The History of Variant Covers, Part 3: The Modern Era

By | September 10th, 2014
Posted in Columns | 4 Comments

Welcome to the third and final installment of the History of Variant Covers. (You didn’t miss parts one and two, did you?) The last segment ended on the implosion of the speculator market and the lingering specter of variant covers. The industry began a slow recovery and lessons were theoretically learned. The 90s became viewed as an era of excess, and some publishers began to think the trends had reversed too far, that they could bring back the glory days with more success so long as they showed some restraint this time. Variants remained a part of the industry on a much smaller scale, and rarely received much notice or hype.

The real jolt that revived the practice came in 2004 with the return of Colossus in “Astonishing X-Men” #4. He’d been dead for sometime, and the creative team had gone to a lot of effort to keep his return a secret, even going so far as to release a fake teaser image showing the Phoenix. When the book hit stands, it also came with an unannounced 1:6 variant featuring Colossus. The excitement of the event generated a lot of interest, and retailers around the country reported immediate sell-outs of the rare cover. This sent a very clear message to Marvel, and so it came that in November of 2004, when they launched “New Avengers” v1 #1, they tried something like this again.

The first issue came with a 1:20 variant, the second with a 1:19, and so on down to a 1:15 with issue six, and then issues seven through ten all had 1:10s. The idea behind incentive ratios is to get retailers who are near the cutoff, such as ordering eight copies of a 1:10 incentive, to order one or two more books to qualify for a copy with a different cover. (Initially, a 1:10 cover meant a store received nine regular covers and one variant, but Marvel changed their policy sometime around 2009, and now 1:10 means ten regular and one variant, making them truly 1:11.) In theory, the extra copies allow a retailer to guess high on the number of copies customers will buy, preventing a sell out and potentially leading to stronger sales down the line. At the same time, the special cover acts as insurance because the retailer can sell it at a premium to cover the cost of any unsold copies.

Because sales are only reported by title, not covers, it’s impossible to accurately determine how many shops took advantage of the “New Avengers” offers. Two points can provide a qualitative estimate, though. The first point is anecdotal; because the incentive offers after this stunt exploded, it’s safe to assume Marvel saw a lot of positive reactions from retailers. Second, look at this chart showing the sales numbers for the first fifteen issues of the series (numbers courtesy of Comichron):

There are three main noteworthy parts to this graph. First is the big drop between issues 1 and 2, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary for a new title and isn’t necessarily due to a shift from a 1:20 variant to a 1:19. Second is the bump around issue 5; it doesn’t look very impressive because of the scale, but sales rose 13,000 units between 3 and 5, which is also the period where orders can accurately reflect reader response to the first issue. That suggests that retailers underestimated demand for the book, and that maybe the extra copies they ordered to meet incentive quotas did help them find a sales ceiling – or at least help them get closer to it.

The final noteworthy part of this chart is the drop from issue 10 to 11. Again, it looks minor because of the scale, but when Marvel stopped offering an incentive cover, sales immediately dropped 12,000 units, or about 8%. This shows a demand for the incentive variant, at least from retailers if not customers. It’s not unreasonable to think the bump from issue 3 to 5 may not have been from demand for the book, but for the incentive.

That must have been how Marvel interpreted it, because it didn’t take long for incentives to become the dominant type of variant cover in the modern market. As demand for them grew, so too did the ratios. In 2009, the line-wide themed variants at Marvel were all set at a 1:10 ratio. It increased to 1:15 in 2010 and 1:20 in 2011. Since then, the trend has been toward a tiered approach, where one issue will come with multiple ratios for multiple covers.

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Still, the upper level ratios continues to rise. At the start of the New 52, DC offered sketch covers for all 52 titles at a 1:200 ratio.

