The problem with Variants

In this section we run opinion pieces and hopefully spark debate. This time, it's time for Jason Hehir (whose art will soon be featured on #ifightghosts and who loves comics as much as you or I) to tell you what he thinks about the variant overload and I personally think he has a point. What do you think?

The fact that having variant covers setting the trend as to what is important, or hot for comics is promoting an unhealthy take on comics. Gone are the important stories and the introduction of meaningful characters to the different titles or monthly line up. Vanished have the long-term commitments to quality books

When was the last time any site's top ten was filled with actual first appearances,key stories, and first issues?

I recently watched the auction for a CGC 9.8 graded Star Wars 1:500 Quesada Sketch cover #1 go for under $50 +shipping, and it made me stop and think. There are way too many of these things out there because everyone ordered an obscene amount of books that will not make their mark no matter how important they were, for quite some time, and the value of the variants are doomed to tank as more and more realize the books are kinda lame in respect to the days when the books were good, and stood on their own without cheap gimmicks. This is what crashed the market in the 90's incentives and millions of copies. the ratio is so jacked that it will be another 25 years before anything has decent value again.

Most folks want that “rarer” book regardless of the fact that the contents suck balls, because they have come to accept/expect the content to be just that.

The publishers know it too. They even go so far as to run event after event, end, and restart series every couple of years, if that long, and claim it is a good story telling move, but when you look at the sales, when 1:25 to 1:100 isn't enough to get those numbers up, they toss out 1:500, or even the more bizarre, 1:1000, or 1:5000 for these “pointless” events, and new number 1's, and when that fails to keep you hooked they turn around, and keep going with ratio variants for the remainder of the series/event.

Look at all the recent indy series over the past decade, and you will see strong stories, meaningful characters, and in some cases, long runs for the fans. Not trying too incredibly hard to get your bucks by offering incentives to meet the sales quota. Yes, there are variants, but normally they are exclusives, or small endeavors, not meant to be the reason you bought the book but to promote it, and by gosh the story is still better than anything you have read before, with art to match.

DC has turned things around for a few of their titles with “rebirth”, but they are still praying on those sales boosts with variants for the majority of their line, with “Hey you might not like the book, but look at this other cover option, ain't she pretty?”

And now, we see the return of those wonder “Gimmick” covers on top of normal covers, like the publishers are saying, “hey, we remember the 90's too…” What a dark time that was, and yeah, we were all caught up in it, just as we are now.

Nothing good can come from this, comic shops closing their doors due to sitting on stacks of a comicbook that didn't sell enough to cover the cost while the incentive sits on the back wall collecting dust, or shuffled off to the back room because they can't afford to let it go for a moving price because they need to recoup their losses. Thankfully the internet helps some of these places reach their target audience and move more copies, but let's be realistic, there aren't as many of us as we would like to believe, and tons of books go unsold every month.

Case in point, after doing one of my little pet projects during the peak of the “Variant Wars” where I research exact numbers of variants out there, the rarest New 52 comicbook is the G.I. Combat #1 variant cover, a title no one ordered, and a ratio variant on top of that. They really wanted to push this one, and tacked a beautiful variant option out there, but when it came down to sales, orders that qualify for this book were at 180. That being said… No one cares, the book moves for under $20 USD in NM condition.

The ratio variants for the fan favorite titles, or cover artists of hot women go from $50 to $300 and more uncertified, and there are plenty of them (around 500 to 3k copies in circulation for the rest of the variants to hit the stands since 2011) Don't get me wrong, 500 is a low number. However, If the title doesn't drive interest, eventually even the most die-hard enthusiast will lose interest.

And yes, some of these variants in the 500 print run area are quite sought after, but then again, a large number of them aren't, and they don't move at all. 1 per store variants, talk about wide range of interest… there are thousands of stores, and several have multiple accounts, and thus several copies, as it is 1 per account, not physical store location. Party variants, some of the rarest of the launch party books. a couple go for a pretty penny, but most are lucky to see $10 bucks, if at all, and the retailers had to pay out the wazoo to host these events, or meet a predetermined order (you guessed it) ratio.

