Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

October 1, 2012

Go, Read: Todd Allen On Variant Covers

imageThere's an impassioned post here from Todd Allen at The Beat on the phenomenon of variant covers as it's being applied by the mainstream comics makers -- primarily Marvel -- in the present marketplace. I appreciate anyone being critical of a standard industry practice as it's abused, and I always like when past market strategies and their unfortunate results are brought to bear on a current situation. We have a very limited memory in comics at times, which can be extra-dangerous when combined with a belief system that would have you believe businesses are absolved of criticism for anything they do in pursuit of maximum profit.

I think I'd go a different way with my own criticism of the practice. Part of that is that I'm more likely to see fault in the abuse of a practice rather than a practice. I actually don't mind companies doing different covers for certain books, at least not on theory, and I think it's worth noting that in more recent times a lot of the covers being done seem like they might have a desirable component above and beyond simply being a variant and therefore having collectible or completist value. I know that there are variants I've seen, even in this recent Marvel avalanche of same, where I've gone, "Yeah, I would want that one if I were buying that comic for sure." I'm also not certain I buy a weakening-of-the-market argument here; the retailer base strikes me as pretty savvy as compared to the last time over-aggressive publishing practices poisoned a lot of the market. It's always hard to judge how susceptible that arena of retail is to deleterious practices, so there's always a risk something could end up being crucially harmful, but I don't see a repeat of the buying in to certain strategies that led to a lot of the problems 20 years ago.

Where I think this practice is most distressing is that these companies, Marvel in particular, are choosing to pursue a market-share boosting strategy rather than, well, any other kind of strategy. It feels like resources are being thrown after some sort of abstract, publicity-fueling "win" when that time and energy and money could be spent elsewhere. Good for Marvel, good for the freelancers that score those gigs, maybe even good for everyone for a few months this Fall; bad for the market matching its potential. Part of that is the culture of comics: while most of the sites that cover the industry know of the practice of variant covers to boost circulation numbers, other media sources may not, and nearly everyone will report on the sales if they're good without any kind of second-guessing as to how Marvel got there. I think over the last 20 years that segment of the comics market has left a lot of money and a lot of potential readers on the table for short-sighted pursuit of immediate profit and ancillary goals such as how many books and which companies occupy which positions vis-a-vis their perceived competitors. While there seems to be a huge appetite for consumers being told which comics are important and therefore which ones to purchase, and this can play into that, and while it's true that the market has creepily begun to form itself around these tactics in a positive way, for the most part having for sale multiple versions of comics seems like yet another avenue to frustrate people so that they run the risk of drifting away from comics. This is the kind of thing that may happen quietly and without much fuss at all. It's rare that we wake up and an entire segment of a marketplace has abandoned the field; it's common for people to tire of comics and simply leave.
posted 2:00 pm PST | Permalink

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