Variants on Variants
Getting into the comic collecting and speculation game can be hard; staying in the game with some amount of success is even harder. With the exponential increase in speculators compared to a few years ago, the material left to collect and spec on (1st appearances, significant events/objects, deaths) is dwindling at an ever-increasing rate.
Following the market, collectors and speculators alike have shown an ever-increasing focus on variant comic books. The draw to variants is varied, be it rarity or simply great art. Regardless, variants are gaining in popularity, collectability, investment potential, and legitimacy.
To help understand what a variant is, we have to examine the word variant and it's root. A variant is as the word indicates: a variation or an alternate version. When applied to comic collecting, the majority of times it applies to a variation in the cover art. However, there are other variations that most collectors would also consider to qualify as variants. The following are descriptions and examples of different comic book variants intended to help clear up confusion and misconceptions.
When a comic book is under-printed or unexpectedly popular, it is sometimes sent back to print to produce additional copies of this book in order to satisfy demand. The first time an issue goes to print is known as a 1st printing, each subsequent time that same issue goes to press the printing changes (e.g. 2nd print, 3rd print, etc.). Though these books and printings should be called 1st print variant and 2nd print variants, the “variant” part is often omitted and they are simply know as 1st prints, 2nd prints, 3rd prints, and so on.
In order to tell these printing variants apart, publishers usually vary an aspect of the comic book, usually the cover. These cover variations can be as subtle as a minor color tweak or the addition of numerals (roman, alpha-numeric) denoting the print number below the issue number . Older books often had an indication on the cover that a book went back to print and was labeled “reprint.”
Some variations are more dramatic such as a b/w or sketch version of the cover, or a different cover all together. Even more subtle than minor changes to the cover are no changes to the cover at all. In these instances the book has to be opened and the printing info has to be examined. Somewhere in the printing/publishing information (usually, but not always, found on the bottom of the first page), the printing will be indicated. 1st printings are usually absent of any indication.
In cases like Superman/Batman #1 (1st and 2nd print Batman cover), there were no changes to the cover art or publisher byline.
In order to tell these variants apart, the UPC barcode has to be dissected. Subsequent printings and issues designations will be indicated as the graphic below describes.
A great example of this comes in the previously referenced Batgirl # 1 and its printings. Don't remember which printing is which color? The UPC legend can lead you to the printing if you know how to use it.
A ratio variant is a comic book that is produced in a pre-determined proportion. The simplest of these ratio variants are the one to one (1:1) variants or the cover A/B variants, most of which sport different cover art. The easiest examples of these are the recent DC Rebirth cover variants. These books are easily available (to dealers) and theoretically should be available in equal numbers. However, as of late it has been noticed that dealers have only been ordering one cover (usually cover A), making the other cover more scarce and in some instances more sought after.
As can be seen by the UPC code, these books are indicated as alternate covers (the number indicated in the second to last digit space).
Truer to form, high ratio variants are just that: a variant which is produced based on the number of comics that are printed (or distributed? – more on this later).
These variants are dependent on the size of a given print run and are pre-determined before a book goes to print. Given that all of these books go to print at the same time, they are in essence 1st printings. Usually a colon (:) is used to denote the ratio of variants printed per regular cover produced. A 1:25 variant means 1 variant is produced for every 25 regular covers printed. Any print run can have any number of ratio variants (1:25, 1:50, 1:500). As the ratio increases, so does the rarity of that variant.
What I'm not sure about in regards to ratio variants is the actual number (printed, ordered, or distributed) that is used to determine the number of ratio variants to produce. One would assume it's straight print run but that may not be the case. When ordering a ratio variant, shops have to purchase a certain number of books to receive the ratio variant. However, what happens to those variants when shops don't purchase the required number of comics individually, but as a collective do? As an example, say you have a 1:100 variant. Store A buys 75 copies of the book and store B buys 25 copies of the book. As a collective, they fulfilled the 100 book minimum but individually neither did so neither gets the 1:100 variant. The question is, was an additional 1:100 variant produced? And if so, where did it go? Assuming a print run of 25,000 with a 1:100 ratio variant, this would mean that there should be 250 variants if pure print runs was used as a marker. However, if the number of store owners who fulfill the 100 issue order is used as a marker, the number of 1:100 variants may be much lower. As discussed previously, if the print run is used and stores don’t fulfill the 100-book quota, then the number of actual variants given out is lower than that produced and there are an excess of these “rare” variants. Variant detractors use this argument to discredit the variant market and they perpetuate the myth that “there is a warehouse of variants” out there somewhere. Evidence that help this argument are the 1:25 Ultimate Fallout variants found at HPB. That being said, no magic warehouse has ever been found and I believe its unlikely to be the case.
