What Is With All The Variant Covers?

By: Frank Hyden

I woke up early this morning so I was checking some news out and I saw this. Eternals #1 to have nearly 40 variant covers. Why do they do this? I mean, it’s obviously for the money but that’s short-term gain. You risk pissing people when you release a lot of variant covers. I know that these completionist types bear the majority of blame because no one forces you to buy variant covers, but you severely risk lowering your sales because all it takes it for one of them to stop buying the multiple issues, to realize that they don’t need to have every single one, and your sales drop. Sure, a lot will likely continue but how long until they reach their breaking point as well? It’s one thing to have a variant cover or two for the big deal issues, crossovers and relaunches and things like that. It’s a whole other thing to have 20+ variants on this relaunch or 30+ on this milestone issue.

Hell, DC had 80 variant covers for Detective Comics #1000. 80. That’s a huge milestone and one that should be celebrated, but 80? Come on. Then these companies also have tons of variants for limited series and relaunches, and they relaunch titles all the time. It’s a way to prop up sales that keep dropping.

Once people break the habit of needing all the different variant covers, that illusion is gone forever. It’s like Achievements or Trophies in video games. It can be addictive to try to get as many Achievments as you can, to try to get those Platinum Trophies, but once you realize that it doesn’t get you anything, it’s done, you’re cured. Once you realize that there’s no point in getting that Platinum, you stop caring about it. Sony has given out some free themes for certain Platinums but they’re not going to do that for every game. Once you realize that it’s just a made-up number next to your name that almost no one even notices, let alone cares about, it loses meaning.

It’s the same with getting all the different variants. At the end of the day, having all 6 covers of MicroMan #1 doesn’t get you anything, it just cost you a lot of money because you probably had to buy the last variant you need off of eBay or something. “The comics might be worth something some day.” you tell yourself. Yeah, they might be, but it won’t be as easy as you might think. For one, you have to keep the issues in pristine condition. Which means not touching them, reading them, or even exposing them to the light of day. You also have to get them graded and all that. Then, most importantly, you have to find someone willing to pay a lot of money for them. The internet has made it a lot easier in that regard, but it’s still an extremely tough ask. In the end, would it be worth it? Not if your main goal is to make money.

So, the only real reason to buy these variants is because of you, your own desire to have a complete set. It’s why people collect things, and it can be a powerful motivation. However, I imagine most people who buy these variant covers don’t even care about collecting them all, they just buy the ones they think are cool. However, that brings up an issue that logically doesn’t make much sense. The idea of the variant covers are to have something cool, but if the covers are that cool, why aren’t they the main cover? If you’ve got this badass cover from superstar artist Joe Blow, wouldn’t you want that to be the main cover? Wouldn’t you sell more issues that way? Wouldn’t you want to show that off as much as you could?

The thing with these variant covers is that in order for a comic shop to get one, they have to order a certain number of copies of the main cover. I’ve heard numbers as “low” as 25 copies of the main cover all the way up to 100 copies of the main cover. To get 1 of the variant. Considering that the top-selling issue in a month might do 100,000-150,000 issues in a month…well, it doesn’t take a calculator to figure out that’s about 1,000-1,500 copies of that variant or so. Times that by 4 for the 1:25 variants. This factors into the whole reselling, money-making stuff I talked about before, but just about the coolness factor, these “super-cool” variants get seen by a fraction of people who read the comics. Why limit yourself?

Let me go through some numbers, which help explain why the companies do this (to make money in the short term) but also why it doesn’t really help overall. Wonder Woman #750 came out in January, doing 167,377 in units sold, the top selling book of the month. It had technically 36 variants but a lot were just recolors, reconfigurations, etc. There were 15 different artists doing them. The next month, Wonder Woman #751 and #752 and did 26,000+ units sold each. That’s a dramatic drop off. Here’s another. Thor #1 in January had 17 variants (I think) and sold 158,872 units. Thor #2 came out that same month and did 51,244 units. Thor #3 came out the next month and did 48,707 units. Thor #4 came out the next month and increased to 75,988 units. Wonder Woman stayed roughly even, at just under 26,000 units.

Here is where I got my information from, a site called Comichron

It’s obvious the variant covers popped sales but it’s short term. They never get near those sales again. It doesn’t seem sustainable but the companies seem intent on doubling down on it. I suppose it’s working for them but I’m not sure how much longer they can rely on this tactic. I will say the sales seem roughly even and sometimes better compared to other years in this century, though I’ll need to do more research another time.

Comments and suggestions can be emailed to me at hydenfrank@gmail.com and you can follow me on Twitter at @hydenfrank

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