I’m Torn on Variant Covers
The latest gimmick to get comic readers to spend more money is the variant cover. Sometimes the variants are simply the pencils for the real cover, or a recolored workup of the cover, but this article isn’t about those excuses to get someone to buy multiple copies, it’s about the ones featuring all-new art. These will be the exact same comic but with a cover by a different artist. Usually, these will be by a “hot” artist or one that’s known for knocking out fantastic covers, like Adam Hughes or Alex Ross. These will also be in print runs much less than the original cover, so shops will order more of an issue in order to receive the variant covers, which are then sometimes sold at an increased price. Sometimes, the variant covers are given to artists that while not well known, are considered exceptional. There’s also the sketch cover variants which are most easily spotted at conventions with artists of all levels of experience being commissioned to create original artwork for a fan.
The first category of variant cover is the one by a hot, or established, “superstar” artist, such as Adam Hughes, Jim Lee or Alex Ross. In my own collecting of Legion of Super-Heroes comics, I will buy the variant covers, I’m not immune to the desire to have as complete and comprehensive a collection as possible. These are usually so exceptionally done that it almost makes one wonder why this wasn’t the regular cover to the book. The artists in question are very adept in doing a cover that grabs a reader’s eye, and does the function of a good comic book cover in being the last stage in advertising a comic book, and that’s getting a buyer to pay attention to a book. However, they are so great at producing a quality cover that a retailer, knowing that fans of that artist want to own that cover, they will order more in order to get as many copies of that cover as possible. Usually, this also means that they will jack up the price of this cover to make up for all of the issues with the regular cover that may go unsold. Because of supply/demand principles, these covers will also fetch a pretty penny on the secondary market. The Harley Quinn cover to the left there is currently selling on eBay for around $50.00. I’m tentatively at ease with this version of a variant cover, as long as the regular cover is still good, like with the issue of Harley Quinn. Don’t give me a great Adam Hughes variant and then give me a horrible cover that insults my intelligence or aesthetics.
Then there’s the covers by artists that may not be superstars but are exceptional. Sometimes these covers will be outside of the norm for the comic, such as the Life With Archie cover featuring a very different take on Josie and the Pussy cats by Saga artist Fiona Staples, whom many Archie readers might not be familiar with. There are the classic variant covers by Scottie Young that highlighted the Marvel characters as infant versions in sometimes humorous situations. There’s also covers by artists that are practically unknown to the broader comic book audience. Adventure Time featured many webcomics artists in variant covers that would have been great regular covers for a comic. This is the variant cover that I’m most accepting of. It gives artists jobs and exposure. They also are usually the most fun-spirited of all gimmicks I have ever seen. Where I’m against it is with publishers marketing them as a variant cover as a way of increasing orders from comic shops, which sell them for increased cost to the reader. If you really want to make me like them 100%, then make them no more rare than the regular cover, meaning that a retailer’s shipment would be split among the variants.
Finally, we have the sketch cover. These represent minimal investment for the publisher, as they do not need to pay an actual artist to create a cover, pushing that cost onto the reader to commission an artist of their choice to draw on the blank cover. As an artist, I can appreciate the opportunities this gives aspiring artists chances to do work for fans. I can also appreciate the instant medium it gives artists to work on and sell in other venues, like eBay, Etsy, et al. As a fan, I appreciate these less, as after buying it, I’m looking at dropping a significant amount of money to get something that I can treasure. Many retailers sell these at increased cost as well, especially since they are a little rarer. Some, however, do not, and sell them at cover price. One shop near me does this and is the source for most of my few sketch covers.
That being said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t share some of the better sketch cover artwork I found in my research for this article. All of these images come from the sketchcovers tumblr (Some images might be NSFW). In order of how they appear below are SJ Segovia, Nick Bradshaw, Talent Caldwell, Scott Blair, and Phil Noto. If those names don’t strike a bell, then by all means, Google them. Some of them may do artwork that’s NSFW, so be warned.
Ultimately, variant covers are a gimmick that publishers rely on rather than trying to produce good stories that are drawn well. It seems that many times, that they’re done and a quality story being inside is a happenstance outside of the scope of the people making the decisions to put out variant covers. A special place in Hell is reserved for the person at DC that decided to make 51 different versions of the cover to Justice League of America with each state flag. That is not a reason to do a variant cover. The reason is to commemorate a special event, help generate interest in a particular artist that readers are unfamiliar with, or to give some type of added value to the reader. Ultimately, I’d like the allotment to be in a ration of 1:1 for variant covers, so retailers don’t end up stuck ordering copies that they might not be able to sell, because the other reason not to do a variant cover is to drive up sales artificially. Publishers, if you want to drive up sales, do it the old fashioned way, and just put out a good comic.