been reading comic books as long as comic books have existed. But for the past few decades, up until very recently, they haven’t been viewed as a viable market, which means that there was very little content created specifically to appeal to female readers. As recently as three and a half years ago, when DC rebooted their entire line, they specifically identified men ages 18-35 as their target market. Anyone outside of that was just gravy.

But in the past few years – especially in 2014 – we’ve started to see reboots, redesigns, and reimaginings designed to appeal to young female readers (who, I should note, are the fastest-growing demographic reading comics right now). Captain Marvel. Batgirl. Ms. Marvel. Spider-Gwen. Gotham Academy. Spider-Woman. Starfire and Black Canary (I have high hopes!). The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. For someone who’s been calling for female-friendly comics for years, I can’t tell you how thrilling it is to see something aimed at me on the stands.

So when DC releases a variant like the Batgirl cover, one that celebrates a story of a woman being sexually assaulted and paralyzed, one that editor Len Wein signed off on with “Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch,” it says more to me than, “Hey, it’s Joker Month!”

It says I am not the true demographic for this book.

It says DC still views the same old demographic of straight, white, male readers ages 18-35 as their real market.

It says DC thinks this whole “women reading comics” thing is a flash in the pan.

Just like the Milo Manara cover says that Marvel thinks its “core base” cares more about a big name artist and a sexy pose than characterization and storytelling. Or the Princess Leia cover says that they don’t have faith that people actually want to read about a woman. Which is insulting not just to the female readers who are being put off by these covers, but to that collector market. I know plenty of longtime male comics readers ages 18-35, many of whom are reading Ms. Marvel and Batgirl and Gotham Academy and all of these other great female-led books, and they are drawn in by good comics, not exploitative stunts. You don’t have to put a butt front-and-center on these covers to get boy-dollars, Big Two, and acting like you do is insulting to all of your readers.

Variant covers matter because they make a statement about the market the publishers value. And DC and Marvel can’t draw in female readers with one hand and cling to an antiquated and insulting idea of “real” comic book readers with the other – at least not on the same books. Sure, there are some readers who have reacted with anger when these covers are pulled, going so far as to attack anyone who criticized the covers in the first place, but is that really the audience you want to court?

Instead, choose covers that appeal to a wide swath of your readers, not an increasingly irrelevant minority that responds with threats and harassment when sexism is pointed out. Celebrate the fact that you have tapped into the spendiest demographic in America, and treat them like valued customers. Capitalize on the momentum you’ve built with these exciting changes, and stop shooting yourselves in the foot.

Women love superheroes, and we want to spend money on your comics, Big Two. So when you make a book for us, commit to making a book for us. Right on down to the variants.


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