Welcome back to Hammer Drops! Each week, Back to the Past gives you insight into the world of collectibles sales using our thirty-plus years of experience. This week, we’re sticking with comic books and looking at the effect variant covers have on value. That includes successive printings, retailer exclusives, and A/B covers.
The Early Days of Variant Covers
Variant covers were all but nonexistent for the first forty years of comic books. Which makes sense when you consider that newsstands were their primary distributor – the guy refilling the spinner rack at the pharmacy doesn’t want to deal with multiple covers and the publisher wouldn’t want to risk anything “rare” being cut in half for a refund. It wasn’t until the direct market rose to prominence in the 80s that variants started to take off.
Perhaps the platonic ideal of early variant covers is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1. As we’ve covered before, the original printing of that first issue was tiny. Before the 80s was over, the issue had a total of five printings. The first three shared one cover, but the fourth and fifth had new cover designs. Marvel followed this general scheme in 1990 and produced a Gold Foil Variant for the second printing of New Mutants #87, 1st appearance of Cable. Marvel would follow a similar scheme with Spider-Man #1 later that year, releasing a “Regular” and “Silver” edition initially and adding a “Gold” edition for the second printing. They followed that up with a “Platinum” variant gifted to direct market retailers in celebration of the series’ sales success. Variants were here to stay.
Like many collectible gimmicks in the 90s, if it’s worth doing once then it’s worth doing a million times! 1991 saw adjectiveless X-Men #1 ship with not one, not two, but six distinct covers. All, notably, with the same interior content. This followed in the footsteps of 1989’s Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #1, which shipped with five covers. One was what you’d consider a standard comic cover, and four were large Batman silhouettes on brightly colored backgrounds.
Even so, variant covers weren’t nearly as popular in the 90s as “cover gimmicks”…though the two would often be paired. The thing about publishing six equally-packed covers of one issue is that it can only be sustained through high sales. When the comic industry crashed in the late 90s, leading to (among other things) Marvel’s bankruptcy and the end of numerous imprints and smaller publishers, that was no longer sustainable.
21st Century Refinements
In the last twenty years, the most common form of variant cover is the retailer incentive. Popularized with the launch of New Avengers in 2005, the scheme here is simple: for every X number of copies orders, Y will be a special cover. The ratio is stated as 10:1, or 50:1, or whatever that number happens to be. Usually, this is a cover by a fan-favorite artist. Sometimes, there are multiple variations on the same artwork (usually sketch vs. full color). Marvel is the biggest (ab)user of this method, and ratios can reach up to the heady rare levels of a 5000:1 cover. Suffice it to say, those are some rare comics.
DC Comics began releasing nearly all their comics with “A” and “B” covers around the time their New 52 publishing initiative launched in 2011. This scheme has gone through a number of permutations over the years. At times, it has been meaningless variation – either one makes a fine cover for the issue and the split is generally around the 50/50 level. For a while around 2014, they did “theme months” where the Bs would follow some theme or another – drawn by a particular artist, include a particular character, etc. Most recently, B covers featured the title banner shrunken down and off to the side, allowing the art to take center stage. These were originally cardstock as well, but that ultimately fell by the wayside thanks to the extra dollar it tacked onto the price.
What Do Variant Covers Do To Value?
Broadly speaking, variant covers raise comic value, but they can be neutral on comic value and some covers actually lower comic value. Take for example the Adam Hughes variant of Pop Kill #4 recently sold at auction for $600. Pop Kill is an adults-only series from well-established comic writer Jimmy Palmiotti, creator owned so he’s completely off the leash to let creativity run wild. Adam Hughes is a fan-favorite artist known for his attractive pin-up style.
But the real point of value on it? It was exclusively available through the comic’s crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. Specifically, it required a $60 or higher pledge to the campaign for the final two issues. Based on the numbers on the campaign’s page, only about 250 people were able to pick one up. For comparison, the absolute most valuable variant cover on the market today had a run of 225 copies…but that was an issue of Spider-Man, meaning the demand for it is considerably higher. Pop Kill, a series about deadly corporate espionage in a dystopian Cola Wars, sounds fun… but it ain’t Spider-Man.
Likewise, DC’s A/B covers are largely value neutral. They’re both officially considered first printings, both covers hit stands on the same day, etc. That said, some sticklers view the early or generic B covers like second printings. Multiple printing variants actually hurt the value because they are, by their nature, not first editions. Same as with books, first edition trumps most other considerations when assessing values.
That’s why, when it comes to ID’ing variant covers, you have to know what you’re looking for. It is somewhat counterintuitive that seeing Gold Foil on a copy of New Mutants #87 means it’s worth less, not more, than usual. Luckily, we got into this industry as variant covers were becoming a big deal and we’ve seen all these changes happen in real time. We know what to look for, and we know how to get you the best value for a collection. Let us help you! For those dedicated to doing it themself, we’ll be here sharing our knowledge as best we can in a thousand words or less every Wednesday in Hammer Drops.