Variant covers are a staple of the American comic book industry. Almost every comics publisher publishing single issues participates in the practice, offering readers and collectors dozens of different covers every week. But in doing so, they’re also a decisive element of comics, which see arguments for and against them. But what exactly are they?
This guide will give you an overview of variant covers. Read on to find out the different forms they take, where to find them, who they appeal to, and the arguments for and against.
What are variant covers?
Essentially, variant covers are an additional cover to the regular cover of a comic. The variants have different art, often done by another artist, but the content inside is the same. While it varies from publisher-to-publisher, this could be simply one additional cover or it could be multiple. For some big releases, such as Marvel’s Star Wars #1 or any #1 issue by Dynamite Comics, this could be dozens.
Who do variant covers appeal to?
While variant covers may not appeal to everyone, there are two core audiences that they cater for: appreciators of art and collectors.
For art appreciators, variant covers a level of choice for their purchase. They can choose which cover appeals to them the most, whether it be aesthetically or due to the artist involved.
Collectors enjoy variant covers as they make their collection more complete than just having the regular cover. Some go all in with variant covers, tracking down every variation of a cover available while others are more selective, opting to collect certain series or themes.
As a comics reader, there’s no obligation to participate in variant covers. If you see one you like, then go for it, but you can also ignore them if you want.
What kinds of variant covers are there?
There are all kinds of variant covers out there. Most offer alternative art from a different artist. Sometimes they’re used to try ideas that might not suit the main cover, whether that be different styles or depicting a character in a way that might not reflect what’s happening in the story. Fan-favourite artists will often do variant covers in between doing interior work as they have a dedicated fanbase interested in their covers. However, some artists, such as Artgerm or Peach Momoko, have created a sizable following through their variant cover work.
A classic form of variants are variations on the main cover. Sketch covers show a stripped-back version of an existing artwork, stripping it back to the inks or pencil art. Depending on the artist, these can appeal to those who enjoy seeing art at different stages of the creative process.
Another way that existing art can be reused is for subsequent printings. If a publisher rushes an out-of-print issue back into print, these second (or subsequent) printing covers are usually reworked cover art of the first printing with a different colour scheme. This could be a differing coloured background or, as was the case for the DC Comics’ New 52 second printings, a colour washed over the art.
There are also countless thematic variant covers. A publisher might decide to celebrate an event or cover a particular theme and commission several covers for release in a particular month or extended period. For instance, this might be to celebrate Pride Month or Black History Month. Other times, it has been to celebrate the anniversary of a character. However, some topics are not tied to a specific time but may appeal to a particular reader or collector. In the past, there have been LEGO-themed covers, movie-poster homages, hip-hop album covers, zombies, character team-ups, US states, and heaps more. Usually, these don’t tie into what’s happening in the story for the comic it wraps itself around.
The variant covers discussed up to this point have featured different artwork. However, publishers, from time to time, will take it up a notch and incorporate other materials and gimmicks in their variant covers. In the past, there have been glow-in-the-dark covers, foil covers, embossed/debossed covers, die-cut covers, 3D covers, covers made of glass, and even wooden covers. These gimmick covers can be divisive, with some attracted to the appeal and others saying that the gimmick detracts from the actual contents of the comic itself.
The gimmick covers are often sold at a higher price to cover the non-standard materials used. A great example is The Walking Dead #100’s Chromium cover, which had a foil trading card property and retailed for $9.99.
Finally, there’s the blank cover. These have no artwork, just the comic’s logo. However, they have a thicker card stock for artists to draw directly onto. Not surprisingly, these are popular at comic book conventions, with comic book fans commissioning their favourite artists to do sketches on them. As a result, they’re a method of gaining original and unique artwork.
Tiered variant covers
Yes and no. While few variant covers are printed at the same volume as the regular cover, there are variant covers that are not too hard to find. Others are much harder to find due to the restricted manner in which a comic book shop can order them. This is because a publisher will set up tiered incentives where a shop needs to order a specific volume of the regular cover before they can qualify for that variant cover. This could be for every 10, 25, 50, 100, or even 1,000 copies a retailer orders. Retailers can order one copy of that variant cover every time they reach multiples of that threshold.
For instance, a shop would be eligible for 1 copy of a 1:25 variant cover if they ordered 25 copies of the regular cover. They would be allowed two copies of the variant cover if 50 regular covers were ordered.
Comic book publishers do this to encourage retailers to order more comics. For example, a store may usually order 23 copies of a comic each month. However, they may round that up to 25 so they can order a 1:25 ratio variant cover.
These methods have been criticised by some retailers. These variant covers create more admin for retailers during the order process. Some retailers have also been burnt by ordering more comics than they can sell to qualify for them.
As a result of the tiered specifications, these variant covers tend to be harder to find. Some comic book shops order volumes may mean that thy do not qualify for them, while other shops that do order them in may only be able to get one or two.
Exclusive variant covers
Some variant covers are exclusive to a specific location, such as a comic book shop or convention. In the retail environment, these tend to be reserved for mid to large-sized shops as a sizable order is often required to qualify for them. Some stores like to get exclusive covers as it turns their shop or online store into a destination for collectors, who seek them out specifically. In these instances, the store might get an artist popular with their customers. Sometimes stores can get something that’s more bespoke and customisable. A great example of this is IDW’s Godzilla: Kingdom of Monsters #1 in 2011, where stores could get a cover where Godzilla would crush their store.
Convention-exclusive covers tend to be reserved for the bigger shows. Again, this is due to the large print run required. Sometimes these are handled by the show themselves, while others come directly from publishers or creators. These appeal to collectors looking to add hard-to-find items to their collection or attendees wanting a souvenir.
Where to find variant comics
Variant covers can be found in most places you can find single issues. The best place to start is your local comic book shop. You can browse which covers they have available and preorder future covers too. Smaller stores may be more conservative with which variant covers they order and may not qualify for the tiered ones. Others may only order them if a customer requests them.
Many of the big online retailers buy variant covers in larger quantities, especially shops like Things From Another World and Midtown Comics. Additionally, eBay is another place to go online for variant covers, with a great selection of older, current, and upcoming variants available.
Finally, conventions are a great place to track down variant covers. Beyond the previously mentioned convention exclusives, many traders are selling other variant covers alongside back issues.
How much do variant covers cost?
Most variant covers don’t have a set price. While some of the easier to find ones will sell for cover price, others, such as the tiered or store-exclusive ones will be sold at a higher price. This is often so retailers can either recoup costs or trade off the scarcity. The best thing to do is get in contact with your local retailer and see what is the best price they can do. Alternatively, you can use eBay as a guide to see what others have purchased specific covers in the past. Use our guide to find out how you can find out how much comics are worth.
Criticisms of variant covers
As I’ve alluded to out throughout this guide, variant covers have many detractors. Variant covers are criticised for a number of reasons. These include:
- The excessive amounts of variant covers that are released each week, which flood the market but also create a lot of admin for comic book retailers.
- Publishers use them to take advantage of a collector’s obsessiveness for a complete collection.
- Publishers use them as a way to try and make people buy multiple copies instead of cultivating a wider readership.
- Variant covers can detract from the interiors of a comic, turning comics into a trading card instead of a story that’s read.
While many have called for use of variant covers to be reduced or stopped altogether. However, publishers can’t exactly go cold turkey on them as a lot of artists rely on the work that comes from doing variant covers.