Trouble with Comics
TWC Question Time #27: Variants, Threat or Menace?

This week’s question: Last month, Image publisher and creator Eric Stephenson delivered a speech at Comicspro looking at the history of the comics industry that concludes by blasting variant covers as being bad for the industry. Do you are agree?

Logan Polk: As a reader, I don’t care about variant covers in the slightest. As a collector (and Deadpool fan) I enjoy some of them immensely. The problem is that I can’t afford to enjoy them in my collection. Occasionally I’ll spring for one that I really dig, but it’s not often. The bigger problem? Thanks to Marvel’s (I’m singling them out since that’s the only one of the Big Two I ever give my money to) policy of tiered variants not only are most of them out of my price range, but my local comics shop can scarcely afford to get them either.

They’ve effectively created a system that falsely inflates sales, props up their incessant attempts to reinvent their properties and leaves their sole source of distribution floundering. It’s absolute insanity. So, if the choice were for me to occasionally be able to snag a cheeky Deadpool variant, or even a cute Skottie Young piece, or for my friend and only local comics distributor to be able to get the items his customers want without having to worry about ordering enough issues to hit some arbitrary number, I’ll take the latter. If comics are going to survive as a physical medium, the people that produce them have got to stop abusing the people that sell them.

Joe Gualtieri: Variants covers suck.

In theory, having multiple covers to pick from on a comic is egalitarian, and leads Skottie Young fans to try everything Marvel publishes. In practice, it’s awful. For those not in the know, variants basically come in three flavors:
-free order variants where retailers can order all they want (I’ve been out of Diamond long to forget the official term for these).
-“order all” variants tied to your orders for something else (this is mostly a Marvel special)
-Ratio variants.
Generally, people talk about the last of these when they talk about variants, but all three are worth discussing. “Free order” variants aren’t so bad, really. There’s no artificial scarcity, in theory readers could buy the cover of their choice. The downsides are the title taking up extra rack space and your poor retailer trying to figure out if he or she needs more of one cover than another. If these were the only variants, I don’t think anyone wuld much care.

The “order all” variants are a pain in the butt for your retailer. The way this works is, if your order of Deadpool #12 exceeds your order of another comic by a certain percentage, you can order all you want of the Skottie Young Deadpool Baby Variant for #12. Where it gets tricky is the book that Skottie Young incentive cover is tied to probably isn’t Deadpool #11, it could be Uncanny X-Men #1. Then next month, there’s a Skottie Young variant for Squirrel Girl #1 where it’s tied to your orders for Deadpool #12… and so and so forth, every month linking back to a different comic where Marvel was trying to jack up sales, in theory inflating the sales of something every month to keep those Skottie Young variants rolling in (I don’t mean to pick on Young, and many of those covers are cute, it’s just a series that’s been running for close to five years now). It can also be a pain for your poor retailer to have to do the math here, although I understand Diamond has recently started out rate stating what targets are for individual retailers.

Last but not least are the ratio variants, where a retailer orders so many copies of the main cover to get one ratio variant. Companies will also stack these up, so when you order 5000 copies of Dark Knight III #1, in addition to the 1:5000 Jim Lee sketch variant, you can get 50 copies of the 1:100 and so on down the line. Publisher justify these ratio variants by saying they help titles find their levels, but any cursory examination of sales charts reveals that’s a lie. Retailers order extra copies of titles to get variants, which are sold at premium and in short order the extra copies of the regular cover wind up in a dollar bin. Heck, it might even take that long; one retailer near me had Dark Knight III #1 for half price day of release. In way, this is good for people who just want to read comics and have the patience to wait for books to hit bargain bins, but it actually devalues the work the creators put into the comic itself and emphasizes a collector mentality where only the outside of the comic matters.

No comic better encapsulates this problem than Supergirl and the Legion of Super Heroes #23 by Mark Waid and Barry Kitson. I read that title when it was coming out, and when I saw the 1:10 Adam Hughes variant, I wanted one, and unusually for me, was willing to pay a small premium (it was, after all, only 1:10). Well, I never found a copy and moved on. The cover got reproduced in the trade. Flash forward to now, and there are people claiming this one of the most important comics of the last decade and copies easily fetch hundreds of dollars. I completely understand the comic is scarce, but so what? Original art is scarcer, and it’s possible build a nice collection of pages and sketches that cost less than high-end variant covers. That Dark Knight III Jim Lee sketch cover becomes particularly egregious. Those covers, with mediocre, boring Batman head sketches are commanding about $3000. Meanwhile, a much nicer vintage sketch of Psylocke by Lee sold for less than half of that. A quick search of reputable dealers turned up actual X-Men pages by Lee for less than $2000. That’s an extreme example, but it’s still generally true. And that “scarce” variant cover? The image is readily available online and trades usually reprint the associated variant covers, so really what are you paying for?

