Runaway Imagination on the Back of a Wild Mare / the Business of Ratio Based Variant Covers Is at Heart an Anti-Creative Practice. Or #NotALLVariants


Despite impressions I may have given on various comic message boards, I’m not opposed to the business of the variant cover. In fact, some of my favourite pieces of comic art over the last few years have been variants. Jaime Hernandez’s cover for Archie 4, Francesco Francavilla’s body of work has been mainly variant based, the last piece of art by Coop was a variant for the 1st issue of Alex DeCampi’s amazing B-Movie tribute book, Grindhouse, Frank Cho’s ongoing glee at winding up the mindset of some of the more prudish elements of fandom, the Joker/Batgirl piece that drew shock & horror from the peanut gallery because….sometimes The Joker does nasty things to people. Apparently a revelation to an audience that also voted for The Joker to beat a teenage boy to death with a crowbar.

And then, of course, there’s Milo Manara’s cover for Spider-Woman, the image that defined 2014 and made many of us who thought we’d done all the fighting for freedom of speech, continue to support the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. We thought we’d reached the point where not buying something if you didn’t like was enough of a comment aware that actually, there are people in the comics community who would like to bring back The Comics Code Authority in a more insidious and poisonous way.

Rather than a body that would have a set series of acceptable concepts that all publishers would have to submit their work to and be judged either ‘Fit For Print’ or ‘Needs Revision According to Our Standards.’, this group thinks that really, what is wrong with you that you think other people would want to see this kind of….thing? Only freaks and weirdoes would like this and you’re not a freak, are you? Just calm down, maybe check with one of us if what you’re doing is ok and we’ll guide you straight, don’t worry. If we’re not around, maybe check in with some of the redraw sites to see how you should be portraying women and you leave those ideas of self expression behind.

One wonders how many issues of ‘The Checkered Demon’ S. Clay Wilson would have finished, had that mindset had any power when Zap! started. How many creators, readers, retailers, editors and journalists who benefit massively from the process of ‘Putting out collections of previously published comics in trade paperback form’ pioneered by Aardvark-Vanaheim would have pressured Dave Sim to rethink elements of Cerebus? (Especially when they discovered that Dave was taking the piss with Astoria ) I dread to think of the state of Comics Twitter had the first issue of Boiled Angel Comix been released today.

Mind you, it probably wouldn’t be. It’s more important that Wonder Woman be depicted the right way than ever consider promoting the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, who helped Michael Diana when the State Of Florida declared he literally stop drawing, be charged for psychological exams, be subject to random police searches in his own home at given time the police see fit and be barred from being around children…for drawing some comics.

But yeah. Wonder Woman looks a bit thin. Stop the presses.

So as a secondary medium for commentary on the state of comics, I like variant covers. I’ll even go you one further than that…..

If you’re a comic artist who doesn’t have a set story or vision you’re passionate about drawing, like Michael Kaluta on Starstruck, Katsuhiro Otomo on Akira, Steve Rude on Nexus, Donna Barr on The Desert Peach, Michael Gilbert on Mr. Monster, Dave Sim on Cerebus, Roberta Gregory on Naughty Bits, Fred Beltran on MegaLex etc….

Then I suspect your goal is to transcend doing comics interior pages and move on to doing variant covers as fast is humanly possible. Let some other schmuck decode the piles of gibberish that denote the adventures of Batman or Spider-Man this month.  There is no revelation, insight, twist or defining run left to be written about the Big Two’s pantheon of characters, and each new suggestion that things will never be the same again holds even less water than the previous time it was said. No one is going to think of your classic run on Captain America. Go into those titles knowing that they’re for perfecting your skills and building up your profile and cache so when it comes to doing what you actually want to do, you’ve got the audience following and talent to pull it off. Even highly respected artists have the brains to swipe as much as possible when they’re doing their run on New Avengers or Iron Man so they can save drawing time.


The thing is, I have no problem with the above practice whatsoever. Page rates for comics are laughable, and the amount of work either the writer is doing to make the layout of the finished image idiot proof and/or the artist is doing to make some kind of sense of the pile of words they’ve got in an email doesn’t translate to how much you’re being paid, per hour, per page to do that. So why NOT photoshop from ads or other comics if you’re being paid virtually nothing for it?

Variant covers are a different animal, though. Consider this.

