Does whatever a variant can.

§ April 26th, 2021 § Filed under marvel, retailing, variant covers § 9 Comments


So in the summer of 1990, these came along: the first issue of what we referred to as the “adjectiveless Spider-Man, a new ongoing series drawn and written by the immensely-popular superstar artist Todd McFarlane. If you were a fan of McFarlane’s art, it was absolutely a visual tour de force, giving you the most McFarlane-est of McFarlane Spider-Man art. The writing was…well, I think in retrospect ol’ Todd got grief way out of proportion to his actual scripting skills. Perhaps he wasn’t the most talented wordsmith in the world, but for a goofy ol’ Spider-Man comic, it was fine. I’ve read plenty worse, I assure you. And while the opening captions to issue #1 took the brunt of the derision, it was turned into a wonderful piece of audio by my old pal Andrew and thus, how can I ever feel anything but love for it?

But look, we’re not here to talk about the contents of these Spidery-Sam books, we’ve come to poke sticks at the variant covers! Of the 1990s Big Variant Cover Hoohas, Spider-Man #1 was the first, with two differently colored covers (one printed with in green and black, the other black with silver ink), and then two additional versions with each cover sealed inside a polybag with “COLLECTOR’S ITEM!” printed all over it. Note the “Legend of the Arachknight” blurb, clearly referencing DC’s Legends of the Dark Knight #1 and its multiple covers.

Of note is the fact that the black bagged variant had no price printed on its cover, but instead had a $2 price tag on the bag. Gettin’ ya for an extra quarter there. The green bagged edition still appears to be the regular $1.75 price, though I could have sworn both were $2 at the time. Hey, it’s been thirty years, I forget things. However, for that extra quarter, you were buying a comic that was genuinely a variant in that the actual cover had a printing variation. But if it were removed from the bag, technically the collectible would be “incomplete,” so just being a variant in and of itself wouldn’t be enough, I’d thought. But just checked the eBays and someone there is trying to sell one of unbagged, cover-priceless versions of that black ‘n’ silver variant for $70, but I don’t know if that’s within reason or simply “high hopes.”

And yes, there’s also the bagged newsstand edition, with a UPC code on the cover instead of the Spidey face in its place. Can’t forget that. Plus there was the gold-inked 2nd printing, and the platinum edition and newsstand gold edition that you can read about here.

At any rate, we definitely sold a boatload of things…just stacks and stacks, with plenty of folks grabbing multiple copies. This was, of course, back in the day when you ordered heavily on a first issue, as, if successful, the series would go on for a long time and there would always be customers looking for that first issue in the future, because surely no publisher would be dumb enough to relaunch a series with a new #1 every year or two. In these days of direct market frugality, where everyone’s ordering as close to the bone as possible, it’s hard to imagine actually having that much stock on anything new, much less having speculators look at said stacks and view them as investible material. Compare to today, where speculation depends on pouncing on titles ordered at low-ish but reasonable numbers, creating and taking advantage of that additional scarcity in an already thinly-spread marketplace.

At the time, my previous place of employment had plenty on hand. Of the two regular covers, at least…my boss thought the polybagged-editions were “stupid” and refused to have anything to do with them after the sold out. Just wouldn’t buy them from collections, that sort of thing. Eventually we did get two that showed up in a collection that we just sort of ended up with, so out into the back issue bins they went. I think that was the one exception.

My personal thought on those bags back then was that they would eventually do damage to the comics inside, as they aged and broke down and decayed on the comics themselves. In recent years I’ve had my hands on those polybagged Spideys in my own shop, as well as other prebagged comics of that decade, and it doesn’t appear as it this has been the case. Whether that’ll change in the decades to come…well, of course it will, it’s cheap plastic, it’s gonna break down eventually. Whether that’ll happen soon enough for any of use to care, I don’t know.

I’d said the McFarlane Spider-Man #1, and the rest for that matter, were plentiful at the time. Not to beat that poor old dead horse some more, but after thirty years and shops vanishing and new shops cropping up and old back issue stock going away and all those copies purchased but then those were either not well cared for or simply thrown out…it’s very possible the available stock left in the world is at least somewhat lessened. Add to that the younger customers who weren’t around or too wee to be buying these off the racks, and are discovering them now. Regardless of the reason, these Spider-Man comics are currently in high demand, at least for me. I just can’t keep the darn things in stock.

And do those variants make any difference to buyers now? Not that I can tell. I haven’t had the quantities on hand to make a clear judgement as to whether there’s a consumer preference for the green cover or the black cover, but both (and the gold reprint) sell nearly as soon as I price them. This is, I think, one of those cases where cover variation is playing no real part in sales. It’s all “early McFarlane art,” or “it’s a #1 for one of the main Spider-Man series,” or “it’s a major Marvel #1,” period, all of it pushed along by a not-insignificant number of current speculators.

Next time: weekly X-Men variant covers…advantageous!

