The first real variant covers were found in comics used as marketing materials.  From 1945 to 1959 Buster Brown had a series of comics that had different shoe stores printed on the covers.  The cover art was the same but the store at the bottom was different.  This was printed on the cover and not a stamp.

The second variant was an obscure book from 1955.  The Adventures of Big Boy had variant covers for the east and west coasts.  East coast Big Boy had red hair and a different look than the west coast Big Boy with black hair.  This is the first time the cover art was different.  You could win a nerd trivia contest with that one. 

But the first modern variant cover was 1986’s Man of Steel #1 (Oct. 1986) by John Byrne.  At the time, people were confused by this new development.  “You mean the story is the same inside?  Then why is the cover different?”  It didn’t take long to figure out that the end goal was to sell more books.  Shockingly, this brilliant money-making idea didn’t immediately take off.  Just look at some of the big titles that launched after Man of Steel that didn’t have a variant cover. (2nd printings aren’t included if they used the same cover art)

No Variant Covers
Superman vol. 2 #1  (Jan. 1987)
Wonder Woman vol. 2 #1 (Feb. 1987)
Concrete #1 (March 1987)
Strange Tales vol. 2 #1 (April 1987)
Justice League #1 (May 1987)
Suicide Squad #1 (May 1987)
The Flash vol. 2 #1 (June 1987)
The Punisher Vol. 2 #1 (July 1987)
Silver Surfer vol. 3 #1 (July 1987)
Usagi Yojimbo #1 (July 1987)
The Original Astro Boy #1 (Sept. 1987)
Doom Patrol vol. 2 #1 (Oct. 1987)
World of Krypton #1 (Dec 1987)

Hellblazer #1 (Jan. 1988)
Millennium #1 (Jan. 1988)
Batman: The Killing Joke (March 1988) The additional printings had the same art with different colored text. 
Action Comics #600 (May 1988)
Amazing Spider-man #300 (May 1988)
The Tick #1 (June 1988) The additional printings had the same art with different colored backgrounds.
Batman: The Cult #1 (Aug. 1988)
Animal Man #1 (Sept. 1988)
V for Vendetta #1 (Sept 1988)
Excalibur #1 (Oct. 1988)
Punisher War Journal #1 (Nov. 1988)
Wolverine vol. 2 #1 (Nov. 1988)

Invasion #1 (Jan. 1989)
Sandman #1 (Jan. 1989)
Gotham by Gaslight (Feb. 1989) – The first Elseworld’s title
Thor #400 (Feb. 1989)
Avengers #300 (Feb. 1989)
Detective #600 (May 1989)
Sensational She-Hulk vol. 2 #1 (May 1989)
What If…? Vol. 2 #1 (July 1989)
Batman: Arkham Asylum (Oct. 1989)

Those are some of the most important issues from 1987-89 and not one has a variant cover.  It’s shocking in our modern market to even consider an important comic with a single cover, but that’s how it was.  Today, comics with hype or perceived importance will routinely receive 20 variant covers or more.  The Batman wedding that never happened in issue #50 has 100 variant covers!  I would place almost any of the above issues to be more important than a non-wedding. (Sorry, What If…? never been a big fan.)

There were three books in 1987 that included a variant cover, Justice League #3BFury of Firestorm #61B and Amazing Spider-man Annual #21.  The DC books were to test a new logo, but they included new cover art as well.  The Amazing Spider-man book was the marriage of Peter Parker and Mary Jane, one issue showing the Peter Parker side and the other issue showing the Spider-man side with villains.  They actually got married.  (Yes, I’m looking at you Batman and Catwoman!) 

1988 had no variant covers.

1989 was almost finished before the first and only variant cover of that year came out.  In November 1989 Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #1 was released to tremendous fanfare.  It was the first new Batman comic in 40 years and you needed all 4 colored covers, or you would literally die.  Each color was equally produced so scarcity didn’t play into this variant cover, but it didn’t matter.  The first Michael Keaton Batman movie was out, and it created a Bat frenzy.

In 1990 Marvel released Spider-man #1 written and drawn by the biggest artist of the day, Todd McFarlane.  There were four different colored backgrounds and scarcity was introduced into the variant formula with tremendous success.

Because of the Legends of the Dark Knight and Spider-man sales success, 1991 saw a dramatic increase in variants and different printings.

