Variants on a theme.

§ April 19th, 2021 § Filed under collecting, retailing, variant covers § 23 Comments

Man of Steel #1 in 1986 is generally considered to be Patient Zero for the variant cover marketing strategy in the comics marketplace. You had the standard cover on the left, with a cover layout duplicated by the other five issues in the series. Then on the right you had the fancypants cover with the metallic ink an’ such. Both were available in comic shops, but only the standard cover could be found on newsstands.

I mean, sure, it’s understandable that DC would want to go through the extra effort of slapping a second cover on the first issue of this series. This was, after all, a complete revamping — a “reboot,” if you will, perhaps you’ve heard that term — of their flagship character by a superstar creator. This comic was indeed A Big Deal, and doing somethin’ a little special to make it stand out was certainly warranted.

Now, did fans end up buying both covers? Not all, I’m sure (I myself just got the comic shop-only cover…I liked the design of the standard covers, but I thought Clark’s pants looked weird), but certainly a non-zero percentage of consumers couldn’t decide between one or the other and solved the dilemma by taking one of each home.

This is of course not including the sales to speculators, a market segment that would absolutely explode in the 1990s but certainly existed prior to that. (See also Shazam! #1 and Howard the Duck #1 from the 1970s.) I’ve experienced more than one acquisition of books from investment collections containing stacks of Man of Steel issues. But if I could hazard a guess…I think comic companies began to learn that not just speculators but your regular readership could be convinced to pick up more than one copy of the same book.

Look, some fans were doing that anyway. The “buy one to save, one to read” thought process had been there for years. Whether the idea is “I’ll have a back-up if my reader copy falls apart,” or “I’ll have a mint copy for resale” borne of either a genuine belief in a return on investment, or some kind of self-justification for still buying these things, it doesn’t matter. But those were purchasing decisions, both small scale extra copies here and there and the bulk investment procurement, were made independently of the publisher’s efforts. Sure, DC and Marvel and whoever else can throw “COLLECTOR’S EDITION!” blurbs across the covers but c’mon, no one falls for that any more.

But two covers? With two different images? That’s something a publisher could do to encourage duplicate purchasing. Granted, likely not a lot, but not nuthin’, either. Naturally the burden is on the retailers, particularly in the direct market, to try to determine order numbers on a comic with two different covers. Not just the “how many customers will buy both” question, but the more basic issue of “which cover will generate more demand?” What if one cover is preferred over the other? What if one cover is a complete dud nobody wants, and you’re stuck with that cover while selling out quickly of the other? Surely most customers wouldn’t have that binary a preference…yeah they’d like that one cover, but oh you only have the other, sure that’s fine.

If the variant cover on Man of Steel #1 didn’t help sales a least a little upon release, we probably wouldn’t have seen more of them shortly thereafter. Of course, we did, such as these specific parodies of Man of Steel and its two covers by Boris the Bear and the one-off parody comic Man of Rust.

And DC itself had a big variant cover rollout again in 1989, when they published Legends of the Dark Knight #1, as part of the big movie-inspired Bat-push that year:

This time it appeared as if DC was testing the limit of what actually “counted” enough as a variant cover to generate multiple-copy purchases by consumers who wouldn’t ordinarily do so. These were just “extra” covers, attached over the comics regular cover, printed with four different colors. Now, I wasn’t involved in the retail end of the comic business when Man of Steel rolled out in ’86, but I was definitely behind the counter in ’89, and I do vaguely recall grumbling from both customers and retailers about this blatant marketing ploy.

Actually printed on the inside of these extra covers was a message from the editor, explaining why the extra covers:

“The four colors are just for fun,” it says, but they’re also for goosing the collectors out there into buy more copies. EDIT: Now as it turned out, and I had forgotten about (but reminded my readers James and BobH), the reasoning behind these covers was that preorders were so high, again this being the time of the Batman movie-inspired craze, that it was feared it would be too many for retailers to sell and the market would be flooded. As such, these multi-colored additional covers were printed and affixed over the regular covers. And the reasoning for this was, clearly, to encourage collectors to buy more than the one copy.