The publishers will not stop this unless we stop buying into it. Make them return to the important stuff, stop peddling plates of fecal matter topped with a pretty garnish on it. Don't stand by and allow the crash to happen again. I can see the iceberg on the horizon, Just because the band plays on doesn't mean the passengers must go down with the ship …


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    I think variants have hurt comics but I am guilty of buying them. At this point I really only read TPBs. All the restarts and reboots hurt even more. Damn, what volume is Moon Knight on now, like eight. I collect comics for the art and not the substance now. I just saw Kirkham’s cover for Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe Again, Horn’s cover for Edge of Venomverse, and Artgerm’s cover for Weapons of Mutant Destruction. Will any of these books have great substance, I doubt it but I love the art these artists have created. So I will be buying each of them for that. Ten years from now I will have short boxes full of variants, will I regret it. Only time knows.

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    Quick everyone, sell sell sell before it’ too late!

  • dpiercy

    I don’t mind cover B variants, they are normally cover price and give consumers a choice.

    Store variants are the real problem. The 3 I bought in the last 12 months I really love, so every one will have what they like and don’t like. The majority of them are GARBAGE, in my opinion, and aren’t even nice looking covers. Prime example being all the stupid Babyteeth variants.

    Starting to rant, apologies.

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    It’s refreshing just to follow comics that move in a linear fashion. When stories wrap, they wrap, they have characters and writers that are strong enough that they don’t need to throw alien symbiote costumes, dozens of attractive wrappers by any artist that moves just to snag hollow attention etc… they just keep moving with what everyone fell for in the first place and bury if it doesn’t work. I’ve always found that companies trying to create a collectible is annoying and patronizing…the essence of the variant. during this wild storm raging while Hollywood’s attn is on comics for the time being, I’d rather pick a tree in a field of comics to read under and enjoy myself, rather than running around in it aimlessly holding up books and waiting for lightning to strike.

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    Nice report chicken little. People have said this for the last five years and I am still enjoying the hobby.

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    The publishers will go where the money goes. The customers will buy what they want, wether it’s a good story or a pretty cover(hopefully both). The Art on the outside is usually better than the art on the inside unfortunately, but hasn’t this always been the case for the majority of titles? I mean honestly, reading golden age and silver age books now can be like reading a comedy. The real value they hold isn’t the “story”, it’s the rarity and condition of the book. All of our memories of books from our childhood are much different from the actual book. Same goes for movies. Anyone in their 40’s+ watched “the blob” or any of the other 50’s-60’s monster movies recently? They are ridiculous. When i was a kid they were amazing. Watch Flash Gordon from the 80’s. I used to think it was awesome, in reality the special effects are laughable and the acting is horrible.
    Comics and what they are now are not what they once were, for better(in my opinion)or worse. However, I am very glad to have beautiful art variants to purchase because with technology I just read the stories I want to online. Could the market be pared down? Sure. Could we do without probably half the variants? Absolutely. But just as every market adjusts and corrects, so will this one. Dealers that use brick and mortar and the internet are probably better prepared for business and the future than those holding onto the physical location only mentality. People can be loyal, but when it comes to their pocketbook, loyalty starts to waiver. We will probably see some businesses go out of business, some buyers stop buying, some publishers go down and people will cry the sky is falling. But honestly, just like every other market, it will rebound, and it will improve itself. I am personally looking forward to a correction so I can buy when panic selling begins. If we have a correction, hopefully the result will be beautiful covers AND amazing stories….but that may be hoping for too much. 🙂

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    Great Article. I like certain variants, but there are way to many of them. Plus all the reboots or rebirths going on.
    Can they even get a title to go more than 50 issues anymore????? I just buy what I enjoy.

