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Variants on a theme.

§ April 19th, 2021 § Filed under collecting, retailing, variant covers § 22 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.

Seeking your input on variant covers.

§ April 16th, 2021 § Filed under question time, variant covers § 37 Comments

Look, I spent a long time putting together a post about the retail impact of variant covers, and it’s not quite coming together and it’s too late to keep polishing it and I know I’m leaving stuff out. SOOOOO…I’m gonna save it for Monday, and do a little consumer polling today.

Thus, my questions to you are:

  • What makes you buy a variant cover?
  • Do you buy multiple covers for the same comic? Regularly, or just on special occasions?
  • Do variant covers turn you off from buying a comic?
  • Do you mind paying more for a variant cover (whether it’s a buck more for DC’s cardstock covers, or higher premium prices for those incentive ratio — i.e. 1/10, 1/25, etc.– variants)?
  • Have you ever been tricked by a variant cover featuring a character or situation not in the comic itself? (Like, grabbing one of those Deadpool anniversary covers thinking Deadpool would be inside?)
  • Have you bought variants for comics you don’t regularly buy because of their “theme” (like, again, you’re a Deadpool fan and you wanted all those covers)?
  • Anything else about variant covers you’d like to say?

Please leave responses in the comments…you don’t have to answer all the questions, and you can be anonymous if you want (if you leave your email in the comment form, I won’t out you, I promise). You can even email me, too (at mike at progressiveruin dot com) if you’re more comfortable with that.

Thanks, pals!

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