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When it comes to comic books, I am not a big fan of gimmick covers. I don’t go out and protest them in comic book stores or anything, but I do really dislike the idea of them existing. More specifically, I dislike the fact that people who are crazy collector’s push up the sales of a not necessarily great book because they need to have every single cover.

Let’s take a quick step back though before I get into just plain ol’ rant territory. First of all, thank you to Daniel Hurd for the topic suggestion on Twitter. I’ve been really looking to write about something that gets me going and this definitely qualifies.

X-Men #1, from 1991, is the best-selling comic of all-time, having sold over 8 million copies. That is incredible and just impressive. This was around the time when comic book publishers began to realize that they could capitalize on the nuttiness of the completionist collectors, that these collectors would not only buy the regular edition of X-Men #1, but they would then also buy the five variant covers that went along with it. While 8 million copies is still impressive, it cheapens that incredible sales number to me when you think about the fact that there’s a good chance 5 million of those copies went to all of the same people, potentially leaving the actual number of sales at something like 3 million without the variant factor (but that’s just my speculation). Marvel and DC putting out 5+ variant covers for their big titles continually starts to become a bit of a burden on the collectors wallet.

I think what bothers me about these practices isn’t the fact that the variant covers themselves exist. Rather, it’s to have fans use up their budgets and run out of money to spend on the competing books. I see the marketing strategy in it, but we’re now in a time when physical media is being threatened and to me, it doesn’t help anyone to monopolize the industry.

There are some people getting into comics that discover things via Top 10 Sales Lists and such. I’m not saying that’s a great way to find something to read, but my guff is with the fact that those lists are dominated by comics that rule the gimmick cover game. Certain comics undeservingly get the top spot month after month because collectors pour their money into this.

Meanwhile a collector picks up $50 worth of comics (possibly his or her budget for that week), gets 5 comics (all Uncanny Avengers or X-Men or whatever) and spots something like The Movement, gets curious but doesn’t buy it because all of the money is going into those variants. Whereas if said hypothetical person has a $50 budget for a week and doesn’t buy variants, this person can buy Rat Queens #1, X-Men #15, Superior Spider-Man #7, The Movement #1, East of West #4, Black Widow #1 and maybe even a trade of something that’s come in.

Variant covers are actually something that I don’t mind in small doses. For instance, when Rat Queens #1 came out, I actually went and bought the Fiona Staples variant cover instead of the regular cover because COME ON. I love Roc’s work but the cover that Fiona did was drool worthy for sure. But to me, variant covers should be a singular thing, one variant per issue. Second printings are a different story, but for each comic that comes out, I have no qualms whatsoever with a variant that goes along with it.

I know it’ll never be a publishers thought to share the wealth and to help others to help themselves become sustainable as a physical medium for years to come, but there are days (like when the sales numbers get announced) that I can’t help but wish that the industry did things differently. I know that publishers will keep making them as long as we keep buying them, but in my mind, I would love to hear a publisher stand up for the work they do and just say “We don’t need gimmicks to get sales!” and set a standard for everyone else.

Daniel’s question was actually “Which is worse for the comic book industry? Gimmick covers or just bad stories?” but I ran with the former, obviously. The short answer to the actual question would simply be that bad stories are definitely far worse than something superficial like gimmick covers. However, gimmick covers are part of an illness and a mentality that long-time publishers suffer from and a reluctance to change.

Strong stories, brilliant creators (writers, artists, colourists etc.) are popping up everywhere, willing to make THIS the golden age of comics and maybe if these publishers, retailers and collectors would stop spending money on these covers and start putting money into these people that are the industry’s future, we will have a future in printed comic books for a long time to come.

About The Author

Managing Editor, Community Manager and Podcast Co-Host
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Stephanie is [obviously] a comic book fan, but she also considers herself an avid gamer, movie watcher, lover of music, board games fan (although she doesn’t find nearly enough time for them…) and being snarky. Oh, and Twitter. Twitter’s a hobby, right? Stephanie is a purveyor of too many projects and outside of Talking Comics she’s done work for JoBlo.com, Agents of Geek, Word of the Nerd, C&G Magazine, Dork Shelf, Misfortune Cookie (her personal blog for words and pictures) and more. She wrote a story for the anthology The Secret Loves of Geek Girls (coming in October 2016 from Dark Horse) and she also runs Toronto Geek Trivia in her home city. She can be found helping out at other “geek” community things around there.

