Variant Covers and the Infinite Game

Let’s take another look at the proliferation of variants, and the complex nature of their existence.

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that my inbox is often filled with messages from people within comics. That comes with the territory of running a comic site and podcast. Most are focused on promoting something or responding to my initial email, but occasionally, someone reaches out in hopes of getting me to investigate a topic. Maybe it’s a frustrating trend, a new and exciting arrival, or simply something they’re intrigued by. Whatever it is, these draw my attention, as it’s always interesting to see what people in comics are curious about themselves.

While these emails are unusual, there is a topic that’s routinely at the top of the list when they do hit: variant covers. 18 The questions vary, ranging from “What’s the deal with them?” or “Why are there so many?” to “Do people actually like them?” or “Are they really selling?” Whatever the query is, the subject remains the same, and it always feels rooted in a place of uncertainty, as if there’s a pervasive sense of foreboding surrounding this house of cards the direct market 19 has built for itself.

That’s part of the reason this topic has been the subject of multiple features on the site already. There’s genuine curiosity about variants — both from myself and others — and a level of interest that requires something beyond a surface level look. But something else has ensured this would be a recurring feature on the site. That’s just how common they’ve become. Once they were a regular part of the single issue mix, but now? They’re overwhelming, a dominant ingredient in the alchemy of the direct market.

Just how significant have variants become? Consider this. The era most frequently compared to today’s variant-rich slate is the 1990s, a stretch that’s perceived as the other high time for these covers. But the average month of releases from comic shops this year has had considerably more variants published than the most significant year from that decade. We’re in uncharted territory now, with the usage of these covers continuing to expand into shocking, previously unimaginable levels.

Maybe that’s why my conversations about variants have increased. It’s difficult to not feel that these covers aren’t just a part of comics these days, but a requirement for success within the direct market. They’re the price of doing business, with the right cover artist being as essential to your project popping as the people working on the comic itself. That can be exciting. It can also feel onerous, a compulsive necessity out of fear of failure. And it only continues to accelerate.

That’s why it’s the right time to revisit this subject, and to get a feel for just how robust the variant game has gotten, how those inside the industry view these covers, and what that might mean for the direct market going forward.

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  1. I’m not going to in-depth about what these are, because this topic has been addressed here many times before, most deliberately in this piece. But the short version is, variants are effectively any cover that isn’t the main cover to a comic book.

  2. Or the comic shop side of the comic industry.

  3. With all data provided by Peter Bickford of Comicbase.

  4. Or, expressed in total, there have been 11,490 variants released in the U.S. market as of November 2nd, with those belonging to just 3,276 comics.

  5. Which was the second most significant number in the history of comics up until that point.

  6. With Saga cited several times as the lone variant-less title that is currently thriving.

  7. As one creator put it to me, “If I were launching a creator owned book, I think I’d have a really hard time with it.”

  8. Having 12,000+ variants means you need to find artists to draw all those.

  9. Or the free copies a creator receives for working on something.

  10. Shouts to Chip for touting the environmental impact, though. I’ve long felt uneasy about how many trees it takes to get to the numbers necessary for high order gate variants, which is especially tragic considering a lot of those comics that are ordered to get that variant never sell.

  11. Which is far fewer than any other time I’ve written a variant piece in the past.

  12. There are many reasons you could buy a variant. Take me as an example. I sometimes buy them by accident or because there is no other option!

  13. Challengers puts back issues underneath the current issue, which is a fairly common move.

  14. Meaning you have to order 25 copies of something to order one of this variant.

  15. To add to that complexity, one retailer told me that the problem isn’t the number of variants today. It’s that there are too many comics that are simply not sellable, so naturally, the variants won’t move either.

  16. Or FOC, the final day shops can change their orders.

  17. A trend in baseball built on optimizing the game around the mathematically correct choices for each facet of the game.

  18. I’m not going to in-depth about what these are, because this topic has been addressed here many times before, most deliberately in this piece. But the short version is, variants are effectively any cover that isn’t the main cover to a comic book.

  19. Or the comic shop side of the comic industry.