Are Variant Covers Dooming Comics?

When a reddit user put up a supposed guide from Marvel for retailers to order the Hip Hop Variant covers for November, discussion got started on the internet about the level of greed displayed by Marvel in these requirements. Assuming that other publishers also put restrictions, albeit not as complex as Marvel’s November requirements, upon their variant covers. Those restrictions could be as simple as 50/50, or one variant for every 20 copies ordered, something along those lines. These naturally inflate the orders for comics and mean that shops have to raise the prices instantly for variant covers to account for the expected unsold copies left from ordering enough to get those variant covers.

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Looking at the top ten comics for July, all Marvel and DC, only Darth Vader had no variant covers. There were a total of seventy-seven variant covers among nine comics, although forty of them were for Archie #1. We can deduce that the orders for those comics were inflated by retailers looking to get variant covers to temporarily boost sales, either online or in their store. Many critics of the variant cover strategy compare it to the speculation boom of the mid 1990s. Whenever we post solicitations or previews we notice variant covers from almost every publisher, although some show more restraint than others, namely Dark Horse, Image, and Black Mask. Some, like BOOM! and IDW use variant covers for subscribers, but have been known to use them for the common goal of retailer incentive, which means for the best selling books every month, we have no idea how many actual copies are being purchased, much less read.

The only problem from feeding this kind of speculation is that eventually speculators will recognize that they are being targeted and used, and will simply move along, with a distaste for the industry that used them for quick, easy cash. This happened in 1995 and it took nearly a decade for the comics industry to recover, doing so on the strength of improved stories and art, and business models that did not rely on gimmicks. Somewhere along the way, the industry’s giants, purchased by media conglomerates, sought out methods to pad short term profits instead of building an industry that could sustain itself. Smaller publishers simply copied what they saw working for the big two.

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I wish that anyone in the comic companies were paying attention, but the larger web sites are beholden to them for exclusives and are unlikely to say what I am about to say. The stories out there are good, but no one is reading them except those that already were. With so many eyes on the comic industry thanks to television and movies, we could be facing a new Golden Age. Simply do what saved the industry and concentrate on good stories. For the most part, the publishers already are doing this. Put a moratorium on variant covers for a while, so we can judge where we actually stand, and how many readers comics actually have.

This does impact retailers, but perhaps not as much as we might think. Instead of forcing variant covers with the promise of return on investment, they can expose new customers drawn in by television and movies towards comics of similar nature with high quality. They will not have as much unsold stock every month from meeting unrealistic order expectations, and could conceivably come through this transition okay. Those most affected would be those relying most on the variant covers for monthly income. Here at Needless Essentials, we cover the collectors market but that market and our coverage of it is born from the love of the medium. Variant covers could very well spell the end of that medium, for if, some say when the variant cover market crashes, will Warner and Disney abandon their comic book divisions? If they do, the independents may not be able to sustain the market, and then we would see the shuttering of many, many comic shops and the looming failure of the medium that we, as readers and fans love so much.