Editor Note: Diamond does have “fire sales”; however, it is has not been determined if this is conclusive of anything.
In using ratios to talk about print run and scarcity, the terms “of” and “in” often get confused (1 of 500 vs. 1 in 500). When looking at the definition of the preposition “of”, it means “expressing the relationship between a part and a whole.” When applied to variants, using the term “1 of” means there is one copy (part) out of the entire amount produced (whole). So a 1 of 500 variant means there are a total of 500 variants. An example of these can be seen with variants such as RRPs (a type of Retailer Exclusive variant) that are produced in a limited number.
When referring to a 1 in 500 you are stating that for every 500 copies printed, there is one variant (sorry no fancy definition for “in”). So if a variant is a 1:500 and the print run is 2,500, there are 5 variants.
To discourage ambiguity, I have seen 1 of XXX variants noted as 1/XXX (perhaps to indicate a part of a whole), and 1 in XXX variants notated as 1:XXX.
Editor Note: inspect your colons people!
High ratio variants can also be called incentive variants in that a dealer is rewarded or given an incentive for ordering a high number of a certain issue.
Sometimes the terms incentive variants and ratio variants are used interchangeably. Though all ratio variants are incentive variants, all incentive variants aren't ratio variants.
Publishers sometimes offer an incentive for ordering a certain number of books (ratio variant), but other types or ordering incentives include increasing an order of a given issue by a percentage. A recent example of this is the Ms. Marvel #17 X-23 variant. If a store increased the order of a pre-determined book by 150% of the previous order, then they would receive a copy of this book.
Retailer Exclusive Variant
Comic book companies and distributors often hold meetings for retailers in order to promote dialogue and feedback. As an incentive for attendance, these retailers are given exclusive goodies for their participation. When said swag is a comic, it is known as a retailer exclusive variant (REV, my own acronym). Though the term RRP is often used interchangeably for REV, RRP is actually exclusive to DC Comics and their REVs. These were given out at their exclusive meetings, called the Retailers Round table Program. Of the REVs, the RRPs tend to be the most rare with a print run of 200-400. Other REVs include Diamond's Retail Summit (DRS) variants with print runs usually over 400, as well as Image and Marvel retailer exclusives.
You have to be living under a rock to not know what these are! In short, they are alternate covers commissioned by a particular store for a given title. In order for a store to qualify to produce a store variant, they have to order a predetermined number of books (4,500 for the big two I believe). What we have been seeing lately is a type of ratio-style store variant print run where store variant cover A has a printing of 3,000, B has a printing of 1,000, and cover C has a printing of 500; meaning that these store variants are in a sense also ratio variants. It is important to note however, that these store variants also add to the overall print run. So, even though a book may seem to have a low print run, you also have to take into consideration the additional copies due to store variants.
Convention Exclusive Variant
Before store variants became a big thing, comic conventions were also producing their own variant covers and still are to this day. Like other variants, these comics can differ in subtle and not so subtle ways. The tell tale sign of most convention variants is a “convention seal” or convention logo. The biggest offender of this type of variant is Wizard and the Wizard World convention. Though most convention “exclusives” are simply an existing cover with a convention logo slapped on, some sport new cover art and fancy extras.
Comic books are sold through two main venues: through a direct distributor (e.g. LCS or similar specialty shops) or along with other periodicals at newsstands. Newsstands are now almost non-existent so retail stores such as Barnes & Noble and Toys R Us occupy the role of the “newsstand” and sell a limited selection of comic books. These books are differentiated from each other based on their respective UPC box. The initial difference was an actual UPC bar code vs. the same UPC bar code with a strike through it. That gave way to a UPC bar code vs. artwork in place of the UPC (the most recognized being the Spidey head), and later a UPC bar code vs. UPC bar code with the words “direct edition” in the box. Other differences are more subtle and have to do with printing variables.
Newsstand variants are printed at the tail end of a print run and because of this, occasionally have differences in cover color. A striking example of this is New Mutants #87. The direct edition has a bright red background color while the newsstand edition has a faded orange color.