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    I actually like that GI Combat variant! Thanks for pointing it out 😀

    Oh whoops, what was the point of your column again? 😛

  • accustomfigures

    To be fair, the two distributors granting accounts to just about anyone who wanted one is just as equally to blame for the 90’s crash as the variants/overprinting. That’s why they were overprinting. No one was buying, but everyone wanted to be a seller.

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    This article, like so many current collector sites, conflates comic book collectors with cover investors. Two different hobbies.

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    Oh look another “I hate variants post/article”.

    Look, if you don’t like variants, don’t buy them. Many, many people like variants, enjoy the art, enjoy collecting and displaying them, enjoy hunting them down. What do you care what other people are buying? Why do you want publishers to stop publishing what other people like? Variants won’t “bring down” the hobby. They’ve been with us in this form for about 15 years now. And things are still fine. How about you just buy what you like and let others do the same. Eventually it will all come out in the wash either way, with or without “panic pieces” such as this.

  • Christopher Hellyer
    Christopher Hellyer

    Was breaking shit down in a similar fashion to my homies the other day. The 90s effect is looming and hopefully publishers act before its to late.

  • Christopher Hellyer
    Christopher Hellyer

    Forgot to say thanks for article. I liked reading it.

  • Ben Steiniger

    90’s….millions of copies of every book, poor paper quality, low buy in price, nowhere for the average collector to sell
    10’s….tens of thousands of some books, variants sometimes below 1000, high paper quality, high buy in price, the average collector can sell anywhere

    Good article, and I am right there with most people that hated the 90’s comic market, but this is not the same market. This market may crash, but there is no point in comparing it to the 90’s. That’s like comparing Black Tuesday (1929) with Black Monday (1987)—totally different circumstances and reasons for each.

  • Skot Whitman

    Nice article. I’d agree that there is a tsunami of unnecessary variants on the market… but who’s really at fault? The publisher, the shops or the customers?

    I think what’s doing the most damage is the ratio variants. When a book like Venom 150 has 1:100, 1:500, 1:1000 and 1:2000’s ratios that’s what really creates a glut of unwanted and worthless books. It hurth LCS’s when they have to order books they can’t sell, just to get a couple copies of a variant that will.

    Granted the 3000 copies of a store exclusive that nobody wants because of the super special verison with a print run of 1000 copies doesn’t help things either. I really think the best course for stores is going to be the sharied variant route. I like variants but the market proves month in and month out it just can’t absorb them all, especially when many start at north of $15 bucks.

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    I can see both sides of the variant debate. For collectors, there is no downside because they love what they buy. For speculators, the risks are high and the profit margins are slim: how many images of the same heroes can you have over and over in this or that pose and drawn by Hot Artist of the Month? Me, if I speculate or invest in a variant, I am looking for one that has stood the test of time. For example, Adam Hughes’ cover to Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes #23. It has a publishing date of 12/2006. That is 11 years ago. Demand remains high for it year after year, it seems. It is an iconic cover. And I got it last year at a good price. I can’t bring myself to spend as much for any other variant. But I’ll buy a “B” cover as long as they’re cheap and cool looking!

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    ummmm…..nope. Ur not gonna convince people to stop buying variants cuz they’re Awesome!!!! Lol.

    Honestly, u make some good points but in the end people will still buy variants because people want to think that they’re buying something rare/different or they want to flip it. That’s why I mostly buy original art now. ?

  • AZBarbarian

    As someone who collected through the 90’s market crash. This is spot on. The people who bought short boxes of X-Men #1 gatefold, etc, were just as on board as a lot of the proponents of these variants are now.

  • couchy

    If incentive and store variants didn’t exist, everyone would be back to buying #1’s of every title… like the 90’s.

    The current market is a little more balanced and a little more spread out. The problem is when 10 thousand people order 1 million copies of a book, not when a thousand people pay $100 for an incentive variant. There is always a chance someone else will want the $100 book, but there is almost zero chance anyone will want the 1 million copy book.

