Published on September 1st, 2015 | by Swamp Thing2
Variant Covers And Why You Should Never Buy Them.
I was close to calling this article Variant Covers: WTF? It stems from a throwaway line I snuck in to my article on Convergence:Swamp Thing where I said that my opinion on variant covers was an “hour-long tirade waiting to happen”. It was only later that I started to think about why I had such strong feelings about it. My “hour-long tirade” turned into “many hours of research”, but the end result was much the same.
Variant Covers: In The Beginning…
An examination of the history of variant covers needs to be split in to two eras, which I shall arbitrarily call F.N and P.G. (standing for ‘From Necessity’ and ‘Post Greed’). What I’m not going to include as ‘variant covers’ are the UK or ‘pence issues’, or any other repriced cover for a non-US market. Yes, technically those are variants and to be fair the UK pence issues are rarer than their ‘standard’ US counterparts, but for the purposes of this article we’re looking at variations to the US covers that were still intended for consumption in the US market. The value and validity of pence issues over cents issues is an altogether different hour-long tirade.
The first variations to the ‘standard’ cover appeared in the time F.N, and their creation had nothing to do with the need to sell more issues of a given title. First there were the read-aloud reprints. These were the result of an agreement between Marvel and The Golden Record Company, who wanted to make read-aloud editions of the more popular Marvel titles like Avengers #1 and Fantastic Four #1. These read-alouds were reprints of the original comics sold with vinyl LPs of the text being spoken aloud. The cover art was the same for these reprinted issues as it had been for the original issue. These Golden Record reprints appeared in 1966, some time after the issues they reproduced had first been published, and the only difference between the covers of the reprinted versions and the originals was the lack of a pre-printed cover price.
A Cents Of Worth
Now we have to jump forward from 1966 to 1976 in our F.N timeline. In 1976, and again in 1977, Marvel tested a 5c price increase to their titles in some parts of the US, so otherwise identical issues appeared in 1976 with both 25c and 30c cover prices, and in 1977 with 30c and 35c variants. These test runs lasted around 4 months before the 5c price hike was rolled out nationwide. At the time nobody much noticed as there was no such thing as a ‘collector’s market’ for comics. Now that there is a collector’s market, the value of the rarer higher cover-priced variants have started to reflect that rarity. The most famous, or possibly infamous, of these are issues #1 to #4 of Marvel’s Star Wars, where the 35c variant covers command much higher values than their 30c counterparts (with 35c issues graded at 9.0 or better changing hands for thousands, and in some cases tens of thousands, of dollars. If you don’t know what that grading number means, check out my NTC article on comic grading).
As well as these cents price variants, another style of variant cover appeared in the late 1970s. The ‘direct market’ variant (and for a brief history of direct market comic shops, see that comic grading article again) appeared to distinguish those issues intended for sale in comic shops from the regular newsstand issues.
But why bother?
The reason for the different covers was to try and stop a rather underhanded practice by a few of the comic retailers. With newsstand sales, the system had been one of sale or return. Any unsold stock was sent back to the distributor and credited to the retailers account, so the newsstands only paid for what they sold, mitigating any risk of over-ordering. For direct market comic shops, the system was different. They could not return unsold stock, so they had to try and gauge the potential sales of a comic and order accordingly. As it was the shop taking the risk, they were offered a lower wholesale price than the newsstands. So, if you were an unscrupulous and profiteering kind of retailer, you could set yourself up as both a newsstand and direct market seller and have two accounts with the comic distributor. Then you could order the majority of your stock at the lower wholesale price offered to the direct market shops, but return any unsold comics through your newsstand account. In theory that meant you could be credited more for newsstand returns than you actually paid wholesale through your direct sales account. As there was no physical difference between the comics you purchased on each account, the distributor would be unable to tell you were sending direct market issues back via a newsstand route.
At the time, DC’s newsstand distribution was handled by a single distributor, Whitman. By replacing the DC logo on the newsstand issues with Whitman’s logo, the problem of underhanded returns was dealt with.
Marvel went for a less conspicuous option and just placed black triangles around the corners of the price box of their direct sales issues, so that the price appeared in a white diamond shape, sometimes with starburst edges. These are often sold as Marvel’s Whitman variants, and it’s likely that Whitman were the driving force behind Marvel’s ‘diamond’ approach as they has a special deal with Marvel, distributing them in sealed bags of three different issues. However, Marvel had several distributors and the diamond priced stock would have been sent down those routes as well, so the diamond pricing doesn’t just identify Marvel’s Whitman issues but all of their direct sales issues at the time. There were some Marvel issues bearing the Whitman ‘W’ logo, but the diamond box was more common. Later, with the advent of barcoded comics, it was the barcode that distinguished the newsstand version from the direct sales version.
So it was for the next decade. Variant covers meant either direct sales issues or newsstand issues. That all changed in 1986.
