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Variant Covers: Everything You Need to Know

Learn more about the ins and outs of comic book covers, the history of variants, and the fun of collecting them.

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By: Javier ReyesFeb 12, 2024, 7:26 AM

Variant covers have been a staple within the comic book world for a long time. Not only do variants play a significant role in the sales numbers of comics, but they are also a great corner of the fandom for avid collectors to dive into. But whether you see variants as a marketing tool to get people to buy more comics or an avenue for fans to collect more great art, the fact is that variants will continue to be a pillar within the industry for a long time. If you’re new to comics, you might ask: What exactly is a “variant” or “variant cover”? I want to answer that question and more as I dissect the ins and outs of variant comic book covers and what they mean to enthusiasts. 

In short, “variants” are special editions of comic book issues that feature different and often rarer cover art compared to the standard release. While the ecosystem of creating variants is more closely associated with the culture of the Big Two publishers, Marvel and DC, variants are something nearly all comic book publishers release depending on the popularity of titles. Continue reading this article to learn more as I dive into the nitty gritty of variants and their fascinating role within the world of comic books. 

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History of Variant Covers

To start things off, I want to go into a brief history lesson on how they started in comics. While the coined term “variant covers” didn’t take off until the early 90s, the practice of printing unique versions of comics began long before then. In the early 80s, Marvel and DC often tested the waters of raising prices by publishing comics featuring higher cover prices across selected markets. By definition, these were the early incarnations of variants as they featured slight alterations in the comic cover art to accommodate the different prices. Only in 1986, with the release of Man of Steel #1 by John Byrne, did readers see what we commonly understand as a variant cover today for the first time. Byrne created two unique comic covers to commemorate the release of the new series. With the internals being the same across both versions, the variant covers gave retailers and readers the choice to buy either one they liked more or even both. While the tactic was not an immediate financial success at the time, it got more eyes on the comic as it was the first time a major publisher had done such a release. 

Marvel and DC then spent years iterating on variant covers to incentivize readers and retailers to buy more comic books. Comic historians often point to variants as a driving force that led to the notorious speculator boom era during the early to mid-90s. That time was when variants took off, with publishers exploring unique printing gimmicks to attract readers to buy more comics, apart from offering unique comic book covers. Marvel, DC, and, most notably, Image Comics put out variants that incorporated everything from foil, embossing, die cuts, and even glow-and-the-dark ink to bump up the value of their books. While comics like Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man #1 garnered historic success, the interest in variants petered out as time went on due to oversaturation. But even since those most dire times, variant covers have become a mainstay in comics and show no signs of ever going away.

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The Collectability of Variants 

Let’s face it. Half the fun of reading comics comes from collecting books you may or may not have shelf space for. Whether you’re into Spider-Man, Batman, or even indie hits like Saga or Something is Killing the Children, reading comics is a hobby defined by personal taste and interests. What better way to express that passion for comics than by building a physical collection of books showcasing your unique tastes? What variant covers offer ultimately is an avenue for collectors to extend that passion for the hobby even further. Got a series or character you’re obsessed with? Or is a creator you’ve been passionately following releasing a new ongoing title? Beyond the standard comic covers that are widely available, variants are a great way for readers to support creators, publishers, and retailers even further when the time and budget are just right. With the ecosystem of comic books and variants being more diverse and accessible than ever, it’s easy to become an avid collector because of the sheer breadth of what’s available on the shelves.

Another incredible aspect of variants is how they cultivate growth within the industry. And not just purely from a money-making standpoint. Compared to how crazy things got in the 90s, publishers now seem less interested in capitalizing on gimmicks and more focused on promoting the work of talented artists. Today, a subset of artists primarily create only variant comic book covers, making their pieces immediate collector’s items. Artists like Stanley Lau (Artgerm), Jen Bartel, and Rian Gonzales are among the most highly sought-after variant cover artists for their unique and eye-catching takes on beloved superheroes. Then there are the cases of artists like Skottie Young and Peach Momoko, who each established themselves as variant cover artists and have since branched out into making full comics of their own for Marvel and Image. As divisive as the conversation around variants can sometimes be, it’s hard to deny that multitudes of kickass art are being made because of them.

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Variant Covers in the Wild Today

After nearly 40 years of being a mainstay within the comic book world, variant covers are more accessible to collect than ever because of the variety of options available today. Whether you’re hunting down works by your favorite artists or snatching up comic covers related to characters and series you love, there are incredible variants to discover that fit every kind of collector and budget. This next section is a quick guide to the types of variants to look out for the next time you step into your local comic shop:

Open Order - The most common variant type, open orders can be purchased by readers through their local comic shop or online retailer alongside standard comic covers. While there is still a higher degree of rarity to them, open orders are usually priced the same as the standard covers.

Reprints - Though often perceived as having lower market value than first print editions, reprints are sought after because of their unique art. Reprint editions will retain much of the same art as the first printing but with minor changes in elements like the color of backgrounds or text.

Convention Exclusives - With events like San Diego Comic-Con, New York Comic-Con, and Emerald City Comic-Con being massive celebrations of all things comics, they naturally feature exclusive merchandise and comic book covers only attendees can buy on the convention floor.

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Incentives - Contrary to what the name may suggest, the “incentive” is more for the comic shops than the collectors themselves. Incentives are limited-edition variant covers that retailers can only avail of after ordering a specific number of copies of the standard cover. So, when talking about 1:25 incentive comic covers as an example, a shop must order twenty-five standard issues of the comic to receive just one copy of the incentive cover. This deal pushes the value and price of the incentives much higher, as there is much less stock of them on hand. 

Retailer Exclusives - Like a blend of convention exclusives and incentives, retailer exclusives are variants granted to retailers who commit to ordering a high set number of copies for a specific title. These are usually reserved for big releases like first issues or one-shots, as they are when sales typically peak and retailers can comfortably make substantial orders. 

Store Exclusives - What’s becoming a more common trend today, local comic shops or retailers can commission publishers to create unique comic book covers as exclusive releases for their stores. Uniquely, because these are coordinated tie-ups, these covers will often feature the logos of the shops on the cover, making for a fun bonus for regular collectors. 

The beauty of collecting comics is that there is no one-size-fits-all when approaching the hobby. Whether you love collecting singles, trades, or even digital media, know that variants exist to fit into the niche of collectors who want to own more of the things they are passionate about. With already so much great art out there to discover, variant covers are another way of celebrating what’s fun and eye-catching about the bombastic fandom of comics.

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