And I promise you, as a fella working the register at a comic book store in 1989, I sold plenty of sets of all four covers gathered off the shelf by members of our clientele. And there have been plenty of these sets spotted in boxes of books brought back to me to sell over the ensuing decades.

If all it takes is just different colors to boost orders and sales, what other minimal perceived value-adds can be given to books to get folks’ wallets out? Maybe just prepacking a comic in a sealed polybag right out of the gate? Or having to buy every version of one issue, each packed with a different trading card, to get a full set? There can’t be any way those ideas would work.

More on variant covers coming next time, informed in part by your great responses to this post from last week. Thanks for reading, pals, and I’ll be back here in a couple of days.

23 Responses to “Variants on a theme.”

  • Robcat says:

    You’re right. Clark needs to buy pants that fit better. He always forgets he’s wearing his costume underneath.

    Regarding Superman, I bought the one with the big symbol. I just thought it looked cooler. But boy, I loved how all the other covers were based on the same template. Not enough to actually buy it to complete the set. Sure, it annoyed me a little that the better cover was a mismatch, but not enough to shell out more money. Heck, no!

    And the Batman book? Buy 4 issues just for the cover? Nuts to you, fellas! I believe I took the yellow one, but would have to look to make sure.

    As a side note, I always enjoy it when you say “non-zero percentage” because math makes me happy, as do convoluted and complex ways to say “I don’t know”.

  • Chris G says:

    Not only to Clark’s pants not fit, it looks like he’s wearing an Eisenhower jacket. And those sneakers are kind of an odd choice.

    I’m sure the intent was to break with the idea of Clark Kent in a blue suit with a red striped tie, but “brown and brown and gray casualwear” was…a choice.

    I bought the variant cover on the right, too, BTW.

  • Thom H. says:

    Is there really no earlier example of a variant cover? Either I didn’t know MoS#1 was the first or I completely forgot. Did publishers do 2nd printings at the time? With the exact same cover?

    Anyway, I totally bought the direct market version of MoS#1, too. Anything that was direct-market only felt really special at the time (e.g., Legion and Titans Baxter series). I wasn’t about to buy both covers because I had very limited comic funds when I was 13 and those X-Men annuals were not cheap.

    I concur about Clark’s outfit. I’m sure the bland color palette was intended as a contrast to the rest of the colorful goings-on, but “these pants make my thighs look enormous!” is never a good reason to make a purchase.

  • JohnJ says:

    I opened my store in 1987 so I didn’t have to deal with anyone but myself for Man of Steel. I think I had the regular cover.
    But in ’89 I remember Legends of the Dark Knight selling very well, as did the Arkham Asylum hardcover which also came out around movie time. In fact, I sold just about every Batman and Detective back issue I had in the store. But it did not hold up when the second Batman movie came out.
    On a related topic, do you remember the outfit that tried to sell to speculators but would not send the comics to you, instead holding them in storage for resale in the future? They advertised in CBG, I think, and the ads came out for awhile. I hope the business failed miserably but I’m sure they got some suckers to sign up. Maybe they even went to jail if it turned out they just kept the money but didn’t buy the comics.

  • Cassandra Miller says:

    I got the Man of Steel “collector’s edition” and (I think) the yellow LotDK one. I remember thinking the latter was a bit of a cash grab, but kind of a cute idea too. I had no idea of the horrors that were about to be unleashed….

  • James S. Kosmicki says:

    I remember reading at the time (and believe it’s been confirmed by people who were in DC editorial at the time) that DC was very concerned that comic shops had massively over-ordered LOTDK #1, and the color overlay cover was an impromptu add-on to help boost sales. Working in a comic shop at the time, my memory is that there was no warning that the color covers were coming, and it certainly wasn’t part of the ordering.

