In the ever-evolving landscape of fandom, there are simply some things that should not have happened. In Retcon This!, we examine some of the more questionable aspects of our beloved geek properties.
You would’ve thought comic book publishers learned their lesson the first time. In the 90s, gimmick covers were all over the place. In the space of a few short years we went from die-cut, foil and even glow in the dark covers to comics shot with a bullet and a gem embedded in the cover. As the focus began to shift more towards what kind of marketing gimmick you could use to make a scene on the marketplace, the collectors market reached a tipping point. It became clear that these “investments” weren’t going to put anyone through college anytime soon, if at all, and legions of folks walked away from the industry, causing a wave of direct market shop closings across the country.
In the past 5 years, we’ve seen an insidious creep back towards this line of thinking. While not made of glow-in-the-dark cancer paint or something equally ridiculous, the variant cover has become a staple of comic collecting in the new millennium. It’s an elegant solution to the cold war that was trying to come up with a gimmick to one-up your rivals, but it creates a short-term burst of interest and desire that can make a book superficially more successful as shops try to get a variant that they can charge far above cover price on.
Like it or not, the collector/completionist aspect of the comic reader is something that’s been burned into our Nerd DNA and it’s only natural that publishers are going to try to use that to sell product and promote new books. However, the variant cover, a concept built around rarity, has become commonplace. Variants aren’t rare treasures anymore, they’ve become a commonplace add-on to any book that may or may not need a temporary sales boost. While big changes and events can often come with 1 in 25, 1 in 50 or even 1 in 100 or 200 variants, many new series are launching with 1 in 10 variants. Is there so little faith in these books out there in the marketplace that publishers want to go this route to hope they can get at least 10 copies in every shop in the nation?
Even more troubling and frustrating are the wave of 1 in 10 variants for series in the middle of their run for no good reason than…well, that’s just it, isn’t it? No good reason. Well, how about we make up one. Let’s see, the X-men are fighting vampires so, I don’t know, let’s dress the Red Hulk up like Dracula and put him on a cover. There’s a Wolverine movie coming out? Hey, let’s put Wolverine in a bunch of classical paintings. We’re owned by Disney? Hey, let’s make Tron versions of our characters. It seems like anything is fair game for a variant or other kind of cover chicanery.
Marvel certainly isn’t the only company playing the variant cover game. Dynamite has consistently used the “percentage variant” on many of their titles (where of the total ordered, 50% will be by one artist, 25% by another and 25% by a third), particularly Red Sonja. Every couple of years DC decides that January is the month to line-wide have some sort of unifying design across the lion’s share of their titles. One year it was giant, close-up faces. In 2008 it was “Faces of Evil,” where the villains of the books were featured on the covers (and irritatingly, the names of the villains super-imposed over the actual titles of the books). This January it will be “iconic logos,” and there will be shots of the stars of the books in front of their classic logos. This works great for some characters but less so for others (like Zatanna, who’s iconic logo is apparently a hat, symbolizing either magic or her love of Monopoly).
While not the market-breaking threat that gimmick covers of the 90s were (and at least, for the most part, they can be opted out of by shops) there are still echoes of its impact all of the retail sphere. In fact, Fantastic Four #587, which will apparently feature the death of one of the members of the team, will be shipped in a bag to, as Tom Breevort put it “hang on to the story secret” for as along as possible. Whether this will be included on just the “spoiler variant” (with art by “TBD”) of the entire issue itself is unclear. While there’s a clear editorial reason to literally keep the surprise under wraps, it’s important to remember that many of the gimmicks that were tried in the past started out for editorial and story reasons and not just cynical cash grabs.
Aside for creating a rarity for the die-hard collectors in our community, the thing to remember is that the low ratio themed variant covers ad nothing to the medium. Often they are slapped on to titles that are completely unrelated to the overall theme. There’s nothing about a vampire or Tron that’s going to make a person want to pick up a random issue of New Avengers or Hulk, whether they read comics or not. Variants have affected the way shops can do their order cut-off. There have been weeks where shops have lost a sales week’s worth of data because so many variants have come out that Diamond needed the extra time to make sure that folks were only getting the variants they qualified for.
We’ve reached a point where the variant cover is no longer a sought-after collectible but the appendix of the comic universe. Let’s retcon out this nasty little habit before even more resources and money are wasted on them.