Variant covers and chase covers have become a staple of the comics industry in recent years, helping inflate sagging sales and fueling the “gotta have them all” collector instinct wired into some fans.
A week does not go by without a large number of multiple covers coming out and filling the racks at every major comic shop across the land. Did you know that these “multiple covers for the exact same comic” come in several different varieties? In simple terms a variant cover is just a different cover that can be ordered by your comic shop. A chase cover is one that requires some condition to be met before it can be ordered.
1st lets talk about normal variant covers, which are different from chase covers.
A chase cover is more rare than a regular cover. For example, 1:10 means that for every 10 regular covers there is 1 of the chase cover available. 1:25 means one chase for every 25 regular covers. Prices comic shops will charge for chase covers will vary depending on the ratio of the issue. A 1:10 may cost $6 to $10 (or more). A 1:25 may cost $10, $15 or even more.
Shown above are the 1:25 Robot Chicken chase cover for DC’s Superman/Wonder Woman #6, the 1:30 Matt Kindt chase cover for Valiant’s Unity #5, and the 1:50 Mike Deodato chase cover for Marvel’s Secret Avengers #1.
Let’s be honest here: Variant/chase covers present some cool images for both readers and collectors. Publishers only make them because they increase sales. But don’t just believe me, here is what Image Publisher Eric Stephenson said on the topic at the 2014 ComicPro conference:
"Same with gimmick covers and insane incentives to qualify for variants that will only have a limited appeal for a limited amount of time. Everybody moans about variants, but here’s the honest to goodness truth:"
"You stop ordering variants; we’ll stop making them."
"They are only produced to shore up market share, that’s it and that’s all, and when used in conjunction with quantity-based incentives, they don’t sell more comics, they just result in stacks of unsold books that send the wrong message to your customers about the titles, your stores, and our industry. That type of marketing is built on short-term sales goals that do little to grow and sustain readership, and it’s a trick that’s been done to death in other industries, to diminishing returns. That type of marketing is built on short-term sales goals that do little to grow and sustain readership, and it’s a trick that’s been done to death in other industries, to diminishing returns."
There you have it, from an industry insider who pretty much knows what he’s talking about. Publishers make these covers because they sell and shore up their market share. End of story.
Fan reaction runs the gamut from the logical “If you don’t like them, don’t buy them” to the snarky “Boo Hoo! If you can’t afford them, don’t buy them!” to the enthusiastic “Cool! I MUST have that cool cover for my collection!” to the unequivocal “I hate variants, I never buy them”.
I like cool covers, like many other fans/collectors. I regularly choose the normal "variant" cover when placing my monthly comic order because I like the variant cover more than the regular one. Normal variants are great, I’m all for choice. While I think chase covers often look really cool, I think they can actually be harmful to comic shops and therefore harmful to the comic industry and could ultimately harm both Publishers and fans.
Lets go back to the difference between variant covers and chase covers.
Normal variant covers offer a choice to the consumer and don’t generally force a comic shop to artificially increase their orders to qualify for a particular cover. The best of all worlds for variant covers is how many Publishers now offer separately orderable line items for the various normal variant covers. Aspen, Avatar, DC, Dynamite, Image, IDW, Marvel and Valiant all produce these kinds of normal variants every month (many also produce chase covers to go along with the regular variants).
Chase covers are insidious because they are designed to manipulate the buying patterns of the local comic shop owner. Shop owners who want to satisfy a customer's desire for a particular chase cover may need to order extra copies of a comic in order to qualify for an incentive chase cover. Do they normally sell 20 copies of Superman/Wonder Woman? Well, if they order an extra 5 then they can get that cool 1:25 cover. Normally think they’d sell 40 copies of Secret Avengers #1? Well if they order an extra 10 copies they can get that sweet Mike Deodato 1:50 cover. This is why most comic shops will charge extra $ for that chase cover. They are trying to cover the out-of-pocket expense they have to pay for the extra copies of comics that they bought to get that chase cover that they may or may not be able to sell. Charging that extra money makes getting the chase cover less of a hit to their bottom line just in case they end up with a pile of extra comics sitting unsold on their racks or sold at a loss in $1 bins.
Why is this bad for Publishers? They sold extra copies of a comic (which are non-returnable), their circulation went up on paper. They have their money. How is that bad?
It’s bad when piles of unsold comics end up sitting on the rack or in $1 bins. This sends a bad message to shop owners and fans alike. I would argue that it is better to have READERS who are buying a comic every month because they are interested in following the characters and story than to have a BUYER who bought a comic a single time because it had a cool cover or because someone thought it was collectible and would have future resale value
(Free tip for people who want to get rich on comics: 95%+ of chase covers typically peak in price within 60 days of release. The farther down the road you get, the less chase covers typically sell for. There are exceptions, but I have bought tons of really cool chase covers, primarily as art objects, a year or more after publication for cover price or less. These are books that were selling for $20+ the week they were released.)
Variants and chase covers sell. As Eric Stephenson said (quoted above), if they didn’t Publishers wouldn’t make them. Chase covers will increase sales some amount by getting shops to order extra copies to qualify for the incentives, though to be honest, since they do some kind of 1:25 chase cover theme each month it’s not as much about increasing sales at this point, but rather maintaining the inflated salesthat will evaporate if/when they go back to just doing normal covers.
