Rethinking covers: the variants and the gimmicks
Remember when comic books had only one cover each, and they didn’t glow in the dark or feature moving images? When the cover was just a good-looking illustration that made you curious about the story inside? And it was by the artist who actually drew that story?
Yeah, me neither.
Like it or not, we live in the age of specialized covers, whether in the form of variants or, for lack of a better (and less-derisive) term, gimmicks. I’ve mostly made peace with that, but the near-simultaneous announcements of Valiant bringing back chromium covers and DC doing a second round of lenticular covers recently stirred it all up again.
I know I’m being kind of silly about it. I mean, who cares? If people want them, they should have them. Obviously they help to increase sales, otherwise publishers wouldn’t go through the trouble. But is there more to it?
The thing is that variant covers have never been more prevalent. People used to make fun of publishers like Avatar Press, which would flood each release with boatloads of different covers for the same story. It turns out the company was ahead of its time. That’s not always a good thing, of course. Variant covers can cause confusion with new or more casual readers who may not remember the issue number they last bought but can recall what was on the cover.
Gimmick covers are somewhat different in that they’re usually the primary cover for the issue, although sometimes there’s a non-treated variant, which is basically the cover without the fancy effects. But the similarity is that gimmicks and variants appeal to the collector and not the reader. In the short term, that may not be a big deal, but this really backfired in the glut of the ’90s. I don’t think we’ve yet hit the over-saturation point with gimmick covers, and I think most publishers are all too aware of the mistakes of the past, but short-term profit can be seductive.
It’s not that I don’t think these things can be fun — variant and gimmick covers aren’t sins because of their mere existence. However, at a time when publishers seem more determined than ever to bring in not only lapsed readers, but new and more diverse ones, I think it’s important that we reassess this issue. Keeping the focus on the story is key: An emotional investment in characters and story is what keeps people coming back, not a neat cover.
One of the things that helps create that emotional investment is a character, and often the cover provides the initial introduction to him or her. I’m a strong believer in the cover artist also handling the interiors; at the least, have the cover artist be someone who is stylistically and aesthetically very similar to the interior artist. That builds trust in the reader because the goods delivered are what were advertised. So many times I’ve heard people not familiar with comics get disappointed when the interior art doesn’t live up to the cover, and I think it’s a completely valid complaint. Just because we’re used to it being one way, it doesn’t mean it’s the best way. It’s like watching a trailer for a movie, and then come the premiere the feature has been re-cast and shot by a different director.
Having said all of that, I acknowledge that publishers have found imaginative and entertaining approaches to variant covers.
DC Comics has been releasing themed variant covers every month this year, and is expected to through at least May; this month, the theme is Robot Chicken and next month, it’s MAD Magazine. I can’t pretend that some of the covers aren’t legitimately funny.
Variant covers are also a good way for creators to get extra work. Mike Allred will be doing all 19 Batman ’66 variant covers for DC in May. Every first issue of last year’s Marvel NOW and this year’s All-New Marvel NOW has included a variant cover by Skottie Young, who has reimagined Marvel’s heroes as adorable crime-fighting infants. Valiant has been hiring artists from the previous incarnation of Valiant Comics, like Jim Califiore, Bart Sears and Sean Chen, to create special variants as part of what Valiant calls its Signature Series.
I like seeing creators work, but maybe the number of variant covers has gotten away from us. Going through the solicitations for May, Marvel has 56 variant covers for the 78 comics it’s publishing; Original Sin #1 has the most with six. That’s a lot but, Marvel isn’t the most guilty. IDW Publishing will have 49 variants for the 43 comics. Valiant Entertainment has 21 variants for just eight comic. Rai #1 by itself has seven variants, just surpassing Marvel’s big summer event. BOOM! Studios has 23 variant covers for 23 comic books; most of the company’s licensed comics get two to three variant covers each, while much of the rest of the line gets none, a strategy I can appreciate. Avatar Press still takes the cake with 30 variant covers for nine comics. Nearly all of them have four variant covers each, which is pretty standard for Avatar.
One reason IDW and Valiant are so high is because they both have an incentive program for those that preorder or subscribe to their comic through their local comic shops. Those that do, get a unique cover, which is a nice way to encourage loyalty both to comics and comic shops. It’s a neat idea, but as far as I know, there isn’t any real oversight. In most cases, stores will sell you whatever cover you want.
Those programs certainly boost their numbers, but they also just frequently publish variant covers. IDW’s variant covers for My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic are so numerous, fans have created a spreadsheet to track them all, with an accompanying message board thread more than 50 pages long. That kind of collector-baiting strategy surely helps with print-run numbers, but is it really good for the industry? If those people weren’t buying up variants, would they be more likely to try other comic books? Is it falsely boosting sales? It’s hard to know for sure. Some people legitimately like to buy more than one copy of a comic book, whether to lend out to friends or just as an extra way to support their favorite comic. I suppose the thinking goes that they might as well have more than one version of that same comic to buy.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, DC Comics shows considerable restraint even with its themed variant months and market share. The publisher will have 23 variant covers for 69 comic books. Only Superman: Doomed #1 has two variants, the rest only have one. Most of the variants are kept to the most recognizable, marquee characters and books, another strategy that shows at least some effort to keep any adverse effects on reader engagement down. Image Comics will have just 19 for its 56 comic books. That might be a bigger issue for Image, as the vast majority of its properties are new characters that need to connect. How many covers, variant or not, are done by the series’ interior artist? From my scan, a good number of them, which is good. But I think some kind of award has to go to Dark Horse. In May, the company will have just five variant covers to its 39 comics, mostly confined to a few licenses comics and B.P.R.D.
I’m still torn on this subject. In an ideal world, or at least my ideal world, there would be no variant or gimmick covers, and the artists that do them would have full-time jobs as interior artists. Maybe the comics industry will continue to grow and that will become a reality. In the meantime, people buy them and that’s what publishers listen to. I still think there’s a way to give people what they want without overdoing it: BOOM! and Dark Horse might be the smartest about it, in that they keep it to the recognizable licensed properties and their artists tend to recall the style of the show, so the inside artwork isn’t as jarring.
With the continued rise of digital, more comics getting adapted to TV, and other factors continuing to make comics more mainstream, the comics industry has to continue to reassess its practices so that it can take advantage of new eyeballs at every opportunity. Variant covers and gimmick covers are the face of our most powerful commodities — stories. Presenting those stories in the best way possible should be our biggest concern.