A columnist at SyFy Wire is willing to make the case why variant covers have brought down the industry:
Since the dawn of the Comics Age, the cover has been an indispensable tool for reaching an audience. It is the first impression the creative team and their characters make, so you’d best come with your A-game or you might get left on the shelf. I find a great comic book cover irresistible. To this day, I still make the occasional impulse buy based solely on cover art that grabs my attention, provided they followed Stan Lee’s instructions on how to create a compelling cover.
I’d like to interrupt a moment to offer the reminder that you can’t always judge a book by its cover, and that’s certainly been the case these days with the Big Two. Great art on the cover, but sometimes dreadful art and definitely awful stories inside. That’s why it’s better to just look for a copy on the web you can save to file instead. Now, let’s continue:
Having said all that, I will state loudly and proudly that I can’t stand variant covers.
I despise them, loathe them, wish a medieval pox on them.
Not because I don’t like the actual artwork depicted on said covers, mind you. The Jen Bartel variant for the upcoming Thor #1 is a thing of beauty. And I certainly don’t begrudge artists like J. Scott Campbell who have built a lucrative career on stellar exclusive covers. My problem is that variant covers have become a crutch to support the financially limping comics industry. They also bring out the worst in retailers, publishers, and collectors.
Publishers — not just DC and Marvel but Archie, Image, IDW, and others — use variants as a way to soak the customer and juice sales numbers. It’s not a new phenomenon by any means. It’s been going on for several years, as the comics industry seems bound and determined to repeat the same mistakes that nearly destroyed it in the 1990s. It’s disheartening, as sometimes seems as if the comics business is trying to bury itself.
More than just several years. It’s been going on as far back as the mid-80s. I remember towards the end of Justice League of America’s 1960-87 run, there were 4 issues with covers published around 1984-85 (#233, #234, #235, and #236) which, while not variants in the way we see today, were designed so you could put them together to form a wide poster, either in 2 or all 4. Marvel made it worse when they published at least 4 different covers for the premiere issue of the 1991 sans-adjective X-Men that formed the same, but it was all for one single issue, not 4 consecutive ones. The problem got worse in the mid-2000s, and has become ghastly ever since.
Retailer variants, store-exclusive variants, and convention exclusives are just some of the variants offered these days. Nearly all of them are meant to squeeze the consumer out of an extra buck while creating an artificial ‘collector’s item.’ DC Comics released 80 different covers for Detective Comics #1000, all gorgeous and about 77 of them completely unnecessary. Marvel did cover variants for its mega-successful House of X/Powers of X limited series, and both of the Big 2 regularly have Cover A and B variants for new books. In fact, Marvel’s brand new 2099, Deadpool and Annihilation Scourge titles, dropping in stores November 20, all have multiple covers available. It never ends.
And that’s because speculators for starters keep buying this stuff up, no matter how higher priced it is. All these drawings would work far better if they were produced and sold as wall paintings for a gallery instead, and they don’t even have to cost that much if the publishers want to make money on art. So why does this futile charade continue? Even the cover artists themselves may have to bear some accountability for plying their trade for the sake of covers without consideration for the harm it does when they could very easily be drawing those same portraits as the basis of pictures to hang on a wall. Just think of what an market could be built around paintings based on comics characters, yet they perpetuate a situation where the drawings for otherwise remain on the covers when they could be seen by a wider audience while hung on the wall of a gallery. This is not helpful at all.
And this is just one more reason why I believe the pamphlet format has to be retired, because it gave way to corruption. It’s a situation that can’t continue, and has to cease. I do admire some of the artists who’re drawing for variant covers, but they too must recognize that their talents can’t be limited to just covers alone. If they have talent, they should realize it on pictures in galleries, where they can actually get a wider, more respectable audience.
Originally published here.