Comic Store In Your Future: Welcome To Variant October – Will You Get Out Alive?

Rod Lamberti of Rodman Comics, writes weekly for Bleeding Cool. Find previous columns here.

I have been playing around with the ordering for October. Out of my six years of ordering, this time is the most unusual month to be ordering for and the most troubling for me. The theme for October seems to be variants.

When I first opened, I thought ordering would be pretty simple. People come in and pick up what comics they want. I order what people will buy. Sounds simple enough. As the years went on, ordering became a little more complicated. In order to order what some people wanted, I needed to hit certain numbers. At first, I explained that in order to cover the cost of the excess amount of issues needed to order the variants, we had to price the variants higher.

As time went on, though, other stores started charging cover price for some variants, deciding to swallow the loss. Not wanting to upset customers, we also started charging cover price on variants that had lower ordering points to meet. Overall, variants started losing their appeal over time. We still have people that want variants, but not as many. The Scottie Young covers and action figure covers lost interest only because they have been done so many times over the years. Although the upcoming lenticular covers have been done by DC before, Marvel's upcoming ones should have a pretty high demand.

Marvel, of course, has Legacy starting up. Legacy seems to be another name of Marvel Month of Gimmicks. Legacy sounds cool. Legacy means something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past: "The legacy of the ancient philosophers,"; "The war left a legacy of pain and suffering." Thank you, Google. There is, of course, the one-shot from Marvel coming out — do any titles in October have anything to do with the one-shot, though?

Marvel is renumbering various titles by jumping ahead. Thor will all the sudden have a 700th-anniversary issue. And Marvel is having lenticular variants for some of their covers, which weeks ago were just homage covers. The odd thing is when I first saw Marvel announce and show the homage covers, I emailed Rich Johnson and asked if they were like DC's lenticular covers. To me, the fading to the previous past cover and to the current cover reminded me of DC's Villains and Futures End lenticular covers. No, they are just homage covers, Rich let me know. Whoops, foolish me.

I have no idea why Marvel ended up dragging out releasing their plans for October. The homage covers were a big letdown after the hype that Marvel created by claiming that their announcement would change the industry. I had customers coming in complaining how lacklustre their announcement was. Why wait to announce the homage covers are actually lenticular covers?

Marvel changed their ordering guidelines for stores to order their lenticular variants for the Legacy one-shot. The Legacy one-shot lenticular availability originally was tied into what a store ordered of Secret Empire 2 was. Then Marvel dropped it and made it order as many as we want. So I ended up ordering the Legacy lenticular covers.

Then Marvel somehow came up with a complicated way to order their comics coming out in October that are going to have lenticular variants. They set it up so we have to order the non-lenticular cover by certain percents to be able to get the lenticular covers. Ordering anywhere from 100 percent, 125, percent, and even 200 percent of a past Marvel title. Not all the same Marvel titles, but different ones from the past.

Only a few days into August, Marvel has already lowered their percentages by 25 percent. Gee, thanks Marvel, way to give the stores a break.

So right now, to be able to order, say, Thor 700, I need to order 175 percent of how much I ordered of Thor 19. So I will buy a bunch of extra copies of the regular cover. Marvel for some reason decided to make the regular cover the same price as the lenticular cover. When DC did this in the past, their regular covers were $2.99 and their lenticular covers were $3.99. People would often times buy the $2.99 cover to save a buck. A big reason people ended up buying the regular covers. Marvel just basically made everyone want to get the lenticular cover even more, and almost no one gets the regular cover — making over ordering non-returnable comics even more of a money losing chance.

Speaking of Thor 700. It is $5.99. A dollar more than Legacy itself. Yes, it is 64 pages. The description reads:

The final judgement comes as the Mangog arrives! The War Thor will meet the beast head on. But even the bloodthirst of this Ultimate Thor may pale in comparison to the might of the Mangog! The battle rages as Jane's cancer takes a turn for the worse, and she might not have to wait for the final judgment at all. The clock is ticking, and no hammer can save her this time. It's the beginning of the end that will lead to the most dramatic return in the Marvel Universe!
PLUS: Includes 3 bonus MARVEL PRIMER PAGES! Story by Robbie Thompson and a TBA artist!"

