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Comic Investing: Variant Covers—The Wild Wild West of Comics

Comic Investing: Variant Covers—The Wild Wild West of Comics 1024 585 Craig Coffman

Comic Investing: Variant Covers—The Wild Wild West of Comics

Variant covers are a somewhat new way to market comics. The idea, as you would guess, is that you get the same book but with a different cover. If only it stopped at that statement! There are also different ratio variants. Obviously, some of these will be more scarce than others, and to me this can matter. Sometimes people spend for the art, and sometimes they splash out for the guts of the book. The only truth is that there can be a lot of money made, and lost, in the world of variants. Let’s take a little more time to explore them further, uncover a bit of what the terms mean and why you might want to add a specific variant to your collection.

NOTE:  I am not an expert in this, and there are people who know far more than me. This is not an exhaustive nor complete guide to variants, but it is more than enough to get someone started in understanding this rather complex subset of comics.

Let’s Open this Can of Worms

Firstly, I do not think every comic cover variant is created equal and you do not need to buy every variant you can find. In my opinion, there are really two types of variants. One is a lovely cover that is simply that, a lovely cover. And make no doubt, there truly are fantastically skilled artists creating pictures for funny books. The other is a variant for a future ‘key’ issue. These normally have a first appearance, but also costume changes, major events, arc beginnings, etc.

Every variant has some sort of ratio attached to it. These can range anywhere from a simple Cover B 1:1 (alternate cover variant) to 1:1000 or higher (1 copy printed to X number of standard covers). Clearly, the higher the ratio (1:XXX) the few that are printed. Take into account that the 1 represents the normal print run for a comic. So your typical Amazing Spider-Man will likely have a larger print run than something from Action Lab Comics. At the end of the day, this just means the lower the initial print run, the lower the number of variants regardless of ratio.

Variant Cover Cost Factor

Costs are much higher for a variant than the standard cover. I do not pay more than the ratio (generally speaking) for a raw variant. Particularly as they will fall after a few weeks anyway. Not always, but often. And even if they go up in the future. A month or two is too soon to ‘know’ anything about a book long term. Once the bright light is turned on the flavor of the week, the book you are after typically fades in price. That is when I like to pick them up if I missed on release day.

Further, some places online and perhaps locally to you will sell you the variant at a discount if you pre-order. I have no links to share for online pre-orders, but I know from numerous folks who do this that you can find them. I would suspect you can start with larger online sites and go from there.

Finding one can be a huge boon to your hunting and bottom line. Some of these variants are rather costly and even go up in price before they have released. Early is the name of the game. While you can find bargains after release day if you wait several weeks, there is no promise of falling prices. The best bet is to buy what you want ahead of time.

Variants for the Top Spot!

Finally, most variants appreciate if you can hit a CGC 9.6 or greater graded. If you land the CGC 9.8 you are in good standing with your book. I do not think most books are worth grading if they fall 9.4 and lower. Moderns are relatively easy to get in high grade, and unless the book becomes a mega hit people will hold out for the graded 9.6+. However they do well raw, and you are not out the grading costs. For me, if it looks like it might not be a 9.8 I do not even bother. That is, if I can see a flaw I pass on grading unless it is a mega book. This is just my approach.

In case you are wondering, I am generally against the idea of variants. I feel like it is a fabricated marketplace. The scarcity of a book is baked into the printing, as opposed to just being hard to find due to lack of copies initially printed (smaller publisher) or a book being old and supply likely damaged or destroyed (Golden Age books).

Having said that, I do have variants in my collection. Despite my personal feelings, I also cannot overlook that I am not the market and much of the market cares about variants.

Variants do Paint a Pretty Picture

For me, this type of variant is much less appealing. I only buy these books if I want a copy for my personal collection (PC) and not because I think it will go up in value. While some of them do appreciate, and quite nicely I should add, more of them do not. On top of it, the more rare the variant the more you pay to buy it initially. This practice is not one I like, but it is part of the game (see side bar).

When it comes to this sort of variant, I believe it is more important to follow the title than the specific artist. Yes, some artists have a following today and their legion will buy it. Flip those fast if you can.

The more important fan base are the title fanfolk. Those are the ones that over time will still want and purchase the books. On that front, Amazing Spider-Man seems to be the absolute safest bet. Batman is likely not a bad one either, but it seems ASM constantly pulls money for cover only variants and some of the variants are high ratio. That means the completionists will be more ready to shell out some serious coin for your copy. Particularly if it is graded.

Keep This in Mind

It is important to remember that there are no promises with any book, and especially with variants. Because you pay more for them, I believe you need to make sure you know what you are buying, and that you can move it fast. I feel that these cover only variants are ideal for flippers. And I mean quickly. Like a week or less to be safe.

SIDEBAR: Reportedly variats cost no more to the store to buy than a standard cover, and some are ‘included’ if it is an incentive variant. It does require the store to purchase X number of copies, where X is the ratio.

…But You Are Pretty on the Inside

The good news about variants is that they come out regardless of what is happening in the book. This means that you might have to look through issue after issue of non-events until you come to something with some meat on the bone. A first appearance. That can be of a character / costume / item / event / etc. These books come with the bonus of a pretty wrapper to some healthy guts.

The nice thing about these is that even if an artist falls out of favor, or a title gets cancelled, there is still a reason for targeting the book. A first appearance marks a change to the respective comic book universe, no matter how grand or trivial. For that reason, if you can get a book with a first app PLUS a higher ratio variant (1:20 or greater) you have some real chemistry. Drop the book into a CGC at high grade and you are in business for the long haul.


Not all first appearances are created equal. If only it were that easy! It is also important to keep in mind that just because something happens does not mean it will matter down the road.

Remember earlier when I said I have variants, these are the variants I do go after. I prefer my expensive modern comics to have value in the pages and not just the cover. I am old enough to know that flavor of the month / year / decade artists come and go. Most often they go. If the book contains a notable first appearance then the book itself has value beyond the ratio and artist’s name. I see it as a security blanket for my books.

Wrap It Up!

There are many folks who act as though it is either pro or con variant covers and there is no in-between. That is hogwash. I am proof of that. What I think they mean is that some people are variant collectors and they collect anything. Others are key seekers and they will buy a variant if it meets their criteria. But I do not think anyone is exclusively for or against variants. Prices matter, so it is imperative you get in as early as possible to minimize (ideally) your skin in the game.

I would caution people from buying a cover just for a cover, unless you are content with it staying forever in your PC or intending to flip it fast. It is too hard to predict the why a book takes off, and even harder to understand when the bottom will fall out. Or, to be fair, if the bottom will fall out. For that reason I do not buy them and instead target first apps. I just feel more comfortable with those for my money.

Grade Those Variant 9.8 Contenders

Grade anything that looks like it should be 9.8. If you have any doubt, just pass on grading and keep the book raw until a title has had a chance to establish a market for 9.6 and lower books. I should say that in my experience 9.6 grades will still sell. But I have had books I think are 9.8 come back as 9.6. So if I think a book is 9.6 and it returns 9.4, I might have just shot myself in the foot. But if it the 9.8 comes back 9.6, I am still in business.

At the end of the day, only buy a book you are fine with holding forever and never spend more than you can afford. It is pretty simple. There is no guarantee a book, regardless the book, will go up over time. It is always a gamble. If it does then you bet wisely. If not, make sure you are sitting with a book you like because it will likely be sticking around for quite some time.


This information is presented as of 1/3/2019.

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