The Issue With Variants

Variant covers for comic book issues have been a staple of the industry for some time now. The first comic book to have a variant cover was 1986’s The Man of Steel #1While there were technically variants before this, they were all due to small differences such as distributor logo. Man of Steel #1 was the first to receive variant artwork, which is what variants are mostly known for nowadays.

Variants played something of a not unsubstantial role in the “spectator boom” of comics in the 1990’s. There are a lot of pieces to the spectator boom puzzle which I won’t go into here, but if you’re interested you can read this great article by Michael McCallum on ComicBooked.com.

To give a brief history of the boom, people suddenly got the idea that buying a comic and holding on to it for 10, 20, or 50 years would eventually put their kids through university or pay off their house. Big firms such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times wrote articles about the possible future value of these once unpalatable items and so people started buying comics by the armful.

Due to the surge in demand for comic books, particularly rarer issues, publishers began to create more and more “special” editions of their product. Not only did these include covers with varying artwork, but also “enchanted” editions such as holofoil covers and polybaged issues. Spider-Man #1the first issue of the adjective-less series drawn by the hottest artist of the 90’s, Todd McFarlain, had 13 variant covers alone.

However, the people buying all these comics were spectators, not collectors. They were buying with the hope that these comics would be worth thousands in the future, they weren’t buying because they had a love for the medium.

Eventually, the spectators caught on that all these comics probably weren’t worth anything and stopped buying. Of course publishers were still producing all these thousands of copies thinking they would sell…but they weren’t. The spectator bubble burst and it almost took the whole comics industry with it. Comic stores closed, Marvel almost went bankrupt and many publishers saw their revenue drop from $900US million to $300US million by the end of the 90’s.

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Three of the Spider-Man #1 variants

Given the part that variant covers, particularly those issues that had copious amounts of them, played in the near downfall of the comic book industry, you’d think that publishers would approach any future ventures into such area with cautious trepidation. However, you would, of course, be wrong.

Big releases, generally first issues or the start of an important story arc, often receive 10, 15, sometimes 20 or more variant covers. When Marvel released Doctor Strange #1 in 2015, the first issue in the good Doctor’s 4th volume that was in no way released simply to cash in on the then upcoming film, it received no fewer than fifteen variant covers. When DC relaunched Batman as part of the DC Universe Rebirth initiative in 2016 the first issue received 43 variant covers.

So, why then would comics publishers continue a practice that can be argued to have had a considerable role in their near downfall? As with most things, the easiest answer is “money.”

During the 90’s boom, publishers produced more variants because lots of people kept buying them. Things blew up when those people stopped buying. Now, that group of spectators has been replaced by collectors. The collector market is a reliable one. They put money aside for the product comics publishers create and they – generally – get excited over supplementary product. Anything that is in some way “special” they feel they need to have for their collection, even if it’s as simple as different art on a books cover.

There is a lot of psychology behind why collectors collect which I won’t go into, but basically we’re suckers for anything new, shiny and cool. And publishers know it!

Some comic fans feel publishers are preying on the anal-retentiveness of collectors with variant covers – and there is probably a lot of truth in that – but  if you’re able to look at these things with a non-cynical eye it can be argued that variant covers give consumers choice.

A good example of this would be Moonstone Books The Phantom: Ghost Who Walks #1 which had three variant covers. I chose to buy the Sy Barry cover as he is my favourite Phantom artist. The other covers weren’t bad, but I had the choice of several, all at the same price, so why not pick up the one by the artist I like most?

Variant covers can also help raise awareness of an issue. Often publishers will produce a variant cover that is exclusive to a convention or similar event so that those in attendance are made more keenly aware of the book and/or series and will be reported by the wider comics press. This is also true for “stylised” variants that might use a particular art style, such as the recent Funko Pop! variants.

Variants are also a safe way for trying out various things which may not work well as a “regular” cover. A perfect example of this is the sketch variant. Comic publishers know that the great majority of comic fans appreciate the creative process of comics just as much as the final product. Thus on occasion a variant will be released showing the pencil work of a series’ artist, free from inks or colours. This is something that comic collectors, appreciating as they do the work that goes into the creation of their favourite stories, would be very interested in.

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A sketch variant for Tomb Raider #9, released by Top Cow in 2000

Perhaps having learned from the foils of the 90’s, publishers do actually produce some variants on a rarer scale. For example, retailer incentive variants are variants which are only sent to a retailer if they order a spercific number of the regular issue. This, of course, makes variant covers even more collectable and some sell or amazing prices on the secondary market.

Of course, the necessity of collecting variants is up to the individual. One on hand you could argue it’s somewhat pointless having several copies of the same issue, albeit with a different cover. After all, the art can always be found online and is re-printed in trade collections for the most part. Then again, the variants can be said to be part of the overall series and thus a collection would not be complete without them.

For my own collecting, I’ve taken the stance of “if it’s cool.” If a variant issue was released for an issue of a series I read that I particularly like I’d try and get a copy. Otherwise, I was always fairly content with whichever cover I get. However, there is one big exception.

In 2007 I rediscovered Archie Comics’ Sonic the Hedgehog series with issue #173 and, thanks to the amazing writing of Ian Flynn, fell in love with both Sonic (again) and the series. In 2011, the 225th issue of Sonic was released and Archie celebrated by releasing a special pencil sketch variant, the first for the series. It was a wonderful issue and I decided that I was going to go back and collect the entirety of Ian Flynn’s run on the series – which had started with #97- including variants. This was not all though, as Archie was also releasing Sonic Universe (2009) and (in 2014) Sonic Boom. I’d get all the variants for those series as well. Oh, and the Worlds Collide/ Worlds Unite crossover with Mega Man? Yeah, may as well pick those variants up while I’m at it.

That is a lot of comics!

To be honest though, I’m very proud of my Sonic comic collection. Having now moved to trade collections for my comics needs, variant covers are no longer a concern. However, I do feel the ones I have are a nice addition to my comics collection.

If you’d like to check out my entire comic book collection, you can do so at Collectorz.com

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