Greetings from the Odinson,
The Odinson Takes a Look at the History of the Variant Cover
Love them? Hate them? Indifferent about them? Variant covers are a huge part of our beloved industry. The Odinson is by no means an expert on this subject matter, but I can speak about my own personal history with variant covers and the things I do know.
It cannot be denied that the variant submarket has become so prevalent in the modern market that, just due to the cover prices of comics these days, fanboys and girls have to make decisions based on their pocket book. So, in some instances, a comic book collector who may have collected both Batman and Superman comics back in the day, his modern day counterpart may only collect Batman because that extra money that would have gone to another title now has to go toward the variant cover of his favorite title.
As a collector myself, I can relate to this dilemma. Sure the easy answer is to just not buy the variants, but any collector worth their salt knows that is just not an option. If you are a collector, the whole point is completion, and if there are variants then the collection can never be complete without those variants. Others may say “I’m not a collector” and I just want to read the comics, which is fantastic. This is a lesson the Odinson had to learn the hard way in the early 2000s.
As a fan and lifelong collector of comics, I wanted to read all my favorite comics. I consider myself a fan of the Avengers, Spider-Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Daredevil, the Justice League, Wolverine, Wonder Woman, Batman, Teen Titans, Nightwing, and, of course, Superman. Not to mention B and C-List characters like Moon Knight, Shang Chi, Luke Cage, Booster Gold, Spawn, and Hawk and Dove. Now add to that the occasional mini-series starring Beta Ray Bill or Prince Namor or Adam Strange or that annual major event like Identity Crisis or Annihilation, and as you can imagine my pull list was quite extensive.
Now, back in the day, that kind of pull list never posed much of a problem. From the 70s through the 80s and even up through the 90s a monthly pull list like that would run you anywhere between $25 to $40 dollars. Not too bad for an entertainment budget. However, with the modern day spike in cover pricing, a pull list like this will gouge your wallet for easily three to four times that amount. Sorry, I don’t believe the average person can spend $100 to $200 a month on comic books. I can remember back in the 80s going into my local comic book store with $20 and coming out with a stack of comics almost as big as my forearm and an ear-to-ear grin on my face. In 2017, you walk into a comic store now with $20 and you’re lucky to be able to afford three comics.
Even when the prices increased, I stubbornly held on, because, as I said, I was a lifelong collector and a fan. But then something else occurred that changed the game. The Variant Cover became a huge player. So now, as a fan and a collector, I was forced to make decisions like do I want to pick my copies of Nightwing and Wonder Woman this month, or do I want the super cool Civil War Variant by Michael Turner. You see, before, I could have it all, but not with today’s prices. So, my pull list began to dwindle and get smaller and smaller until there were only two or three titles along with their variants on it.
I tell this story because it should not be underrated the impact the Variant Cover submarket has had on the modern day comics market. Let’s see if we can trace this phenomenon back to its roots and maybe learn how it became the marketing juggernaut it is today.
Gold Key/Whitman – Y’all can correct me if I’m wrong (and I know you will), but I believe the earliest forms of variant covers can be traced back to the 60s and 70s with the Gold Key and Whitman comics. Now these were not variants in the true since of the word, but they are variations on the same cover. For an example, take a look at Flash Gordon #19 from Gold Key, and now take look at the same issue published by Whitman. Same cover art, it’s the publisher and pricing boxes that are different. I’ve always found that other than the super great comics they produced these subtle variations made the God Keys and Whitmans very collectible.
Mark Jeweler – All throughout the 1970s and 1980s, American military bases around the world would stock the magazine shelf of their PX with comics. Now, these would be the same exact issues, cover and interior, as the issues any comic fan could pick up off the spinner rack at the local 7-11 or in their local comic store. The differences in these issues were that there was a special insert stapled into the center of each issue. It was a Mark Jeweler insert, a 4-page advertisement for, you guessed it, jewelry. NOTE: A nice side effect to these Mark Jeweler Insert Variants is that because the insert was made of sturdy cardstock, Mark Jeweler Variants of the same issue from that era tend to grade a bit higher than their non-Mark Jeweler counterparts thanks to the support to the spine the cardstock insert provides.