  • Mikester says:

    James – that does sound familiar. I bet I have the original solicits buried in one of the many boxes of old promo material my former boss passed along to me. I’ll have to do a little digging!

  • Mikester says:

    Thom H. – I can think of earlier “variants” but not really marketed as selling points…more incidental vagaries of publishing (like differing back covers on Dell Comics, or minor art detail differences in various printings of undergrounds like Freak Brothers.

    There have been reprints, too, but they generally looked the same…Marvel’s early Star Wars went through multiple printings with the tag “REPRINT” in the corner box.

  • BobH says:

    It should be noted that the LoDK #1 pastel wrapper covers were added at the last minute, after the original single cover solicitation produced unexpectedly high orders. So the goal definitely was to get customers to buy more than one, but without it the same number of copies would have been in stores.
    “Preorders were colossal — so high that Paul Levitz and DC’s sales staff grew concerned that retailers wouldn’t be able to sell all the copies they had ordered. Looking for a way to add some value to the release, they directed the printer, Ronald’s, to divide the print run into four and add wraparound covers to each grouping featuring a bat image in four different pastel colors: teal, pink, orange, and yellow. “

  • Mikester says:

    Thank you, BobH. Between you and James I’ll probably lead off the next post with some clarifications informed by your help!

  • Mikester says:

    James and BobH – just did a quick rewrite of the post to acknowledge your information. Thank you.

  • Nat Gertler says:

    Variant covers had been around in the book business for a while by then, but with a different goal. There would be display bins alternating between two color covers to create a more eye-catching display; I doubt they expected anyone to buy more than one copy.

  • John Lancaster says:

    I can also confirm that those wrap covers were a last minute thing and NOT in the solicitations. I remember when we opened the shipping boxes and my boss at the shop said very loudly – “What is this shit, now!” and we all went over to wonder at the colorful mess in the boxes. After the first couple of days, we had had so many customers just wanting all four that I sat in the back room putting together bagged sets. Personally, I just bought the yellow one since that was the only color combo that made sense to me. For MoS, I ended up getting both covers.

  • Thom H. says:

    Thanks, Mike. Crazy to think I bought the first official variant cover.

  • DK says:

    Oh for sure I bought two copies of the far superior variant cover, one to read and one that I still have unopened in a MYLAR bag (gotta spend money to make money) to eventually cash in for my grandkids college fund.

    One factor: I was a hardcore Marvel reader at the time and this may have been the first DC book I bought at my local comic shop. I distinctly remember passing on the Alan Moore “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” issues because that was old lame Superman and not the cool new John Byrne stuff.

  • […] much any time of day depending on what part of the world you live in, you may wish to revisit the previous post. Look for the “EDIT:” dropped in there and read the rest of the paragraph that follows, […]

  • philfromgermany says:

    What other minimal perceived value-adds can be given to books to get folks’ wallets out?

    How about collectable bags. Variant bags with the same comic inside. Or maybe a variant one but to find out you’ll have to destroy the highly collectible bag?

  • […] all over it. Note the “Legend of the Arachknight” blurb, clearly referencing DC’s Legends of the Dark Knight #1 and its multiple […]

  • […] folk who bought comics and weren’t necessarily looking to turn a buck. As I brought up early on this ongoing series of “variant covers” posts, having different cover images was a way […]

  • […] like how this cover references the Spider-Man #1 (which in turn referenced the Legends of the Dark Knight #1…it’s variants all the way […]

  • Anonymous says:

    […] that point I was aware that variant covers could be a thing, since we just went through the whole Man of Steel event and its different covers the previous year. Plus I was familiar with DC’s “hardcover/softcover” plan, […]

  • […] …part of the joke being there were only (as far as anyone knows) four different serial numbers printed on the covers. In essence, making this one of the first “variant” covers in the modern sense (predating that darn Man of Steel #1). […]

  • […] back to the then-recent Man of Steel #1’s strategy, the image on the front of the version provided to your regular newsstand outlets, like your Stop […]