This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on July 28, 2016.
Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
What’s the deal with variant covers?
What are you? Jerry Seinfeld?
Honestly, I’m about as interested in variant covers as I am airplane peanuts. They provide a brief distraction when trapped in a place where any bit of entertainment is useful, but outside of that setting it’s hard to care very much. That’s not the “deal” with variant covers though, it’s my opinion of them. I just wanted to make it clear that I resent this question before proceeding, so now that that is done…
First of all, let’s take a look at the definition of the word “variant”. A variant is something that differs in some way from the standard form of itself. This implies that for a variant cover to exist there must be a standard, a base model, of any given comic. It is the exception. In some other formats a variant would refer to a mistake or unexpected alteration. It’s a word that could be used to refer to genetic anomalies in zoology or misprintings in collectibles. However, in the world of comics variants are a part of the model, planned and purposeful.
This leads to two questions: What does the existence of a standard imply? Why do variants exist?
I think the first question has a more succinct answer. The concept of a standard issue of a comic book leads me to believe that it is the production intended for a mass audience. As the most accessible version of a comic, it is this cover that most readers will see and associate with its existence. If you believe the cover is a core component of a comic (a subject I don’t want to address here), than this is the cover that is tied to the story behind it and should be considered.
The concept of a variant cover would lead you to believe it is not the main cover, but something produced for another reason. While it may still be intended to represent or relate to the story inside, it does not necessarily have to. It is more difficult to discover and purposefully deviates from the standard form of the comic. While this is no mistake, it also does not reflect the intent of creating an intentional whole object. Any given comic can only be read with a single cover as printed, and variants do not exist with the majority of this comic.
So why do variants exist then? Simply put, they sell. That applies both to storefronts and consumers. People who purchase comics are not always all about reading what’s in the pages of the comic. Lots of comic buyers are collectors interested in subjects ranging including specific artists, rarity, completion, and status. The idea of a 100:1 (meaning only one variant was printed for every 100 standard cover) Frank Miller cover rated a 9.9 (essentially perfect) by CGC is far more valuable than whatever dreck may be churned out within the pages of Dark Knight III: The Master Race. It’s about the status of collectability more than the comic itself.
That’s not to say that this status isn’t tied to a love of comics. Someone interested in spending money for that variant cover probably has a strong connection to Frank Miller’s work, Batman as a character, the original Dark Knight Returns mini-series, or some combination of all three. The purchase of the variant cover itself isn’t about comics though, it’s about that person’s connection to comics, whether it is founded in appreciation for art (and ownership of art) or nostalgia. Some may also purchase these rarities as a speculator. They may expect the price to increase over time and consider the cover to be an investment, a fool’s game if the 1990s taught us anything. Others may engage in economic triage noticing a store selling variants at face value that can be resold on EBay for a much greater price. These people are just assholes feeding on the good intentions of small business owners.
It is this market for variant covers that creates interest from storefronts though. The ability to please dedicated customers or resell variant covers at a higher price provides comic stores with a good reason to pursue the purchase of variant covers. Some relatively easily obtained variants like those being produced by DC for their Rebirth launch may provide customers with additional choices for what they would like to buy. Others like those tied to a 50:1 or 100:1 or 1,000:1 ratio provide stores with an incentive to order much more of an issue in the hope they can recover the cost of unsold issues with the sale of this one.
Variants are all about sales, both to stores and customers. It’s a mercenary tactic, but that doesn’t mean they are without their own merits. Every variant cover is a unique piece of artwork. Creating covers calls on artists to use a different set of skills than creating a comic. While basic elements of style, draftsmanship, and composition are still in play, the goal is divergent. They are not trying to tell a story, but to create a specific impression. It is a painting or drawing that should function entirely on its own without a before or after.
That’s very cool and explains why original covers tend to sell for a much higher rate than pages from similar creators (other factors like characters and series being equal). These are unique pieces of art that can exist in a vacuum or framed on a wall. I’ve purchased a few variants each year because I respond so strongly to the artwork on display. While the Skottie Young baby variants have grown stale at Marvel Comics, I snagged his variant to X-Men #1 because I found the girl’s clubhouse aesthetic to be adorable. It was a lot of fun and my show gave it to me for cover price. The same goes for Marcos Martin’s incredible variant for Amazing Spider-Man #1, which is a far better piece of art than the actual cover to that particular relaunch.
My reason for buying these covers didn’t have to do with what was behind them though. I’m not a fan of either series and didn’t pick up the second issue. The price tag of of $3.99 or $4.99 was worth it to me for the cover alone. It shows how variant covers work. I bought something I would not have in another situation and it was not based on the merits of anything outside the variant cover.
So here’s the real deal with variant covers: They exist to sell comics, but they are not part of the comics medium.
Dollars, sales, and interest are all good gauges for a marketplace, but they do not reflect the quality of art. Comics are not defined by how much an individual is worth or how many copies of one issue is sold by a publisher or store. They can be measured in this way, but it does not speak to the health of the form.
Covers by their very nature are only tangential to comics. Even if you can make the case that a cover is an integral part of a comic, which should not be assumed, the case that a variant cover is significant is still extremely specious. It is not crafted as a fundamental part of the reading process. It is not the standard or intended introduction to a single piece, but a rarity primarily purposed with selling stock. Beyond all of that, variants are a singular piece defying the primary convention of comics: sequential artwork.
Variant covers are commerce. They are not inherently good or bad; they’re just dollars and cents. Whether you enjoy them or ignore them, they’re not comics. They’re comics-adjacent at best.