The Man of Steal.
In 1986, DC launched their Man of Steel miniseries, which was the introduction to Superman’s post Crisis on Infinite Earths persona. Issue #1 shipped with two covers, one for newsstands and one for direct sales. It wasn’t a change in the price box or any subtle alteration. The two issues had completely different covers, the direct sales issue also carrying a ‘Special Collector’s Edition!’ banner. The growth of direct sales outlets in the 1980s had brought the comic publishers into contact with a breed of animal they hand’t encountered before – the comic collector. DC saw potential – who would have thought it might be possible to sell the same comic to the same buyer twice? – and with Man of Steel, variant covers entered the new P.G era. DC’s experiment didn’t seem to generate much interest, and it wasn’t until the following year that variant covers really had an impact. It was to be DC again, and as previously with the Whitman variants, it was to do with a logo change. In the late 1980s, DC flirted with the idea of re-branding as ‘Superman Comics’. It was a short-lived idea, but they did trial a new logo on some issues of Firestorm #61 and Justice League #3, but unlike the Whitman issues a decade earlier, both ‘Superman Comics’ variants got completely new cover art.
Around the same time as the ‘Superman Comics’ variant covers appeared, Marvel tried their own variant covers experiment with Spider-Man Annual #21, releasing different covers for the direct sales and newsstand issues. Like Man of Steel, the reception to Marvel”s variant covers was tepid at best. Yet DC’s ‘Superman Comics’ issues immediately started trading at well above cover price.
The Big Bang.
The only explanation for the additional premium commanded by the ‘Superman Comics’ issues was rarity. There were plenty of copies of both the Man of Steel and Spider-Man variant covers, but the ‘Superman Comics’ trial issues were only available in very limited numbers. But as neither DC nor Marvel’s official experiment with variant covers made any significant impact, there were to be no more until 1989. It was to be DC again, and this time the results were spectacular. The release of Legends of The Dark Knight #1 was set to coincide with Tim Burton’s Batman movie, and as this was to be the first new solo Batman title in over fifty years, pre-release sales figures were through the roof. DC decided to spread the large print run across four variant covers (basically all the same but on a different background colour). Again they had a ‘Collector’s Special’ tag. This time the fans loved the idea, and a surprising number of people thought it a worthwhile exercise to own all four cover variants.
What happened over the next few years was an explosion of greed, gimmickry and a solid dash of silliness. Direct sales and the increased availability of information about comics, and specifically their supposed values, had people – and the media – speculating that comics had serious investment potential. Rare comics. Of course, the rare comics at that time were the ones published in the Golden Age in the 30s and 40s, and they were rare because they had been seen as a disposable media and most copies had just been thrown away. Now that comics were becoming big business and being kept nicely bagged and boarded, the only way for them to be rare was to keep the print numbers down. As reducing the size of an entire print run made no sense as demand wouldn’t be met and lower volumes meant lower profits, the solution was to make some part of every print run rarer than the rest. The variant covers suddenly came into their own.
Frankly it all got a little insane.
During the first half of the 1990s there were regular excesses of variation, with some issues having 13 or more variant covers. There were foil covers. Chromium covers. Hologram covers. Covers made from trading cards. Glow in the dark covers. Speculators swallowed up as much of this rubbish as the publishers could put out, but it couldn’t last. In the mid-nineties the bubble well and truly burst. The speculators and uber-collectors finally realized that one issue of a modern comic was not going to make them filthy rich and they disappeared from the comic-buying scene as quickly as they had come. Without them there was little need to keep pumping out the flood of enticements that had been making them part with their greenbacks, so the crazy tide of enhanced and variant covers ebbed away.
Where Are We Now?
During the madness, a new creature had been born. The incentive cover. The idea behind the incentive cover was that a retailer would buy x copies of a title and get another copy with a different cover. So if a variant was listed as 1:10, a retailer could buy nine regular copies, and the tenth would be the variant cover (though Marvel reportedly changed the system in 2009 to a ‘buy 10 get 1’ for their 1:10 titles, technically making them 1:11). It was meant as an incentive for the retailer as potentially they could sell the variant copy at a higher price based on rarity to cover the cost of any unsold issues of the standard cover. The idea crept in slowly, publishers wary of repeating the debacle of the early 1990s, but by the late noughties it was a well established practice, with 1:250 and 1:500 variants, convention variants, retailer variants (larger retailers like Forbidden Planet buying enough copies could get their very own variant cover), sketch variants, LEGO variants, and so on and so forth, ad nauseam. The ‘everybody made from knotted cheese string’ variant hasn’t happened yet, but it’s probably coming. From 2012 to date, around 40% of all titles have had at least one incentive variant. If there’s any comfort to be found in that number, it’s that the 40% figure has been fairly static since 2012 after the rapid rise in the decade before. That at least might suggest the retailers themselves are starting to lose interest, and hopefully before long will feel de-incentivized by all the incentives. The 1:2000 incentives didn’t make much of a splash, but then not many retailers take on 2000 copies of a title.
