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In comic books, a variant cover (sometimes variant edition) refers to an issue of a comic book printed with multiple covers, each with unique cover art. Variant covers became common during the "Speculator Boom" of the 1990s, when more collectors became interested in the storage and preservation of their comic books with the goal of future financial gain than reading the comics themselves.
The Speculator Boom of the 1990s
In reaction to the boom, comic book publishers began to market specifically to the collectors' market. Knowing that many collectors are completists, buying, for example, every issue featuring a certain character, publishers began to produce comics with multiple covers, and completists and speculators alike bought them by the millions. The variants often depended on whether the copy was sold through the direct market or at a newsstand.
1991's X-Men #1, featuring the artwork of superstar artist Jim Lee, had five covers. Designated #1A, #1B, #1C, #1D, and #1E, the first four's cover images fit together to form a larger image, used again as the gatefolded cover to #1E, released one month later. As of 2006, it remains the best-selling comic book in history with sales more than 8 million copies.
Not every issue with variant covers sold that well, but that didn't dissuade the publishers. Variant covers graced the covers of titles from Marvel, DC, Valiant, and Image, as well as numerous small press publishers. In 1993, DC Comics' shipped the first printing of Superman #75, featuring the climax of "The Death of Superman" storyline, in a black polybag with a Superman armband inside. Collectors wanting to keep their copy pristine but also read the story bought multiple copies or the subsequent printings, each of which had the same cover as the first, but without the polybag and fan incentives. Likewise, the second printings of other issues with "gimmick covers" shipped without the gimmick.
Jim Lee, now one of the co-founders of Image Comics, remembering his success with X-Men #1, published variant cover comic books through his Wildstorm Studios imprint. Gen¹³ #1 bore 13 different covers, each with a character in an homage to a comic book, advertisement, or movie poster. DV8 #1 bore eight different covers, one a group shot and the rest representing the seven deadly sins.
Due to shortages due to production errors, some variant covers came to be known as "chase covers", as many scrambled to find them, much as baseball card collectors sought chase cards. Publishers created chase covers by issuing variants in ratios designed to make one variant rare. They also began to produce retailer-incentive copies - identical to the retail version, but with covers usually printed or embossed in silver or gold - with one retailer-incentive shipping for every 25 or 50 copies of the regular issue that the retailer ordered. Some smaller publishers, such as Verotik created pricy adult-only variants depicting nudity. Additionally, comic book conventions gave attendees convention-exclusive variants as part of their convention packages.
In the years since the boom ended, with the remaining readers and publishers left in shellshock, publishers generally shied away from producing comics that appeared to be directed at collectors, variant covers among them. Recently, however, variant covers have made a comeback.
The 2004 limited series Identity Crisis from DC Comics was so popular that every issue went through multiple printings, each with a different cover. Some fans who had already bought the first printing bought the variants to complete their collection. Seeing this, other publishers tried to duplicate the success. For instance, for every set number of issues a retailer ordered of New Avengers #1-6, they received a retailer-incentive issue featuring art by a heavily promoted Marvel artist.
In addition to retailer incentives, publishers again publish simple variants, though usually in equal proportions. Since Identity Crisis, second printings usually have a different cover, often merely the alteration or removal of color.
In the post boom, Marvel Comics used variant covers on various occasions. When the Marvel Zombies universe first appeared in 2005's Ultimate Fantastic Four #21, the popularity spawned a limited series. The limited series would feature several variant covers by Arthur Suydam. Classic Marvel Comics covers were reproduced with a zombie motif.
To celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama, Amazing Spider-Man #583 presented an all-new story teaming up President Obama and Spider-Man in Spidey Meets the President! The title featured five variant covers.
In honor of Wolverine's 35th anniversary, Marvel Comics announced that numerous Marvel titles would feature Wolverine Art Appreciation Variant covers in April. Styles will be reminiscent of Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol. The first issues to feature a Wolverine Art Appreciation variant cover were Captain Britain and MI13 #12, Amazing Spider-man #590, Hulk #11, Uncanny X-Men #508, and Secret Warriors #3.
One of the most prolific users of variant covers in the modern age is Avatar Press - it is the norm for their comic books (especially first issues) to ship with a myriad of alternative covers. The first issue of the Stargate Atlantis: Wraithfall mini-series, for example, shipped with six variant edition covers, and Lady Death: Blacklands #1/2 with eight.
Outside of comics
The practice of issuing variant covers has spread to some magazines, notably TV Guide, which has its own collector's market. TV Guide variant cover issues carry a theme, with each cover most often depicting a different character from a TV series. Past themes have included Dawson's Creek (the first), Friends, and Smallville.
- Posted Aug 1, 2007 12:00 am (2007-08-01). "Marvel Zombies Visual Guide | Marvel Zombies | Comic News | News". Marvel.com. Retrieved 2011-06-24.
- Posted Jan 23, 2009 12:00 am (2009-01-23). "Spidey Meets the President! | Spider-Man | Comic News | News". Marvel.com. Retrieved 2011-06-24.
- "Wolverine as Masterpiece". Washingtonpost.com. 2009-03-18. Retrieved 2011-06-24.
- Posted Apr 10, 2009 12:00 am (2009-04-10). "Wolverine Art Appreciation Month | Marvel Heroes | Comic News | News". Marvel.com. Retrieved 2011-06-24.
- "News | Marvel Announces "Wolverine Art Appreciation Month"". Comicspriceguide.com. 2009-03-19. Retrieved 2011-06-24.
- "August 2006 Solicited Releases - Stargate Atlantis: Wraithfall, Lady Death: Blacklands, Warren Ellis' Strange Killings: Necromancer". Avatarpress.com. Retrieved 2011-06-24.
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