Mike Sterling: For the new Dark Knight III series, there were an avalanche of 
variant covers. The usual 1 in 10/1 in 25/1 in 50 etc. variants, the variant covers commissioned for specific retailers, the blank variant so you can take it to a convention and pay a comic artist to draw on it, and then, of course, there was the Original Sketch by Jim Lee variant. For retailers who ordered 5,000 copies of the regular cover of Dark Knight III #1, at a wholesale cost of well over $10,000, you would be able to order one copy of this variant upon which the co-publisher of DC Comics gifted his personal illustration.
A glance at completed eBay auctions for this very item, as of this writing, shows that it seems to sell in the high $3000s, occasionally cracking four grand. So, let’s assume the wholesale cost on those 5,000 comics was $10,000, for simplicity’s sake, even if that’s on the low side. You sell your sketch cover for $4,000, and so, just to break even, you have to sell another 1,000 copies of the regular Dark Knight III #1. And then if you sell those 1,000 copies, you have another 4,000 to try to unload. Now, I admit, for larger stores in big cities with extensive mail order clientele, they could possibly move this excess product. They can also make some bank on the 100 copies of the 1/50 variants they received, and so on. If that one eBay seller I saw can be believed, there are supposedly only 43 copies of the 1/5000 sketch variant in circulation. That means 215,000 copies of the regular cover for #1 were ordered to get that specific variant, and that doesn't include all the copies ordered by other shops that didn’t splurge for the 1/5000 variant. And it doesn’t include the dozens of store-specific variants that also required minimum purchases, and…well, you get the idea. (Ultimately, over 440,000 copies of #1 were produced.)

My prediction at the time was that there would be a flood of regular DKIII #1s on eBay, selling for pennies on the dollar. A look just now (and it was difficult just finding the regular #1 amongst all the variants) shows I was a little off… there are copies selling for as much as one or two dollars.

This is all just secondary market stuff. For the average reader, who just wants to read DKIII (and there are a lot… there are plenty of people coming to my shop just for this series, and I can’t be the only retailer experiencing this), they don’t care about all that. For folks who are into the variants…well, some of them just like the alternate artwork, some want to invest or immediately flip the book online, or whatever. And whatever you want to do, however you want to interact with the hobby, hey, go for it.

But it’s a little troubling, this much excess. That’s a lot of dough tied up in one product, despite the fact that the comic is selling, a large amount of that product almost certainly is going to waste. Blown out on eBay, stashed away in boxes in the backroom, maybe even just straight-up recycled. (I’ll give you collectors a moment to recover from that onset of the vapors after reading that last one.) The regular covers served their purpose, the chaff you have to cast off in order to sell the variant cover wheat, which is a terrible metaphor but I hope you forgive me. And that’s money that goes into short term profits, which I absolutely will not blame anyone for pursuing in the current marketplace, but I wonder how much money went to DKIII that didn’t go for other items shops could have carried, that could have attracted readers that weren’t necessarily looking for Bat-comics. Now, if you’re a large shop going all-in on that sketch variant, you probably didn’t impact your other stock that much. But for small stores, that have to watch their budgets, bumping up your orders to that next plateau in order to get that next variant might mean having to order a copy or three less of something else.

And that’s great for Marvel and DC. They naturally want stores to spend less money on other products and more on theirs. That's just business.

The main purpose of variant covers is get retailers to order more copies of the book. Dark Knight III is the most extreme example of that in recent memory. Usually, however, it’s more a case of maybe a retailer deciding to order nine copies of something, seeing there’s a 1 in 10 variant cover, and bumping it up an extra copy to order the variant. Behold… two more copies sold!

Or there’s the “match or exceed previous orders” variants… “equal or beat 
your orders on Variant Cover Man #1 with orders for Variant Cover Man #2, and you can order as many copies of Variant Cover Man: Variant Cover as you want.” Generally this means having to at the very least maintain or slowly increase your numbers over time in order to continue receiving the latest variants. (I cover that particular strategy on my own site in much greater detail.)

And then there’s the form of variant cover particularly favored by DC, in which retailers can freely order both the regular and the “themed” variant cover… that theme being a topic that all these freely-orderable variants feature during that specific month, such as “Batman's Anniversary” or “Harley Quinn” or “Lego” or so on. And there’s the problem with that… these variant covers can actively mislead the customer, as the themed illustrations have nothing to do with the contents. It was the Lego covers that drove this home, as disappointed customers in droves returned Lego-covered comics to the shelves after discovering the comics inside did not feature the expected Lego-ized heroes.

It’s not necessarily all negative. Different cover images may appeal to different customers’ tastes, and if one cover for a certain comic doesn’t catch a person’s eye, maybe that comic’s other cover(s) will. Plus, ordering a few extra copies of a title to get the incentive 1-in-whatever-number variant could mean having more copies around on the shelves rather than selling out right away, allowing for more potential sales. And, if that variant sells at a premium price, it helps subsidize the cost of the extras.

In the long run, though, it’s a sales crutch to entice retailers to bump up numbers, as well as being a wee bit rough to to deal with at ordering time. It’s hard enough, even with months and months and years of sales reports to go by, to try to order the right number of comics that you’re at least partially guesstimating will sell two or three months down the road to regular readers. Adding “huh, I wonder if anyone two months from now will want any of these variants” to the equation just pads the chore. I mean, as a retailer, variants can be a good sales tool, and they do attract attention, but I can’t help but wonder if the energy expended on producing, retailing, and buying variant covers couldn’t be put to better use in this industry. It’s a short term patch to the ongoing problem of cash flow in the comics business, but it’s not the solution.