We’re back up to the levels of silliness of the 1990s, and we’re getting bloody close to raising the stupidity bar to new heights. This time I think it’s down to us, the consumer, to decide if we want it to continue. In the past I might have gone with ‘yes’. I’ve sought out the 1:500 variant. I’ve hunted down the Brian Bolland variant covers. I have the lenticular covers from the Swamp Thing New 52 run.
My choice now is ‘no’.
The final straws for me were the ridiculous variant covers for Convergence: Swamp Thing and the even more ridiculous number of different incentive covers for Marvel’s new Star Wars #1. So far around 68 variant covers have been spotted (including the dealer exclusives). Initially I was excited by Convergence when it was announced that as well as having Len Wein back on writing duties, there would be Bissette and Tottleben variant covers. Turns out there were ‘Chip Kidd spraying yellow paint over classic Bissette and Tottleben covers’ covers. There has been much praise for those Chip Kidd covers, so my apologies for being a dissenting voice here, but they’re awful. As for the 68 Star Wars #1 covers, that pretty much speaks for itself. That is corporate greed on a level that frankly makes me feel sick, and the sickness is spreading. The comics market itself is having trouble stomaching all of this excess, and the range of prices being asked for some ‘rare’ issues beggars belief. The same 1:500 issue at the same grade can be priced anywhere from £50 to £500, and remember this is could be for a comic that was published only last week. Investment is about what that comic will be worth in a decade or two. It’s a long-term deal. Our modern quick-fix, fast-food, soundbite consumerism seems unable to reconcile that fact, and the 1:500 variant panders to the fast profit mentality.
Not only did I not buy all of the 68 Star Wars variants so far identified, I ended up not buying a single one of them. I’m at a point now where I’m more likely to seek out those issues that have no variants at all. The ones where the cover I’m looking at is the only cover I’m going to see on that issue of that title. I like the idea that when I mention that issue to somebody else, the image they picture in their mind of the cover of that issue cannot be different from the image I have in my mind. My goal is to seek out the rare and exotic 1:1 variant.
We tell ourselves that the rarer variants are going to be worth a small, or possibly even big, fortune one day. We tell ourselves we’re buying a variant because we prefer the art on that cover (which to my mind is actually the only valid reason for ever buying one). We tell ourselves that it makes sense to buy one of those completely blank variant covers, in readiness for the day we have the chance to push it under the nose of a real-life comic artist and get them to draw us a unique cover. The blank variant is a particular favourite of mine as it’s so far into ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ territory it’s frightening. They’ve actually managed to persuade us that having nothing at all on a cover is a desirable thing because there are so many comic conventions these days we’ll always be able to find an artist prepared to fill in the blanks.
What we should be telling ourselves is that it’s time to let the comic publishers know that we’ve had enough of the grubby commercialism and exploitative corporate greed that makes it alright to release a comic with 68 variant covers and tell us that it’s for our benefit as collectors that they’ve gone to so much trouble. And they can point to the increased values of some of the rarer variant covers to prove that this has been a worthwhile exercise. Funnily enough, they did that in the height of the insanity in the 1990s as well. Those kind of short-term price increases are a self-fulfilling prophecy. Back in the 90s, the driving force was the new comic price guides. If they told you a comic was worth more than cover price, then almost immediately it was because every collector read the guides and was prepared to pay what the guide said a comic was worth. In theory, the modern collector has evolved and makes a more considered decision about the actual value of a comic. Sadly, greed still plays its part. In the short-term, a 1:500 variant is pretty much guaranteed to attract a premium. It’s rare. We have it thrust in our faces that it’s rare. Wow, only one in every five-hundred issues. Damn boy, that’s real rare. Buy it now before it becomes the next 35c Star Wars #1.
The saddest part of all this is that it’s not their greed that’s fueling this craziness, it’s ours. Their greed may have created this situation, but it’s our greed that’s sustaining it. Sooner or later this bubble will burst like it did the last time, and prices on the variant covers will drop back to more sustainable levels, like they did the last time. And the time before that. Today, you can pick up a NM ‘Superman Comics’ variant of Justice League #3 for $50-$100. That’s comparable to the price it was changing hands for in 1979. I’m sure owners of those issues would have hoped for a better return on nearly forty years of careful storage.
The publishers, and the big 2 in particular, would have us believe that if we buy every one of the 1:500 variant covers, get them CG graded at 9.8 right away (so don’t dare read them. Or touch them. Or breathe on them. Or look at them whilst frowning.) then you will make lots of money, on the basis that at least one of these ‘rare’ variant covers will be the one.
Well I’m not buying it, and I’m not buying them. If you do the same, then maybe the madness will end.