The Variant Question, by Mike Gold
Despite my firm belief that I know everything about everything, I humbly admit there is something about this variant cover thing I don’t understand. Therefore, I’m tossing these questions out to you, the public, for comment. I’m not really trolling for comments; I honestly don’t understand this stuff.
I got into this because I just finished filling out my part of the retailer’s order form for Diamond distributing. My wife will do so tomorrow, my daughter already did. None of us are particularly interested in variant covers. In fact, I can’t recall any of us ever ordering one, let alone juice up our orders so we can procure one of those “for every ten you get one” deals.
Some publishers release as many as five different covers on damn near each title they publish. Some only restrict themselves to two, and then only occasionally. I understand how the device works as a sales incentive for comics shop owners, but, really, do you – as a reader – enjoy this? Do you usually buy alternate covers? All of them? Some of them? Only particular artists? Do you ever pay a premium for one?
More important, if you can’t get one at your store, do you buy it at a premium on the collector’s market? If there’s an alternate cover out there you want, do you track it down online or at conventions or sic your friendly neighborhood retailer on the quest?
Collecting mania aside, there’s really nothing new about alternate covers – the magazine business has been at it since the invention of the staple. In our little donut shoppe, it goes back at least as far as 1956 – Mad #28 had three variant covers. About 15 years ago, our hobby (as opposed to art form) was consumed by gimmick covers: prisms, holograms, lenticular pasties, all kinds of stuff. More recently, we’ve even combined the two with the variant gimmick of the “pencil” cover. Yep, you’re paying more for an unfinished product.
Truth be told, I once proposed a gimmick cover as a satire. We were packaging Shamans’s Tears for Image (now on ComicMix, of course) and I suggested to Mike Grell we print the cover on the sort of bubble gum used in the old baseball cards, only larger. Mike loved the idea; Image didn’t. They thought we were making fun of them. Oh, well. A few years later Marvel licensed out the right to print one-page comics on slabs of bubble gum.
Variant covers have become the order of the day in the magazine world: TV Guide resorts to this gimmick every time they want to book their circulation by appealing to the teevee fan market, particularly when there’s a big science fiction story in the hopper. I don’t think it’s been working for them, as they have been sadly coughing up blood for several years now.
Does it work for comics? Well, no, not for comics as an artistic medium and it sadly reinforces the concept of collectibility over the quality of content. But I think the overpriced 36-page pamphlet is doomed anyway, so I see it as life support for a very, very old friend.
But, as a formerly funny person says, that’s just my opinion. What’s yours?
Mike Gold is editor-in-chief of ComicMix.