The 30 Cent Variant – In the mid-70s, Marvel Comics would test parts of the market by releasing issues that had a 5-cent increase in the cover price. If these books continued to sell well then Marvel knew it was okay to increase the cover price. Here’s a fine of example of the Regular Captain America #196-200 next to the 30 Cent Variant Captain America #196-200. They repeated this a year later with the 35 Cent Variant. 30 and 35 Cent variants had lower print runs and tend to be worth a little more than their Regular Edition counterparts.
Newsstand/Direct Market – Since the dawn of comics, fans would go to their street corner newsstand, local corner store or neighborhood grocery and find the latest comics on spinner racks or on the magazine shelves (Ah, I miss spinner racks). This is commonly referred to as the Newsstand Market. In the late-70s and early-80s, the secondary market for comic books started to develop. Independent shops started to pop up around the country that dealt not just in selling new comics but also selling back issues. Eventually, distributors started feeding these comic and book stores the new issues as well. This became known as the Direct Market. For a time, there was a difference between new issues sent to the Newsstands and the issues sent to the Direct Market. It was a subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless. Have you ever wondered why your copy of Amazing Spider-Man #268 has a barcode in the little rectangle box in the lower left of the front cover and your buddy’s copy of Amazing Spider-Man #268 has a picture of Spider-Man’s face in that same box in place of a barcode? Well, that is because your issue was more than likely purchased in the Newsstand Market and your buddy’s copy was purchased in the Direct Market. These differences are so subtle that most retailers don’t even consider them different. Their collectability is all in the opinion of the fan.
The Origin of the Variant – Now, the very first true variant cover the Odinson can remember hitting the market was in 1986 with Man of Steel #1. After searching around on the web, I found that there is a consensus that this is the first true Variant Cover. I’m sure there were others, like Justice League #3 when DC Comics tested some markets with a variant cover that featured a test DC logo, but the next time I remember Variant Covers really playing a major role in the market came when Todd McFarlane launched his own Spidey solo series and Spider-Man #1 had six distinct variants of the same image. One of the coolest gimmicks pulled off with the Variant Cover was when Chris Claremont and Jim Lee’s X-Men #1 featured five variants, four which when connected created one dynamic piece of art and a fifth variant which featured a gatefold cover featuring that same piece of artwork on one cover. This is significant in Variant Cover History because, to this day, X-Men #1 and Spider-Man #1 are two of the All-Time best-selling issues in the History of Comics, and that was due in no small part to Variant Covers. However, that success may have created a monster.
Where it is Today – Over the next 26 years, from 1991 to 2017, Variant Covers, good or bad, have become a cornerstone to the Comics Market. There have been many different types of promotions from the Good (Neal Adams DC The New 52) to the Bad (Mighty Avengers TPB Vol. 3) to the Ugly (Bloodshot’s Day Off – NOTE: Seriously, 5 covers for 1 issue and not one of them is exciting or eye-catching? ) to the Whoa (Conan #24) to the pretty Gnarly (Marvel Zombies). However, there seems to be a greed factor settling in with the success of variants. Look, I love ROM. You would be hard pressed to find a bigger ROM fan than the Odinson, but does ROM #1 really need 15 variant covers? If so, does every other issue in the series need no less than 5 variants of their own? The new Harley Quinn #1 has 22 variants?! And, Justice League of America (2013) #1 had 50+ variants! Let me say that again. Justice League of America (2013) #1 had 50+ variants! And don’t even get me started on some of the prerequisites retailers have to meet in order just be able to carry some of these variants for the customers.
When is it enough?
As for my own personal views on variants. I believe they started off innocently enough. It was a fresh new bit, and some of the ideas and concepts variants created were actually quite fun. However, the concept of the Variant Cover is a lot like the old classic monster movie The Blob. It started out cute and small but over the years, through the 90s and up to modern day times, it has just feasted on the excitement and expectations of comic fans to a point where it has grown beyond the boundaries of control and has completely taken over the business to the point where new issues cannot even be produced and new series cannot startup without the gluttonous monster that is the Variant Cover showing its face to balloon a comic company’s profit margin and provide unreliable sales history.
“The point, ladies and gentlemen, is that GREED, for lack of a better word, is good.” – Gordon Gekko, Wall Street (1987)
The problem with greed, comic book industry, is that eventually you fall off that wall. You better hope that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can put you back together again.
This is Odinson bidding thee farewell
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