  • Matt DeVoe

    Jason’s article is interesting. There are several points I agree with and several I disagree with.
    As a resident variant homer, here’s my 2 cents.

    – While this article doesn’t hate variants, it does have a hint of variant shaming. Why do I love variants? Personally, I favor the art over the story. This is especially the case with publishers that I care very little in reading these days. More importantly, we forget that comics are also a form of art! Why can’t we celebrate and collect it as art? And then to that point, why do I slab? Well, to display the art. Even my non-collector friend still displays some of his books proudly on his book shelf. One is specifically NYX 3. He picked it up the day it came out because he loved the art and it’s remained as a piece of art in his house. Yes, it’s especially awesome when great art and story match, but it doesn’t always do so. And even while I don’t love current story directions, my love for the characters don’t die. So, I collect great covers of them. Why not just buy the poster? I’m a collector. Posters retain little value….. not to mention that posters on my wall don’t look as cool as they did when I was 13.

    – To the main point of this article, YES! Everyone can agree that there are too many variants. This is specifically driven from the big two (though mostly Marvel) who are taking advantage of retailers by using order requirements for their crappy titles to determine who gets the “hot” titles. This article touches on that perfectly. Retailers and customers both suffer from this. I see this more of bad business practice then blaming it specifically on the variants themselves. The good news is, stores are pushing back and this order requirement is beginning to fail. Hopefully we get less quantity of variants and better quality (much like the books we saw in 2010-2013) in the near future.

    – Store variants are probably one of the biggest factors that the variant market seems to be down or appears like it’s a bubble waiting to burst. And in a sense, specifically for store variants, it will….. a little. Store variants are great on one side as they feature amazing art by artists we love. But there are soooooo many of them at the same time. Store variants (especially for #1 issues) can be done by so many stores that it waters them all down, including the incentive variants. The benefit to variant incentives is that they can be hard to find depending on if their store qualities and even orders them. So, finding in demand variants “in the wild” can be tough. Copies will hit ebay, and dependent on demand, it will determine the value. Store variants are done via pre-orders and mostly ship out at the same time. So, you essentially have multiple people buying “one to keep, one to sell” or maybe more so “5 to sell, and 0 to keep”. Too many buyers have the same intention of flipping their copies for profit and therefore flooding the market and killing the value. Sure, it could be super limited to 500 copies, however when 300 of those are on ebay at the same time, the value is lost. I think people will stop ordering store variants in the bulk that they currently do. Stores will get financially burned out on doing more in the frequency they are and fans will only buy what they like. As it should be.

    – Overall, as Ben spoke of this already, This isn’t the 90’s. Collecting is different. Your super rare variant is only worth what someone is will to pay for it. That value always fluctuates. The demand for Variants, heck ALL comics, wavers on so many factors that are incredibly too numerous to list. Every investment brings some risk to it. Every comic can waver in value. To specifically point to variants broadly and say “that’s the problem” is approaching the issue poorly. Collecting is so individually based that it’s rather impossible to say what the right way is to collect. Buy what you like, for whatever reason that makes the hobby fun for you. For me, I like it all….. i just do the best with variants.

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      Yeah, Marvel’s use of percentage incentive trying to get retailers to increase their orders 150-200% is a pretty crappy move.

      I much prefer DC’s open to order variants. Definitely just a lesser of two evils case, though. That said, I’m absolutely loving Superman and Super Sons. Those are my most favorite superhero titles at the moment.

  • fastballspecial

    I really appreciate this site actually telling it like it is. This site has been very pro variant for a long time and its doing nothing, but hurt the hobby.

    I get the desire to collect variants. I like the art as well as many other do, but the underlying problem just keeps growing. When you tell publishers you don’t care about the comic itself only the cover art then they are going to focus on that. They will hire lesser talents so they can pay the cover artist more. In so doing will kill sales of a book in general.

