The Variant Cover Gimmick: An Editorial

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.

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?…

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