That past issue of Thor 19 was a $3.99 comic. My store has these for options. Ordering what I believe we can sell and not order any of the lenticular variants of Thor is one option. But there is going to be Thor fans that want the lenticular variant. So then we are most likely sending our customers elsewhere to get the comic. Not ideal.

Option two: play Marvel's game and try to figure out how to make money off of it. And that is the option we are going with. I am still trying to figure out the making-money part. Currently, I am toying with having people buy both the regular cover and variant cover if they want the variant. Right now it is the most "fair" thing that I can think of. Better than raising the variant price over cover right after it comes out and being stuck with the regular cover, which we will not do.

For DC's button storyline, we had the variant covers for cover price for over a month. Even had them discounted 20 percent off from cover price during one of our sales. If a variant is easy to order, such as an order all we want to order, then it is easy to sell at cover price. I want the store to make money, but don't want to be the comic price gouger of Iowa.

Marvel isn't going to make any of their comics returnable. That would be helping the people that sell their comics. Which is bad. A terrible idea. Marvel claims that returnable comics ties up a store's money, which is complete bull. How the heck is making stores over order a comic they are not able to return so they can get a variant not tying up a store's money?

In a previous column, I already went over Marvel's guidelines and percentages for being able to order these variants.

After getting done with the latest redoing of October's orders, I felt like Al Bundy from Married with Children doing the bills. Marvel did indeed get more money out of me. DC currently just beats Marvel by $48.06. That most likely will easily change after going over the orders more. I bet DC wishes they had done a lenticular variant month in September as they had in the past — that would have really deflated Marvel.

The month isn't over yet, so Marvel might keep changing things up to show how well thought-out Legacy and the variant covers are so far. And make me keep adjusting the orders. The reason I worry about re-adjusting the orders is I can make a mistake. All it takes is a typo or something and all the sudden my store isn't getting any issues of a lenticular cover of a certain title. It happens — I somehow missed ordering X-Men Blue #2.

If I remember right, the issue had so many variants on the order form that I might've overlooked the regular cover at the time — or I accidentally ordered one of the X-Men Blue #2 variants and none of the regular issues, so I was unable to order the variant. X-Men Blue #3 was also on the same page, if my memory holds, and I did order that. We do get an order checkup, and I thought I'd corrected the mistake, yet somehow I was told I didn't order any of the second issue. And of course, X-Men Blue #2 was not available for reorder, even though it hadn't even come out yet. A retailer ordering issue one and three, but not issue two? That wasn't a red flag to anyone else?

However, I do understand it's my responsibility when ordering. I met a store owner who didn't get any of DC's lenticular covers for the button crossover because he didn't see the email about it. We are human. To make more money, you would think someone would take the few seconds to point out, "Hey, don't you really want to order this?"

Are Generations and Legacy Marvel's version of DC's Convergence? They both so far seem to be fill-in material. For saying Generations had nothing to do with time travel, that Hulk one-shot sure seemed like a time-travel adventure. Legacy currently has people wanting the lenticular covers. Just got asked about the Venom cover. No one has said anything about actually wanting to read Marvel's comics, though.

As I have stated before, Marvel knows how to sell to us retailers, but doesn't seem focused on getting people to actually be excited about reading their product. Instead of forcing us to increase our orders, even doubling them at times, wouldn't it be better to have readers buy the actual product to read? Instead, this way Marvel keeps being number one in my dollar bin with all their unsold comics.

We have Marvel regulars, and I love them. I just think it would be easy for Marvel to increase its actual readership. How crazy is it that millions went to see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 this year, while the Star-Lord and Gamora comics were cancelled?