    This isn’t the 90s crash again. The potential for implosions doesn’t have Ron Pearlman at the helm this time. What it is doing is driving sales of comics lower and lower each year. While variant production keeps increasing to feed their bottom line. At some point their will be a breaking point. When you don’t see anyone discussing the stories in the comic books and focusing more on the print run and the variant covers then you don’t have a comic book hobby anymore.

    I don’t think it will ever crash I just don’t think it will ever be good anymore and the new hobbyist wont know the difference because they don’t read them anymore. I know that sounds bitter and I am trying not to be. I am trying to accept that my hobby is going to drastically change in the next 5 to 10 years and I wont go with it.

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      I think it’s the reboots that have been hurting the hobby. Image is doing really well with good stories and very few variants.
      Why is there no blame on the stores for buying the variants and loading back issue bins with action figure and baby variants? People can only buy what’s available to them. Maybe they don’t buy a variant if it’s not available and spend their money on a new series.

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    Variants are not the problem. They are a symptom. It’s the only thing they have left to hype fans into buying terrible books. Image has poached all the talent from Marvel and DC because they refuse to give creators ownership. Kirkman is killing them and maybe it’s for the best. The industry needs to change to properly benefit those who write and draw what the stories we love.

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    While I agree Variants are killing sells specially when they allow retailers to do their own Variant and have those count towards chase variants for the same issue. This floods the market like the Venom 150 chase Variants. However, here’s the bit. When you compare the sales data and compare it to books from the 60’s (silver age) the 90s ( many would call the dark ages) and today ( modern ) sales for Marvel is about 60k as a top. Which 10k are probably returned damaged: and yes ask any retailer and you’ll hear marvel books come in heavily damaged. You’ll find D.C. with smaller sales and image is around 20k for Redneck. So unless there are less comic book readers now then in the 60’s or who ever wrote this article is chicken little screaming the sky is falling. Sure, does marvel and D.C. need to change with the times and offer new types of comics like Image.

    So maybe instead of complaining about all the variants. Buy the regular cover and actually read it. Stop worrying if the comics NM and enjoy what they are made for. 5 to 10 minutes of escape and 30 days of waiting to find out what happens next.

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      I do buy comics to read.

      Unfortunately, Marvel is so dependent on variants propping up sales (sometimes adding 5-10K sales per variant) that either books keep getting cancelled for the sales boost that spiffy new #1 with tons of incentive variants (plus retailer exclusives) provides or they keep being interrupted by events with tons of incentive variants (plus retailer exclusives).

  • DrunkWooky

    I want to hear opinions on whether people think my LCS adds to this problematic phenomenon. They only order what they can sell based on previous sell-through data and the anticipated quality of the content of the book. My LCS owner’s mantra is “we’ll get the variants we otherwise already qualify for.” In most cases, he has no idea what variants are coming until he reviews his invoice the week prior to delivery.

    When those variants come in, he sells them at cover price. He figures that seeing as he risked nothing additional, no additional capital needs to be recouped with an inflated price.

    Now, I come into the equation. I go in and buy the regular cover of most books. I collect mostly Star Wars (go figure). Even on some Star Wars titles I don’t care about the incentive ratios (that Mace Windu homage is terrible. I wonder what Samuel L. thinks of it.) I’ll keep the regular and sell the incentive online. Even if it sells for $9.99, I call that a win. After ebay fees, etc., I still got my copy for free.

    Am I contributing? I have to say yes. However, if there weren’t a buyer on the other end of my ebay transaction, clearly my incentive would be gone and I would discontinue that MO pretty quick.

    In short, I think the only difference between the 90s and right now in the comic market is eBay, ComicConnect, r/comicswap, etc. If there were not ready-made markets to rid yourself of unwanted issues and variants, more LCS would already be closed.

    It doesn’t mean a crash isn’t going to happen. It just means that the onset will be more insidious and creeping. It is happening so slowly that nobody believes articles like this very one.

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