Variant Covers 2: Electric Boogaloo
In the first post regarding variant covers, we outlined the current state of comics and (arguably) the problem with how Marvel treats variant covers in the modern age. How did the variant cover situation come to be? To understand the modern situation, we must look to the history of the industry. For the first 40 or so years of the comics industry, comic book stores were virtually non-existent. Comics were sold by newsstands, grocery/drug/convenience stores, and toy stores.
In the mid and late 60’s, specialty stores began to develop and flourish. While newsstands and drug stores provided a small and infrequent selection, specialty stores provided customers with a better, consistent selection of books provided by knowledgeable owners and staff who were comics fans themselves.
Because comics are serialized, there is a natural tendency for readers to want to collect with a “completist” mindset, but the early distribution models did not accommodate. Couple that with the early comic buyer being predominately a child (and children are not known for their care for their possessions), many of the early comics didn’t survive through the next few decades, Due to their rarity, when early issues were brought to market, the rarity caused sales prices in the thousands and above. These large sale prices only fueled the existing speculators market which would greatly influence how publishers marketed their comics.
The first comic with a variant cover was DC’s Man Of Steel #1 in 1986. What was initially created as a fun concept became an opportunity to tap into the speculator’s market. Tying into the “completist” mindset, a complete collection should be more valuable than an incomplete collection. Couple "completionism" with rare covers printed in limited volumes and gimmicks such as lenticular, foil stamp, and poly-bagged books; and a collector could be buying 5-10 issues of the exact same book. As can be easily assumed, if value is derived from rarity, collectors buying numerous copies only drives the value down. The vast majority of variant covers sold today do not have a built-in resale value and only have retail value based on limited volume or being drawn by a beloved creator. Regardless of objective value, the variant cover has become a staple of the comic book industry.