DC, of course, has their variants. Their titles, for the most part, have two covers. For us, we have people who buy two both covers if Harley Quinn is on it. Or if the Harley Quinn variant by Frank Cho and the regular cover is decided to be "really cool", then people buy both. So Suicide Squad and Harley Quinn at times are all over the place sales-wise. DC Bombshells and Injustice 2 sell a lot better for us when Harley Quinn is on the cover.

This is part of the reason I really dislike it when Diamond has on its ordering site the for the cover image "Image coming soon" — such as the Supergirl #14 Variant Edition by Stanley "Artgerm" Lau. Artgerm is currently a popular artist. His Robotech cover was snatched up, and his cover could really boost Supergirl sales — move the needle, so to speak. If only Diamond had the actual image, I could make a better decision on ordering it.

DC has lenticular covers also for October. I see three from my quick count, and I ordered heavy on them. DC made it a lot easier with the simple "order as many as you would like." Also, I will make more on each DC lenticular cover sold than I will on Marvel, because I will get more than 50 percent off since Marvel capped their discount at 50 percent for their lenticular covers — even after the order requirements Marvel placed.

For me, this means I ordered way more per issue of DC's lenticular covers, even though DC only had three of them. I also ordered way less of DC's non-lenticular covers though. Marvel is making more money by forcing me to order the way they are, but again, which company's lenticular cover will I be trying to promote more? DC, because I do not want more of Marvel's insane ordering methods done in the future. Marvel once again thinks short-term gains and gives little thought to any long-term ones.

DC's upcoming Deadman #1 in October has a glow-in-the-dark cover variant, which is written and drawn by Neal Adams. We just had a Deadman limited series a few months ago that didn't sell well. Neal Adams is a legend, thanks to his artistic abilities. But when he is writing a storyline, people don't think of him as a writer. Neal's writing on Batman Odyssey and X-Men: First Class was not a hit with fans in our store. People love him for his art. So once again, I am ordering a book for its variant cover. I'm guessing people will be more interested in a glow-in-the-dark cover over what is inside the book.

Even IDW's My Little Pony series and the upcoming Star Wars Adventures #3 and Uncle Scrooge #31 have more than one cover to order from — and those are titles aimed at kids.

Valiant does variants a lot, also.

Image in October is doing The Walking Dead homage variant covers. Will these homage covers suddenly become lenticular covers such as Marvel did? Just joking, but I will admit Image is getting a lot more of my money than they have in a long time by having these variants. I have pull box costumers that just get the Walking Dead comic. I have one person who gets three copies of each cover of the main Walking Dead comic. I have instructed my employees when the Walking Dead pull customers come in to see if they are interested in the homage covers or not.

Right now Hack Slash #1, Copperhead #15, Crosswinds #5, Elsewhere #3, Gasolina #2, Girl Scouts Magic Socks #6, Hard Place #3, Generation Gone #4, Slots #1, Underwinter Field of Feathers #1, Youngblood #6 are all looking at being ordered at lucky seven. Though all of the order is for the Walking Dead variants, which doesn't sound like much, but since the number was originally going to be one, that is a heck of a boost. Plus, depending on customer feedback, it could easily go up more.

Angelic #2, Birthright #27, Black Science #32, Curse Words #9, and more from Image are looking at a nice increase just by having a Walking Dead homage cover. Robert Kirkman, writer and creator of The Walking Dead, was pretty good to Image for letting them do this. It should be a nice increase in sales for Image in October, as long as they actually come out in October.

A little sneaky having the Free Comic Book Day I Hate Fairyland slapped with a new Walking Dead homage cover, but as long as the customers don't complain, I will try not to. Again, will people even read it? Is it a purchase for the cover only?

The days of new people coming in thanks to the Walking Dead show for us at least are done, it seems. Walking Dead the comic and trades used to the best for getting new people coming in. But this year, I have not had anyone new come in requesting Walking Dead material. We still have the regulars, which is great, but Walking Dead's two TV shows have fallen into the same trap as all TV and movie licensed properties based on comics: lack of crossover traffic.

