Brainiac On Banjo #008: Fake Covers

Every several years I find a brand-new way to enunciate my firm belief that in order to sell more comic books, publishers should seek to produce better comic book stories and take their feet off of the stunt pedal. Well, it’s time once again to play that great all-American game, To Sell The Truth!

If you are in the habit of memorizing every word I have ever written (please stop that; you’ll hurt yourself!), doubtlessly you recall my ragging on and on about the stunt covers of the mid-1990s. Foil covers, bagged comics, holographic covers, 3D leather embossed covers… a whole lotta gimmicks were in vogue, each for nanoseconds. At least lenticular covers did some good – they taught a lot of people the meaning of the word “lenticular.” 

Back in that day “we” (my Lamont Cranston-inspired company arrogantMGMS) were putting together some books published by Image Comics, some very nice people who knew a sales gimmick when they saw one. I was tiring of all that fluff, so I suggested we offer a cover printed on bubblegum. I was certain Topps had some recyclable pink Bazooka minted before World War II that they needed to get rid of. Image nixed the idea and within months, marvelously, The House of Idea licensed a story – I think it was The Hulk – for bubblegum printing.

Now that I think of it, when the “Issue 0” stunt was all the rage and sprouting “Issue 1/2″ comics and other such folderol, I suggested we do a special “Issue π.” They passed on that one as well. Perhaps they caught on that I wasn’t kidding.

Today’s incarnation of stunt marketing is the variant cover. That’s a misnomer: a real variant cover would vary while it’s in the reader’s hands. I think ComiXology could do that with ease. Anyway, the idea is that the publisher commissions additional cover art for a specific book or series of books or their entire damn line of books and offers it to comic book retailers on a allocated basis – one Variant A cover for each 25 books ordered, a Variant B for each 100 books ordered, a Variant X for each 1,000, and so on. This stunt boosts orders, makes retailers happy, gives cover artists more work, and gets art out of ridiculously awesome artists like Jim Steranko, Neal Adams and Jim Lee who otherwise might go on food stamps.

Don’t get me started on the blank covers. Not that I am opposed to them; they’re useful at conventions and charity fundraisers. Plus, well, ummm, I kinda mighta invented the blank cover. It wasn’t as a sales gimmick: thirty years ago (!), our printer totally screwed up (and shipped) Wasteland #6. I was in the process of moving from Fairfield CT to Norwalk at the time, and the very first phone call I received at my new digs was from my then-assistant, the talented and handsome Robert Greenberger, asking me what they should do. The printer offered to reprint the book for free with a new cover (the right cover was already out there) and I said “Swell … but make it a blank cover. Logo, credits, Milton Glazer’s impossible DC bullet, the price, and nothing else.”

Bob asked me to repeat that. Several times.

Bringing matters into this century, the still-popular stunt variants proliferate throughout the Diamond catalog. DC, in their wisdom, printed a hardcover book of variant covers, and that’s pretty cool. I’d buy a similar book from Marvel, particularly if it was limited to variants drawn by Skottie Young.

But like all such stunts, before long the variant cover onslaught started chewing on its own tail. There are dozens and dozens of them each week. Some are great, some really suck; such is life. But it’s hard to imagine that in most cases it still increases sales. There are just too many. Some publishers routinely do variants for their entire line. This week, Boundless Comics’ Jungle Fantasy Secrets #2 is being published with nineteen different covers. If you’re seeking out all nineteen, you’re not a collector – you’re a junkie, and you need an intervention.

As George Harrison wistfully said, all things must pass. The mega-variant craze will go the way of the lenticular cover: it will be done once in a while, it might even have a brief revival, but as a sales driver its days are numbered.

History has shown us that it will be replaced with something else.

Who knows? Maybe we’ll get those bubble gum covers after all.