9 Responses to “Does whatever a variant can.”

  • Snark Shark says:

    “The writing was…”

    Nonexistent?

    I remember one reviewer saying the 1st story arc didn’t so much end as just STOP.

  • Thelonious_Nick says:

    This issue was one of the key factors in my getting out of the comics hobby for more than a decade soon afterwards.

    Though I hadn’t specifically asked for it to be in my sub box, fifteen-year-old me was pissed that my LCS owner didn’t set aside a first printing in my box, seeing as I’d been a regular at the store since the fifth grade and bought every Spider-title that came out.

    By the time I got to the store on Saturday (Mom didn’t have time to take me during the week), only the gold 2nd printings were left. Yet, there were kids at my school who had 5 copies of the first printing? So the comic owner was selling multiple copies of this comic to people who weren’t even comics fans, while his regular customer who came in and spent his entire allowance on comics every week got the shaft?

    This and a couple other similar incidents that made me think said owner didn’t really value the weekly $5 I was spending with him led me to giving up visits to his establishment, effectively giving up the hobby as it was the only comic store in my town.

    Around 2008 I did get a first printing as a freebie when I made a large order from a mail-order company.

  • Chris Wuchte says:

    I wonder how many people this temporarily killed the hobby for, because I left for about ten years as well, and this was a big part of why.

    In my case, I had just started college, and was looking for a new comic shop. Found one within walking distance of the campus.

    Went to the register with a regular, non-variant copy, $1.75 right there on the cover, only to watch the owner ring it up for $20.

    When I asked why, he said because it was “an instant collectible”.

    I declined to buy it, walked across the street to a science-fiction bookstore that also sold some comics, and bought it for the regular price.

    Didn’t quit right away, but the end began that day.

  • JohnJ says:

    I remember selling the Platinum edition copy for $100 and having more than a little guilt about it, but a regular customer was the one who bought it and it seems to have retained and even gained in value. Wonder if he ever resold it?

  • Donald G says:

    Not variant cover-related, but rather plastic bag related: Between 1998-2002, while my son was learning to read, I kept not only a pull list at my local LCS, but also had an old-school subscription to 5 of the titles on my LCS pull list. The idea being that, if my son maintained his interest into adulthood, he’d have a box of his own copies of these comics waiting for him.

    At the time, comics subscriptions no longer came in the traditional plain brown envelope with the edges sticking out like they did in 1982-83, the last time I had a subscription. No, by this time, they came sealed in this thin,clear, brittle-feeling plastic wrapper with a thin cardboard stiffener. The stiffener did not prevent my postal carrier completely from folding the comic as he pushed it through my mailslot, but it did discourage it. (Yes, I lived in an old-fashioned neighborhood where the carrier had to *walk* door-to-door.)

    As, I said before, I boxed these copies for my son away mostly unopened. Over the intervening years, I spent a lot of time on comic message boards, and occasionally, I would lurk and spy on the conversations of hardcore collectors and dealers, and occasionally, you would stumble on threads concerning storage techniques, and there’s be posts running down various brands of bags and boards for not being “archival quality” or acid -free enough, etc.

    Last year during the lockdowns, I decided to sit down and bag and organize my comic collection, and when I got to those comics still in there non-archival quality cheap, brittle plastic bags with the conventional “acidic” cardboard mailers from 1998 to 2002, I’ll confess, part of me was worried.

    So, I opened them up and took them out.They looked great and smelled like they should. The ones the postal carrier hadn’t tried to fold were still VF to NM easily.

    Now, I wonder how much the arguments over which archival quality bags and boards and such is largely fearmongering on the part of the collectibles industry that has grown up around comics.

  • John Lancaster says:

    All this talk reminds me of dealing with the whole Robin II and Robin III mess. Ridiculous! For those especially, it feels like someone at DC sat in a smoke filled back room and asked out loud “just how stupid are these guys?” – and you know what? Plenty stupid. The sheer amount of just the #1 for Robin II that we ordered for the shop I worked at filled 10 long boxes. Just about every single customer complained about them (as they handed us fistfuls of money), and then repeated the process for each issue after that.

    Did they learn their lesson when Robin III came out? They did not. Then there were the bagged “Collector Sets” for each issue. What a mess. In the following 25 years of service, I never once sold a back issue or had anyone ask after poor old Robin II or III. Even the ones we tossed into the quarter box sat untouched and unloved until the day the shop was closed in 2016.

    Unlike the derided Turok #1 (on which I inflicted my own justice), we somehow never ended up with boxes of these floating around in the back room. To this day, it still amazes me just how many of those stupid things we sold.

  • Snark Shark says:

    Chris Wuchte:
    “Went to the register with a regular, non-variant copy, $1.75 right there on the cover, only to watch the owner ring it up for $20.”

    Whatta jerk!

    “I declined to buy it”

    Good! The nerve of some people.

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