I do thank Image for not making me jump through hoops, at least, so I am able to order the Walking Dead variants.

So why am I not sky high after typing all this up about how variants are bumping up sales? Because it is all variants doing it. And I worry about how much more Marvel will change things for the worse for us retailers. The DC lenticular covers for October are easy to order, while Marvel has retailers jumping through hoops. Marvel seems totally fine with putting stores in a bad position.

I'm not even sure if Marvel's sales would be hurt if they didn't have all these requirements. I do wonder if they reason Marvel is having the non-variant and variant covers be the same price is that way it counts as sales for one title. When DC had their button crossover storyline with the Batman and the Flash, their regular cover and variant covers were counted as two different books sold, as they had two different prices. This cost DC the number one spot on the Diamond Sales chart. Marvel most likely doesn't want to take that chance. The whole Marvel vs DC mentality. Win at all costs!

I was a comic collector during the '90s. Variants are credited with being part of the '90s comic boom that fell apart. A lot of comics were being sold before the collapse. These days, the average comic sells less than it did back in good old '90s. Are the comic companies doing something wrong by selling variants? No, it's almost a necessary evil at this point — an "everyone is doing it" mentality. The comic market is so overcrowded that variants are a way to get noticed. If a publisher doesn't play the variant game, they most likely would suffer even lower sales. Somehow, a no-variant rule for all publishers would need to happen, and that doesn't seem likely. Instead, the comic market taking a hit may be what forces variants to go away. Then years will go by and the whole cycle could start again.

For comics to have actual growth, there needs to be more focus on getting people to actually read what is inside a comic. Right now, with variants, we are oftentimes getting people that are already buying comics to buy another copy of something they already were going to buy. We are multiplying sales off existing customers, and making that customer even more important. For example, if our person who gets three Walking Dead comics each issue were to quit, that would mean a loss of three sales on one title. A person that gets both covers of a DC comic might move out of town.

People that read comics are often in a habit of talking about them, and they can often get others into comics by their enthusiasm. This is why I try hard to get new people into reading comics. Variants, for the most part, do not get new people into comics.

We need more people getting into comics. Variants lean on enthusiasts to prop up the comic market. When people feel they get leaned on too much, they leave. Comics are supposed to be entertainment. People want to be entertained. Give them something they want to come back again and again for. This month, Marvel makes me nervous with their unneeded hoops they are forcing us to jump through. The Marvel Legacy lenticular variant one-shot is already topping the reorders, and that was a simple "order as many as you like" for the retailers. I did not order those two variants, and I am totally fine with that. We have the lenticular cover for the one-shot coming in and everything is good for that issue — unless Marvel shorts us.

Another interesting bit of info: while Marvel has a disclaimer for ordering their lenticular variants, stating "Allocations may occur," DC doesn't. I will admit that has me going, "Please, Marvel, don't send me a bunch of the regular covers that you forced me to order up on and none of the lenticular covers. Then I will be really shafted."

I am hoping Marvel doesn't try this again or something even more extreme in the future. Say artist Todd McFarlane actually returns as the artist for Spider-Man next year, or something really exciting happens that we all know will sell well. Marvel decides that in order for us to order this sure-to-sell comic, we have to order the same amount of one of their lower-selling titles like America. Let's pretend I know I can easily sell 100 copies of the McFarlane Spider-Man issue, though I know I will not be able to sell 100 copies (or even close) of America. What do I do? A year ago I would have thought that too farfetched, but after seeing what Marvel is doing, it doesn't seem so unlikely now.

I would love to have Marvel put out books that I order because of high reader demand. That is what I would like of any publisher, of course.

Oh, October is going to be so much fun. Let's get ready to rumble!

Comic Store In Your Future: Welcome To Variant October – Will You Get Out Alive?

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About Rod Lamberti

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