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5 Responses

  1. Bob Reyer

    AMEN SISTER, AMEN!!!

    The only variant covers I make any effort for are the Stephanie Buscema Red Sonjas, and then it’s through making sure that my LCS gets me that cover! If I want to see the rest of them, on that or most other books, the extra covers are in the trade collections, which are generally cheaper than a single “rare” variant!

    Of course, the publishers will keep putting out these variants as long as there are those who will buy them, so it’s on us to vote with our wallets and say “No!” to these gimmicks. It’s bad enough that having to buy “families” of comics series such as “X-titles” or “Bat-books” to be able to read complete stories eats up so much of the comic-buying dollar, but when you then add the purchase of multiple copies to acquire “rare” variants, it’s just as you say Stephanie, there are worthy books falling by the wayside!

  2. rgsc

    Are the numbers in the Top 10 Sales lists retailer orders or actual customer sales? It is my understanding that for certain variants, the publisher requires the shops to buy certain quantities of tiles – 50 will get you 1 variant X cover, 100 will get you variant Y, 1000 will get you super-rare variant Z etc. – so there is incentive for them to over order on certain titles, bumping up the “sales” figures for these titles (actually the order numbers which may or may not reflect what actually is being bought by consumers).

    This, I think, has an even more damaging effect than the consumer chasing the exclusive variant at the expense of buying other things as it forces the shops to devote limited financial resources and shelf space buying many copies of a particular title to get the variant and these shops have, as a result, less capital to put towards smaller titles which could really benefit from a few extra copies being ordered and hand-sold by the staff. The variants get priced such that when they are sold they make up the difference of the over-orders and the extra copies that get ordered but go unsold will appear in dollar bins in the not-so-distant-future.

    I think some variants are fun, and even you and Bob note there are exceptions and the Cover A/Cover B model used Red Sonja (I usually go with the Frisson covers but I snapped up the Becky Cloonan variant from a few issues ago) is a different thing altogether. As are store-specific variants, like the Ghost Variants. I think that is a great model to get people into the particular shops – I would have LOVED to get the Katie Cook variant for Pretty Deadly #1 which was created for Third Eye Comics.

    Preying on the collector mentality of certain comic book fans, however, comes across as pretty gross.

    • Stephanie Cooke

      That’s a really good question. I assume that the sales numbers would probably be more likely the retailer orders, unless they’re somehow able to pool the numbers from individual comic book shops and tally it all together. I don’t honestly know and that’s definitely worth looking into a little bit more. I suspect it’s the retailer numbers though since Diamond usually releases the list and they’re the company that sells to the shops usually.

      You’re absolutely right about the quantity thing as well. You must buy X of Y to get the Y variants. It’s such a horrible sales strategy. I wish that someone would implement something more along the lines of “If you don’t feel like purchasing X of Y to get the Y variants, buy the number of Y that you need for the store and pay X extra if you would like some variants” and then limit the number of variants that they can purchase. That way the variants are a separate cost for shops and they can budget accordingly based on what they know their customer base will buy.

      I know that’s pure wishful thinking on my part, but why are we bankrupting our shops to have a variant cover that may or may not sell?

      I hope all of that makes sense. Thank you for your incredibly insightful comments! Oh, and I don’t blame you one bit for picking up the Cloonan variant. I love Jenny Frison’s work SO MUCH but then sometimes you just have to switch up to something different and rad.

  3. CaptainSuperior

    I’ve seriously thought about asking if I could do research on my LCS’s ordering habits involving variants, because they get ALOT of them. I would really like to break the data down between how many copies are ordered of a comic, how many variants are added to that order, and then look at sells records to see how many standard copies that are being ordered are actually selling within a 4 week period before the next issue would be released. Then I would want to see if all the variants are actually being bought and if the selling cost of the variants are covering the shops losses for extra issues not sold in that 4 week period , or if they are actually selling all their copies ordered. If anyone else is in tight with their LCS it would be interesting to compare data from several shops and do an article on the data found.

    • Stephanie Cooke

      Most shops I’ve been to wind up having leftovers that no one wants. That sounds like a pretty great little geeky research project that I would REALLY be interested in knowing the results of.

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