Publishers maintain their inflated sales each month with gimmick chase covers. Some number of fans who thinks those covers are cool end up with them, either by paying an inflated price or because they have an “in” with the store owner as a regular customer and the chase covers are slipped to them at more normal price as a reward for being a good customer. Does this increase the readership of the Publisher's comics in the long run? Not really.
Granted, if a shop can sell the chase cover for a largely marked up price that covers the (discounted) cost of some/all of the issues they bought to qualify for the chase cover, they are essentially getting “free comics” to sell. This works if all the chase covers sell for the marked up price. I have seen far too many of these chase covers sitting unsold in comic shops with big price-tags on them (and later often sold at vastly marked down prices in the shop, online, or at conventions) to believe that this works universally for all shops that get chase covers. Those unsold chase covers represent lost sales and lost profit.
Let’s look at another ‘flavor’ of variant covers, this is one Marvel is fond of. They do variants that a shop can order as many of as they want as long as their orders hit a certain level, for instance if a shop orders 110% the quantity of the current issue as they did of some other issue #x then they can order the animal variant, or blank sketch cover variant, or Skottie Young Baby variant for the current issue. This also requires a comic shop to potentially artificially increase their order numbers.
Let’s go back to a real world example: My local shop qualified for the Magneto #1 animal variant (seen above) without doing anything unnatural, he was planning to order more copies of Magneto #1 than the reference issue because he thought he could sell them. I didn’t originally order Magneto but thought this was a very clever cover. I picked it up (for normal cover price), took it home, read it, and loved it. Now I’m going to be buying all the subsequent issues of Magneto, Marvel has created a reader for this title instead of selling a single 1:25 chase cover. My shop didn’t qualify for the She-Hulk blank cover. He told me he’d have had to increase his orders to the point where he though he’d have a significant number of unsold copies. So there were not any blank covers for me to buy. I like to get these and bring them to cons and get artist sketches on them, I’d have bought 1 or 2 of these in addition to the regular cover had they been available for sale, alas they were not. Lost sales, for both Marvel and the shop.
Had any of these been available as just normal variants that were separately orderable, they could have resulted in increased sales all by themselves. Given the “qualifying order quantity” requirements, they may have increased sales at some shops, but not at my local shop. I’m not in favor of a shop ordering extra copies that they think they cannot sell just to get a special cover. I’d rather a shop order properly, stay profitable and in business, and grow readership.
Chase covers appeal to the worst aspects of comics collecting: artificially inflated sales and a false perception of value/collectibility over story content. Speculation on the value/collectibility of gimmick covers almost killed the direct market in the 1990s. Hopefully we’ll weather this storm with the direct market intact once again.
Normal variant covers promote the best aspects of comics: choice in collecting. You can get one or all and is the “best of both worlds”: They allow there to be lots of cool covers out there for Publishers and shops to sell and fans/readers/collectors to buy and (hopefully) read.
As British statesman Edmund Burke said (later paraphrased by George Santayana):
The rant above notwithstanding, it's fun to collect variants. If you like cool/different artistic takes on favorite characters/series look the sub-genre of collecting Store Exclusive variant covers can be fun, but shop around. These are worth what consumers will pay. If customers refuse to pay outrageous prices to a store for these variants they’ll ultimately lower the price to a more reasonable level to move their stock of exclusive covers.
I like comics art and as a result, when they are reasonably priced, I will often pick up a variant cover for the sole reason that I like the art and I buy it as an object d’art. If you like to collect variant covers you may have noticed the sub-genre of variants that are offered by a specific store with the store logo. Forbidden Planet in the UK, Midtown Comics in NYC, Jetpack Comics and many more work with publishers to offer variant covers with some very nice art.
Store exclusive covers are usually nice but sometimes come with some really "not nice" prices (Jetpack is a big offender here, the Low #1 Jetpack/Forbidden Planet variant shown above is $14.99 from Jetpack and £4.99, which is $8.40, from Forbidden Planet). I’m not that big of a fan of paying $10+ for a $4 comic just to get a different cover image, but I’m often happy to kick in an extra buck or 2 over normal cover price and pay $5-6 for a comic with piece of art I really like. If you wait around you can often find bundles of these on eBay, I got a bundle of the phantom variants to Bedlam #1-6 for $25, which came out to be $4.16 each, not much over normal cover price for the issues. These end up on display on my spinner rack for several months and I justify them as both decorations for the comics room and cool collectibles.
In addition to store-specific variants, The Phantom Group (now defunct) was a collective of more than 30 comics retailers, some of whom also offer store exclusives, that got together and pooled their resources to offer shared variant covers with the Phantom variant logo. This allowed collectors to get some really nifty things like the Paul Pope cover to The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys (seen above). There is cool example of the combined image from the Phantom variant covers to issues #1-6 of Luther Strode on Tradd Moore's Blog.
An alternate to the Phantom variant is the “Ghost variant” which is also available through a select group of retailers but is released with no promotion prior to the day of release. A few of my favorite examples of this type of variant are the Paul Pope variant for Saga #7 featuring The Stalk and Yuko Shimizu’s variant for Sex Criminals #1 (shown above)