By Hal Hickey
In this multi-part series on the history of variant comics, we are exploring series of variants that collectors are likely to find, albeit some being much more difficult than others, depending on the rarity of those series. Part 1 and part 2 explored the first series, the “price variant comics”. In part 3, part 4 and part 5, we dug into the second series, the “printing variant comics”, covering second printings, third printings and beyond. In part 6 we discovered the “alternate publisher” variants, namely the “Whitman” and “Modern Comics” variants. In part 7 we talked about the groundwork for the last series of variant comics, the “cover variants”, which in part 8 saw their birthplace.
In part 9 and the final part of this series, we will find out what the birth of those first cover variant wrought!
Meanwhile DC Comics was the first to produce a “major event” comic with the death of Superman in 1992. Of course, this came with variant covers. With comic book sales at their highest in 40 years, several of Marvel Comics “hot artists” of the day decided this was the best time to make a move to create their comic book company and “Image Comics” was born. During its early life, those creators took the cover variant to dizzying heights! A great example of this was Jim Lee, Brandon Choi and J. Scott Campbell’s “GEN13” with a whopping 13 different covers released in 1995:
In the early 1990s we were introduced to platinum, gold and silver covers. Foil enhanced, hologram, holofoil, die-cut, die-stamped, collector’s editions, deluxe editions, thick cardboard premium covers, and so on. Publishers marked the cover price on these enhanced versions to almost double the regular issue price. Fans lapped it up the novelty of it for a while before greed, cover price increases, and a glut of products and variants on the market…sound familiar… put an end to it all for a time in a spiraling decline of the comics industry from 1993-1996. The industry imploded and with Marvel Comics declaration of bankruptcy in 1996, it was hair-trigger close to ending comic book publishing for good! Variant gimmicky covers were seen by comic fans as part of the problem.
Then came the movies! I’m not talking about the Superman series of movies of the late 1970s and early 1980s, or the other less known superhero movie flops of the 1980s. DC Comics’ Batman, released in 1989, was a start at what superhero movies could be, but 1995’s “Batman Forever” and 1997s “Batman and Robin” almost deep sixed the Batman franchise.
The movie that turned it all around was released in 2000: “X-Men”. It thrilled both X-fans and non-comics fans alike! Suddenly comics had a new lease on life and Marvel was beginning to reclaim some lost ground of the post-bankruptcy years. In part 5 we saw Marvel Comics make a decision in 2001, soon followed by others, to limit print runs to initial orders from retailers. Out of this spun the 2nd and 3rd printing variants and beyond. Since that strategy did not impact initial orders in a significant way, publishers continued searching for a way to increase those key initial orders. Remember the sports card and in particular Baseball cards with the “chase card” culture? From here, variant comics evolved to incorporate more of the Baseball card “chase card” strategy. They did this with another type of cover variant, the “incentive variant”.
Arguably, the first “incentive variant” was Spider-Man #1 in 1990. As a slow recovery from the downward spiral of the mid-1990s began to stabilize, Publishers were game to give incentive covers another go. Some of the initial incentives were 1 in 4 copies. Retailers would be compelled to order multiples of 4 in order to receive limited numbers of the incentive covers. Some of the early incentive variants were the “sunburst” variants during Marvel Comics first major title relaunch.
Collectors were willing to shell out more of their limited comic budget to obtain a copy of the incentive covers, cause well….some of them looked so good! Comic store retailers complied with those requests and increased their initial orders in order to have the variants on hand. This also had unintended consequences with retailers suddenly burdened with large quantities of regular cover “over-stock”, which was purchased for the sole reason of meeting the demand for the much desired incentive variant comic. Those same variants also sold for multiples over cover price! A trade-off that retailers thought, for a time, was worth the investment.
Believe me, publishers took notice. Now they found that ticket to compel the comic book retailer to increase the all-important initial orders. The initial toe-in-the-water 1 in 4, or 1 in 5 incentives soon became 1 in 10 incentives. These incentives were also only available with initial orders! Now retailers had to order 10 copies of the regular cover to obtain that one incentive variant. We know what happened from here, it jumped to 1 in 15, then to 1 in 20. But it went past the breaking point. Retailers could mark up an incentive 2-4 times the cover price but 1 in 20 meant the investment in potential overstock of regular covers was no longer a good risk.
Publishers didn’t stop there. Limited editions with limited print runs of 1000, 1500 or 5000 copies began to surface but these became the mainstay of the “smaller” publishers with Chaos Comics and Avatar leading the way.
Marvel and DC came up with a new trick up their sleeve, tiered incentives. One given comic could have:
• a regular cover
• a 1 in 15 incentive variant cover
• a 1 in 50 incentive variant cover
• a 1 in 100 incentive variant cover
• and for the bold, a 1 in 200 incentive variant cover
All these were conveniently (for the publisher), only available as initial orders! Now a retailer had to weigh and measure the risk of ordering multiple copies over their usual sell-through market volumes, just to obtain those rare incentive variants! Let’s break down the math: As a retailer, if I normally sold 60 copies of that title, I could obtain some potentially lucrative incentives if I ordered 200 copies. Using the above, I would receive the following:
• 1 of the 1 in 200 incentive variants
• 2 of the 1 in 100 incentive variants
• 4 of the 1 in 50 incentive variants
• 13 of the 1 in 15 incentive variants
Could I mark up the price on these 20 variants to pay for the 140 extra copies of the regular cover that I hadn’t yet figured how to get rid of? Interesting dilemma and a risk that could put comic book retailers out of business, if it didn’t go their way.
Here is an example of tiered incentive variant covers:
So there we have it, the evolution of the “cover variant” and where we sit today in the comic book market with sometimes a few issues in a month offering “tiered incentive” variants. There is one major difference in the cover variants of today versus those early days of cover variants. That is the comic book covers offered as incentive variants today are often drop-dead gorgeous. We can thank those early innovators at Image Comics for pioneering the gorgeous cover variants.
I hope you enjoyed this multi-part series on the history of variant comic books! See you around the variant box!