The Legend of Bagged Variants.

§ October 4th, 2021 § Filed under variant covers § 7 Comments

So back in this post I made note about publishers polybagging for safe display comics containing adult material. Specifically I was talking about Barry Blair’s Leather and Lace from 1989, but I also made note of Howard Chaykin’s very adults only Black Kiss from the previous year.

Now I don’t recall if Black Kiss was the first modern(-ish) comic book to be bagged for content reason. I’m reasonably certain there had been comics pre-bagged before (were there 3-D comics that were bagged with glasses? there must have been) but I feel like the polybag covering of Black Kiss was enough of a novelty to drive attention to it. I mean, even more attention above and beyond “dirty comic by Howard Chaykin.” (And of course the factory-bagging continued some non-adult issues of note later on.)

Now Black Kiss didn’t have any variants as such for its individual issues, which may have you wonder why it’s in this variant cover-age post. Gettin’ to that, honest, but it does have to do with what eventually happened with some of the Black Kiss covers. A couple of issues in, the covers on the title started to get a tad too racy for general display in a store, so rather than see them relegated to that curtained area in the back of the shop behind the shelves of Rolemaster games and Ral Partha miniatures, an opaque overlay was inserted into the bag with the comic to cover its shame:

(Image liberated from an eBay auction, not because I couldn’t scan it if I had a sealed one, but because I don’t have a sealed one…all my copies of this are opened, though I still retain those card inserts because I’m a weirdo.)

Now the reason I mentioned all that is this style of protective covering was an inspiration later on for current marketing gimmicks in relation to, yes, variant covers. Take, for example, the currently-in-release series The Last Book You’ll Ever Read from Vault Comics. Each issue so far has had multiple variant covers…a couple of which are laid bare to public viewing, acceptable for all ages, and one filthy dirty filthy variant sealed for America’s protection in a polybag and opaque cardboard covering:

This of course isn’t the only comic to use this strategy of “what you see is what you got, what you don’t see might be hot!”* to entice readers into picking it up and ripping open the package to see what’s been hidden from them. Preferably after they pay for it, naturally. The most famous recent example is the uncomfortably-titled Sex Criminals:

…which went all out on their bags to get you to drop the extra 70 cents to buy this version instead of the plain ol’ ordinary covers recommended by schools and churches.

And other comics are doing this, too…the slightly less uncomforatbly-named Money Shot from Oni Press started with the bagged and boarded naughty cover variants relatively recently. And the Bettie Page comics from Dynamite are eschewing the board altogether and issuing “black bag” variants, where, as the name implies, the bag itself is opaque and you can’t see Bettie…I don’t know, gardening on that particular variant. I bet that’s it, she’s probably gardening.

There have been the occasional packaging issues with these variants in the past. I think there was a Sex Criminals where the bag was insufficiently opaque or manufactured in some way that inadvertently revealed the cover. Plus, there was at least one comic recently where the covering board was inserted on the wrong side of the bag, leaving the sexy side unveiled for all. (I honestly can’t remember which comic that was now…was it Money Shot? “Here, let me type ‘money shot’ into Google….” “MIKE, NO”)

It’s a little amusing that a protective packaging strategy from an era where comics where under fire from folks “concerned” for their content (but mostly just trying to get their names in papers by hitching themselves to something popular) continues today as part of a marketing gimmick to sell alternative versions of comics for higher pricetags. Not that it wasn’t a gimmick in the first place, but it certainly saved us a bit of time at the shop having to bag ’em up ourselves. Having an open Black Kiss, or Faust, or something similar, just sitting on the shelf within the grasp of kids would have been a bit much. It became enough of an issue that “privacy bags” (black with a small window at the top for logos) began to be marketed for retail use.

Now, does the “bagged adult variant” thing work, saleswise? …I’d think “yes,” more or less. For the most part, when people have titles that have these variants on their pull lists at my shop, they specify the bagged editions. When I have the Bettie Page black bag variants available, they sail off the racks, I’m guessing to gardening fans. By and large, they do what they’re supposed to do, and that’s grab attention. But not too much attention from the wrong (i.e. too young) eyes, which seem to just pass right over them in favor of more dynamic covers on Amazing Spider-Man or whatever.

And that’s another variant style down, after nearly six months of talking about ’em (almost) every Monday! I’m not done yet, so tune in next Monday to see what else I’m cooking up. If you have anything to add to today’s discussion, or have a request, be sure to let me know!

* Attributed to Jamie Farr, from an episode of The Gong Show, according to my old pal Rob. Never heard it for my own self, but surely it must be true as it’s too good not to be.

7 Responses to “The Legend of Bagged Variants.”

  • King of the Moon says:

    I remember 3D comics from the 80s being sold without a bag and the 3D glasses were on a strip inside that had to be torn out by perforation maybe?

  • Tom W says:

    Maybe not the comic, but I was allowed to buy a Black Kiss T-shirt by my local shop… which was the cheapest, worst T-shirt I ever bought. It ripped spontaneously and then, when tested, incredibly easily. Like easier than paper. Howard still owes me for that.

  • Heslin says:

    The title of this post is outstanding, sir.

  • Jack says:

    I too think of Black Kiss as being “modern” despite being *counts on fingers* 33 years old.

    Wait how the hell did THAT happen?

    My main memory of Black Kiss, which I had in the versions mentioned here, was seeing a new book by Howard Chaykin out on the shelves (I gave him a lot of slack for a while after American Flagg) and not even considering why it was in a black cover, buying it. At the time, my comics shop was operated by a guy who employed all of his kids, usually to run the register. On this day, it was his oldest daughter, cute as heck, probably sold a lot of comics the days she worked just because she was a pretty girl in a comics shop (whether or not her dad INTENDED that I don’t know 33 years later.)

    So up to the register I come with Black Kiss #1 and other titles, and she goes to ring them up, sees the first book, and for a second just gives me this amused look that made absolutely no sense to me…until I read Black Kiss, of course.

    I was mortified for weeks after that if she was working.

    I’m pretty sure that’s why for years after that every adult title that crossed her dad’s shelves was recommended to me, with the apotheosis of that being Exquisite Corpse.

    Still can’t accept that was 33 years ago.

  • Nat Gertler says:

    Black Kiss #1 did have a variant of sorts — you could get the first installment in the normal issue, or you could get it in an issue of Penthouse Forum.

  • Dave says:

    This isn’t exactly a “variant,” but I was so intent on not missing “The Dark Knight Returns” that I went the subscription route. Four copies — mailed flat — in plastic bags. I have never opened them in, what?, 36 years?

  • Rob S. says:

    Just have to echo Heslin — Bravo to this post title!