Variant Cover Timeline
October 1986 – Man of Steel #1 has two covers, different art
July 1987 – Justice League #3 has two covers, different art, and logo
July 1987 – Fury of Firestorm #61 has two covers, different art, and logo
September 1987 – Amazing Spider-man Annual #21 has two covers, different art
November 1989 – Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #1 had four different colored covers.
August 1990 – Spider-man #1 had four different colored backgrounds

August 1991 – X-Force #1 had the same cover but five different card inserts.
October 1991 – Robin II #1 had five different covers and a bagged set including all.
November 1991 – X-men #1 had 5 different covers
June 1992 – Shadow of the Bat #1 had two covers, one was polybagged
July 1992 – Savage Dragon #1 mini-series had four versions with a different colored title.
August 1992 – Brigade #1 had two covers, one with gold foil
August 1992 – Eternal Warrior #1 was released with 3 versions
August 1992 – Shadowhawk #1 had two different covers
August 1992 – WildC.A.T.S. #1 had six or seven covers
October 1992 – Cyberforce #1 had a rainbow of ashcan covers, 1 regular and 5 ashcans
October 1992 – Unity #1 was released with 3 covers
November 1992 – Supreme #1 had four different covers, silver, gold, pink title and an ashcan
December 1992 – H.A.R.D. Corps was released with 2 versions

This isn’t a complete list, but it gives you some perspective.  At the time everyone was talking about how many variants there were because it was so unusual.  Some of the variants were different printings and not what we would call a variant cover today.  For example,

January 1991 – Incredible Hulk #377 had three different colors for three different printings
April 1991 – New Mutants #100 had three different colors for three different printings
June 1991 – Silver Surfer #50 had three different versions for three different printings
May 1992 – Incredible Hulk #393 had two different backgrounds for two different printings
Dec. 1992 – Incredible Hulk #400 had two different backgrounds for two different printings

From 1989 to early 1993 there was a rush on comic book collecting.  Speculators, new collectors, kids, nostalgia lovers, and regular comic book collectors converged together and drove the market up.  When Superman died in early 1993 and was resurrected in June 1993 with polybag issues, the bubble burst.  It took a little time for the disillusion to set in but when it did, 1994 was a comic disaster as sales plummeted.

During the struggles of 1994 -2000 there were variant covers but only a handful.  Most can be found in 1999 and 2000, Amazing Spiderman vol. 2 #1, Wildcats vol. 2 #1, Ultimate Spider-man #1.  Two important things happened during this bleak time for comics.

In 1996, DC had their 5th Retailer’s Conference and gave away the first incentive cover to retailers.  This was extremely limited (250 issues) and only for a very select group of retailers who attended their conference.  This was an invitation-only event for retailers who could provide feedback to DC’s marketing crew.  The book was Superman: The Wedding Album #1.  That book is technically a Retailer Representative Program incentive and not a regular retailer incentive.  Nonetheless, it started what is now common practice of giving retailers an incentive comic. (See definition below)

The second thing that happened during the dark years of the late ’90s was the invention of store exclusives.  The first comic shop exclusives that I was able to locate were from early 1998. These were the same cover as the regular version with their logo printed on the cover.

March 1998 – Another Universe Store Exclusive Danger Girl #1
March 1998 – American Entertainment Store Exclusive Danger Girl #1

As you look at the market today, store exclusive comics are extremely common and important for generating publicity.

Terms used related to variants
Variant Cover – The interior of the book is the same, but the cover has different art than the original.
Retailer Incentive – Given to retailers for a certain number of comic books order.  For a 10 to one book the retailer had to order 10 copies of the regular version to receive 1 variant. In Comics Price Guide you will often see 10 to 1 or 25 to 1 in the notes of a variant, that’s what it means.
Retailer Representative Program – A small number of retailers chosen by DC to provide feedback about DC marketing ideas.  They are given some of the rarest books as an incentive to offset costs.
Second Printing – Printed after the first printing, it may have the exact same cover with a note on the interior pages saying the print number.  Second printings can sometimes have a different color cover, different cover art but with the same interior.  This applies for all additional printings.
Comic Shop Exclusives – Comic book with different cover art sold at only one store.  Early store exclusives had the same art but included the store’s information on the cover.
Convention Exclusives – Comic book with a different cover sold at only one convention or one convention organization, like Wizard World.
Store Exclusives – Comic book with different cover art sold at a retail store, like Walmart. See this article for more information. Walmart Variants
Newsstand Variation – Typically the only difference is a UPC code on the front cover.  In the early ’90s and before comics were sold in direct markets and on newsstands.  As the newsstand issues were phased out, the last remnants became more valuable.
Price Variants – Publishers tested different price points to see if sales dropped.  Star Wars is the most famous example.  This does happen with pence priced books as well.
Whitman Variants – Whitman received the rights to reprint DC comics in the late ’70s and early ’80s.  They packed these in two packs or 3 packs for sale at department stores.
Ashcan – The original definition was a mock-up comic used by companies to copyright characters and logos that may be used in the future. The second definition is a small-sized typically black and white preview of a comic. Sometimes they are used as variants.

by Ron Cloer

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