Editor Note: it's been hotly debated whether printing “differences”, mainly color shades, warrant consideration of being an error variant.
There has been much talk on the podcasts lately about these newsstand variants and their collectability. As with all collectibles, rarity and condition are the driving force for their appeal. More comics are sold at specialty stores versus newsstands so newsstand copies are generally printed in smaller numbers then the direct editions; so in essence they have a smaller print run. And, because these newsstand editions withstood the perils of the deadly spinner racks and general mishandling, finding newsstand variants in high grade is a feat in itself. More validity has been given to newsstand variants by CBCS with the recent addition/indication of “newsstand” on the slab label.
It’s also important to note that current newsstand copies of comic books also sport a difference in price and can also be considered price variants.
Price variants are some of the older variant types in comics and they still persist to this day. Earlier variants include the “test price” variant in which a comic was produced with one version that had an increase in price (on the cover) compared to the other. One of the most well known examples of this is Star Wars # 1. Originally priced at $.30, the price variant was issued at $.35. Being that the $.35 variant had a lower print run, it is rarer and more sought after.
A different type of price variant is the pence variant born out of the different currency used in England. Depending on who you ask, these are more sought after because they are rarer than the ones from the US; however, the market doesn’t necessarily agree given these variants usually sell at a lower price.
Comics of varying prices are also seen in books bound for our neighbors to the north. Our very own Zack Gauthier did an excellent write up describing these. From his article on 12/29/16 he noted “The direct market edition has 2 prices legible for both US and Canada… The newsstand edition carried the price tag for the location and would not sport both as the direct ones did. For Example: (Direct copy would show .60 US / .75 CND – Newsstand would state .60 for US bound copies and .75 for Canadian bound copies).” I would expand on this but Mr. Gauthier did a bang up job and his writeup is most definitely worth the read! The verdict is also out on these and, similar to the pence variant, in some realms are more sought after and others it is not.
Owing to the brave men and women serving our country, comic book publishers inserted special advertisements in comic books sent overseas from the US. From what I know, the comic books sent were “U.S.” versions (not a pence variant) of comics but with said insert. The most popular and prevalent of these inserts was the Mark Jewelers insert.
The variation in these books comes from the fact that these books that are otherwise the exact same now have an insert in them. In many circles, these insert variants are more sought after for the fact that most, if not all, were shipped overseas and found their way back stateside.
*Editor Note: Another insert variant is the Tattooz Insert variant of which Amazing Spider-Man #238 is a prominent example.
When certain aspects of comic production are rushed and/or overlooked, they are sent to print with errors. It is usually after a complete run is printed that this error is discovered and addressed. The usual response to an error is to recall the book and ask distributors/retailers to return the copies for corrected editions. It is expected that most copies are returned and the few that survive, given their rarity, are much more valuable than the corrected versions. The error versions that make it through the comics cracks are know as Error versions/variants or Recall versions/variants.
To my knowledge, I'm not sure what the subsequent corrected versions are officially considered. Being that the issue goes to print a second time, it should be labeled a second print. In the case of the most recent error/recall comic (X-men Gold #1), these books were asked to be returned. However, Marvel didn't reprint/re-issue the book, they simply stated that in subsequent printings the error was to be corrected. True to their statement, the 2nd prints of X-men Gold #1 had the error corrected.
However, in a book like Wolverine #131 (racial slur) or Action Comics # 869, issues were recalled and a corrected version was printed BUT there is no indication that this correction version is an alternate printing as can be seen by the UPC code below.
Regardless of how they are labeled, collectors should be aware of error/recall variants and keep an eye out.
In an attempt to get their product out to more people, DC and Marvel cut a deal with Whitman Comics in order to distribute their product to department stores. These books came polybagged, and in DC's case, came with an alternate logo with the designation of “Whitman Comics,” on the cover.
Though Whitman variants are synonymous with DC Comics, Marvel also had Whitman variants; however, their variation was far more subtle, sporting (as Zack Gauthier pointed out in his series of Whitman variant articles) a “diamond shape in the upper left corner with a black UPC or black line through the UPC.”
As you’ve read, there are hella variant types and as a collector/speculator/flipper, it’s important to be up on your variant game. This is by no means an exhaustive list of variant types but it should help clear up some misconceptions about variant and variant types. Happy hunting fam!