As the number of variant and incentive covers ballooned, the practice went from being an effective attention getter to an expectation. This forced publishers to find new ways to make it interesting again, such as the surprise Skrull variant covers from Marvel during “Secret Invasion.” In 2011, IDW persuaded 75 retailers to order 500 copies of “Godzilla” #1 in exchange for any number of the copies to have their store pictured on the cover. Later that year, Boom! Studios upped the incentive ante a bit by pre-grading their 1:200 incentive for “Outcast” #2 for retailers.

In 2012, a group of retailers banded together to form the Ghost Variant group, which offered exclusive covers to certain stores by invitation only. Its success and bitterness from retailers who weren’t invited inspired the Phantom Group, which offers their exclusive covers to any retailer who wishes to join.

In 2013, DC offered 52 versions of “Justice League of America” #1.

Let’s pause here and look at the sales impact a high ratio variant can have and see if we can find a limit to the ratio limit the market will bear. Here’s another sales chart, this time for “Amazing Spider-Man.” Again, sales are in thousands, and numbers are courtesy of Comichron:

Can you spot where the high ratio variant happened? It’s not issue #666; not exactly, anyway. Issue #666 did have a variant, and it was an uncommonly high minimum order – 500. It was another one of those get-your-store-on-the-cover offers, and if a store ordered more than 500 copies of “ASM” #666, it could get as many of them with the special cover as the retailer wanted. It seemed to do the trick too, because sales more than doubled.

The really high ratio variant was actually for issue #669, which offered to draw a customer onto the cover. Not just a paste-up job with a face, either, but a full on illustration. The kicker? It was a 1:2000 offer. It was obviously taken up by very few stores (sales increased only 14k), and is a textbook example of diminishing returns.

The award for most infamous incentive stunt belongs to a 1:52 “Siege” #3 variant. The ratio itself isn’t anything unusual, but the 52 books required were not “Siege” #3, or any other book from Marvel. No, this particular gimmick was a response to another gimmick.

During the Green Lantern focused “Blackest Night event, DC offered wearable plastic lantern rings to retailers who increased their orders on low selling titles. This left retailers with lots of unsold books. For every 52 covers torn off the DC promo books and sent to Marvel (which is the standard method of returning a book to a publisher), Marvel sent that retailer one copy of the “Siege” #3 variant. When the offer was first announced, it was met mostly with unfavorable comments, not least of which being the generic nature of the cover as a soon-to-be-outdated pop reference.

At the time, fans speculated the cover would sell for $50 to $100, tops. Earlier this year, a loose copy on eBay sold for $600 and CGC 9.6 copies were going for $1300-$1400.

Different publishers have taken to variants and incentives in different ways, but the market seemed to reach an equilibrium a few years ago. In October of 2012, 40% of new issues had variants available, a percentage which remained near constant in 2013 and 2014. Speaking for Dark Horse, Editor in Chief Scott Allie offers an explanation for why the numbers quit climbing:

A few years ago a great variant was a favorite incentive among retailers. Retailers are a bit burnt out on variants. They say they’re more motivated by other incentives. This is why the orderable variants … still work. Customers still want the extra covers, but they aren’t as interested in being “incentivized” into buying them.

If you follow the links for these numbers, it’s clear there is no shortage of people worried about the market.

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Some people remain optimistic, though.

Variant and enhanced covers of all types are a “manufactured collectible” – a market created for a product instead of a product created for a market. As noted retailer Brian Hibbs has said, no comic reader would quit enjoying their hobby if variant covers ceased to be produced tomorrow. While true, keep in mind the term is a neutral one, and only means the value of the collectible is extrinsic – that is, it’s only worth what you believe it’s worth.

If you enjoy them, buy them. If you don’t, don’t. Either way, variant covers aren’t going away.

//TAGS | Multiversity Looks at Variant Covers

Drew Bradley

Drew Bradley is a long time comic reader whose past contributions to Multiversity include annotations for "MIND MGMT", the Small Press Spotlight, Lettering Week, and Variant Coverage. He currently writes about the history of comic comic industry. Feel free to email him about these things, or any other comic related topic.


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