Brief A:

Page 1

‘Panel 1:(Landscape) Space. The Sh’iar Warship is surrounded by dozens of Skrull Cruisers. Top right of the panel is Earth.’

Panel 2 (Left of page, Portrait): Interior shot of The Sh’iar Warship, in the control room. Left side is Iron Man in his HulkBuster Armour, flanked by The Guardians Of The Galaxy and The Avengers. Right Side is Thanos, The Silver Samurai and Dr Doom. Accompanied by several Skrulls and members of The Hand. Both Iron Man & Thanos are pointing at each other and shouting.

Panel 3:(Middle of page, Portrait) A huge rocket smashes into the side of the Sh’iar Warship, debris flies everywhere from the impact. Rocket comes in from left

Panel 4, (Right of page, Portrait.) Dozens of Skrulls, Ninja and such are sucked out through the hole in the craft. Hole is centre panel with people going in from left and right. Centre is Thanos & Hulk punching each other.

Panel 5 (Landscape.) Inside the Skrull cruiser, a command deck sees The Super Skrull in the centre, grinning with the Infinity Gauntlet gleaming. Dozens of Skrulls on either side. The command deck is an opulent, decadent thing glittering with treasures.

Page 2-3. A Double Page spread of the command deck. The Amassed Skrull army is here in various forms representing the powers they’re using, such as the Thing, Venom, etc. Also taking up most of the deck is a chained Fin Fang Foom. Super-Skrull will be talking through his plan as he walks across the command deck, so lots of inset panels here. Centre right on 3rd page will need a monitor to show The Avengers, etc in space floating away from the Shi’ar Warship.

Brief Two:

Cover: Iconic shot of any of the characters in Dark Knight Returns. Try and use some of Frank Miller’s techniques if you can.

Gibbons DK3

(There’s nothing bad about this bit of art at all, but seriously, how long does it take to come up with ‘Bruce and Carrie jumping.’?)

For the first brief, you could be paid something up to, if you’re really high profile, $900. Maybe. Probably not.

Or if you do Brief 2, you’re easily looking at $500. Assuming it doesn’t then get turned into a print, or a poster, or a t-shirt, or reprinted in an omnibus. How many publishers do variant covers? Avatar, ActionLab, Black Mask, Dynamite, DC, Marvel, Image, Archie, IDW. That’s just off the top of my head. So if you did one variant for those 9 publishers a month, you’re laughing.

Tell me again what’s the benefit of decoding the first brief for however many hours that mess of characters you’re drawing (and hoping Marvel or DC have sent you the necessary research material to draw them accurately in the first place. I’ve sold many creators comics they’ve had to buy just to know what they’re meant to be drawing or writing.) 

So, no. Obviously, I’m not opposed to the very notion of Variant covers. My current problem is the nature of their distribution. And importantly, what effect it can have on the creative comics community.

Let me make the point here that many smaller publishers offer a ratio based variant as an incentive to get a couple more copies into shops. It’s usually for low numbers, like 1 in 10 or so. That’s fine, I’m more than aware of how difficult it is to get through Previews as a retailer, so literally anything a publisher can do to get a shop’s attention is wise. The first I heard of Black Mask was their amazing line of punk album tribute covers for We Can Never Go Home. A bit of a niche Hail Mary attempt, but it worked for me.



Also, if a comic company offers a number of covers to a book and you as a retailer are free to order any quantity of any cover, like Archie Comics does, no worries. Full points to Gene Ha and his sending special care packages to various retailers to promote his upcoming book ‘Mae’.


My problem is variant covers that are only offered on a 1 in 100 or 200 or in more recently hilarious situations, 1 in FIVE THOUSAND copies. As in Order 5,000 copies of Dark Knight 3 #1 for your shop and get ONE Jim Lee custom sketch cover. Only leaving you with 4,999 copies left to sell….. (Life isn’t long enough to dissect the ‘Order this cover based on the quantity of other title you ordered last November idiocy. Pogs, Fur Covers and Collect The Comic By Buying The Trading Cards To Fill In The Spaces Left In The Trading Card Album We Published As Issue 1 await this concept in The Dump Of Stupid Ideas Bar.) Beyond the fact that those ratios are designed to mess with retailer’s cycle sheets and try to encourage them to order more copies of a comic than they think they can sell (Believe me, there are a number of shops that went bust holding onto long boxes of unsold issues of Transformers, Secret Invasion, Final Crisis, Grimm Fairy Tales, etc.) and a percentage of Flipper customers feel they’re entitled to demand control of a shop’s stock level.  There’s no benefit to these books, except the short term of people flogging them to each other in a very narrow window of interest. 

Try flipping your Power Rangers 0 in a decade’s time. I’m begging you.

All the lunacy and greed this process affilcts on the business aside, there’s a more sinister subtext to this practice. Namely, it renders the creative team and even the actual content of the books irrelevant.

Here is the cold, hard truth.

In terms of a new comic, your tweets don’t matter. Your reviews don’t matter. Your head canon doesn’t matter. The Only thing that matters is Pre-orders. Your reaction after the comic is published doesn’t matter.


Your reaction after the comic is published doesn’t matter anymore.

The ONLY thing that matters is the Pre-Order figures. They’re the difference between a book being published and being cancelled. Did your favourite book get cancelled? It’s because not enough people ordered it. That’s it. There’s no conspiracy to upset you, there’s no desire to push this character over another, there’s just Pre-Orders. If a writer or artist you like ups the pre-order amount on a book they’re working on, they get more work because that means more pre-orders. That is the actual and only power you have as a comics consumer. You like something? Pre-Order their work. It is literally the only data any comic publisher responds to, whatever they tell you.

And now we’re at a point where it literally doesn’t matter that Brian Michael Bendis is writing Civil War 2. It’s nice of Marvel to reward him for the success of Jessica Jones with the gig of writing the sequel to the best selling super-hero comic of this century, sure. Well done them.

But they don’t need to. 

I will be more than happy to be wrong about this. If my predictions turn out to be utterly inaccurate, I will dance with glee and post a picture of myself dressed as Elektra hanging out in The Disney Store, Shepherd’s Bush if this turns out to be a mistaken notion of what’s going to happen;

Civil War 2 #1 will be solicited soon. Probably at a cover price of $6. There will be a number of variant covers to celebrate this historic thing. Those covers will be on a ratio incentive basis and many mad/rich shops will order in those huge quantites to get the covers in and sell them on eBay, etc. 

If that’s true (And it’s been true of Secret Wars, Convergence, Infinity, Axis, Siege, Fear Itself, etc, etc.) why do they need Bendis writing it for whatever his page rate is and whatever other bonuses come with that gig? Why not Brian Blessed or Bryan Danielson instead for a far lower page rate? The outcome is the same, the quality of the book is irrelevant now, because it isn’t a factor in pre-ordering the book. Previously the idea would be ‘Oh, Steve Rude’s drawing The Flash? Okay, extra 25 copies because I like his art.’ Now: 1 in 50 cover incentive. Steve Rude is no longer part of the equation.

If I were a creative person working for a comics publisher, I’d be stocking up on brown pants. This business model now makes any chance of negoiating a better deal almost impossible, and you might as well save money and fire your agent because they can’t get around that logic either.

‘I would like a better deal on my reprint royalites, please?’

‘No. They’ll order the comic whether you create it or not. Leave if you don’t like it.’

‘What is my digital page rate?’

‘Nothing. They order the comic whether you create it or not. Leave if you don’t like it.’

 ‘I find my cover payment rate unacceptable.’

‘I don’t care. They’ll order the comic whether you create it or not. Leave if you don’t like it.’

This is obviously a Scorched Earth extrapolation of the mindset and probably isn’t standard policy at Marvel or DC because I assume that the people running the show aren’t utterly evil. However, I’ve seen this movie before and remember 1992. It was the year Image happened and Marvel’s response was to declare that the creative talent weren’t the driving force behind the books, that ultimately it was brand loyalty that kept Marvel going. That short sightedness is what led to books like the below, and while it might be that history won’t repeat itself, here’s a little reminder of what happens when books are sold without thought to the talent of the creative team…


‘Heck, kinda looks like McFarlane, right? Good enough for the schlubs.’

I honestly don’t know what the answer is here, beyond moving away from the Weds Fix Mob and Flipper Crowd, and trying to push the comic shop as a place that stocks a wide range of interesting things that remain in print. Thoughts welcomed.

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund can be donated to via their website.

More on Gene Ha and his new comic ‘Mae’ here.

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