Variant Covers Indicative of Late Stage Capitalism

By | Thursday, May 09, 2024 Leave a Comment
As I noted last week, things have been a bit busy around here, so I'm only now just getting a chance to read the ICv2 interview with BOOM! Studios President of Publishing and Marketing Filip Sablik from back in April. I'd like to call out the variant covers question and, more to the point, show how that's indicative of the problem we're currently facing with capitalism writ large. Here's the question and answer I'm specifically referring to...
One remaining question on the periodical business: we took a look at your April solicits for June. Pretty much every issue has two to three to five variants. Is that just the way the periodical business has to be done now in order to be successful?

The short answer is yes. Not to say that you can't find success with one cover, but I think it is very difficult. If you look at the current market and the titles that are really finding engagement with customers, they tend to be licensed, they tend to have a lot of covers.

On some level, it's a little bit of an arms race. At a certain point, you need to make sure that there are enough things for retailers and fans to pick from that you're not disappearing on the shelf. What we try to do to the extent that we can is be very curated about how we're approaching those covers. So what you'll typically see on our series is there is an artistic direction. Something like Pine and Merrimac by Kyle Starks and Fran Galan is heavily inspired by detective agency stories. We have a variant cover program where there are homages to that era of pulp fiction.

Typically, you'll see less just variant covers for the sake of variant covers. If you look at our solicitations now, ultimately, that's the judgment. Somebody may look at that and disagree with that statement, but that's how we approach it. We never have a situation where we're looking at the program and saying, “We have to have four covers on this. What's the fourth cover? We don't know.”

We do look at every project and every program and say, "OK, what do we think works for this? What makes sense for this particular series? What can it support, and what do we have creative vision for?”
Sablik says, point blank, that success is unlikely without variant covers. Now, there are certainly any number of measures you can use to gauge success, but I think it's safe to say he's talking about market success here and not critical or creative success. Market success is generally one of two things: the number of issues sold or the money generated by the number of issues sold. The number of issues sold is straightforward enough for most people understand: if you sell 1000 comics, that's better than if you only sell 500 comics. It's pretty much always a "bigger numbers are better" kind of metric.

The money generated angle can get a little more complicated. You might think, "Well, selling 500 issues at $3.99 is better than selling 500 issues at $4.99, isn't it?" All other things being equal, yes, that is true. But it's rare that all other things are indeed equal. Maybe they had to pay the creators more for one book versus another. Maybe the paper costs went up between the first and second books. Maybe one issue had a misprint and had to be pulped and reprinted. There are any number of possible factors that could mean 500 issues selling for $3.99 actually makes the publisher more money than 500 issues selling for $4.99.

So for the sake of simplicity, let's assume Sablik meant that succes = number of comics sold.

Now plugging that back into his statement, he's saying that if you want to sell more comics, if you want to increase your comics sales, you have to produce variant covers. But since the only thing differentitating one variant cover issue from the next is literally only the cover itself, why would more people buy an issue just because it has a different cover options? There are, no doubt, fans of particular artists who try to buy everything that person produces. So you will probably get some people who do indeed buy that one specific issue because it features a cover by one specific artist, even if that customer normally never buys that title. But there are two problems with that idea: first, that's really only a viable strategy if you're always able to use the most popular artists -- you can't just have any artist draw a cover -- and second, that only works for a single issue because the customer who buys an issue because Alex Ross did the cover isn't coming back next issue for the Greg Land cover.

No, the way variant covers work more effectively is because it's not more people buying those additional issues, but the existing customers buying multiple copies of the same issue. You're not increasing the number of customers buying the same issue, you're increasing the number of issues bought by the same customers. I think people sort of intuitively know this already, but I want to explicitly call attention to it. Because this is just a single example of where capitalism is right now.

Businessess have spent much of the past century trying to convince people to buy more stuff. They've created a very consumerist culture where people's very identities are wrapped up in the products they spend money on. Does Apple objectively make a better phone? It doesn't matter; people buy iPhones because they're iPhones and not some othr brand. It's as much, if not more, a statement about what brands they want to use as a reflection of their own personality than anything else. It applies across all sorts of industries -- I'm sure you know people who are Jeep people, Trekkies, Ralph Lauren fashionistas, and Disneyphiles. Some part of their identity is tied to a product or brand. They not only buy the product in question, but they buy material essentially advertising that they buy/bought the product.

What they're doing, effectively, is not trying to grow their base but trying to obtain more money from the base they already have. Apple has a trade-in program for their phones specifically in order to ensure they can destroy the old ones and effectively kill any sort of after-market; if you want an iPhone, you almost have to buy one from Apple and it almost has to be a new one. That's why car manufacturers always push OEM parts instead of third party ones; it's not that they're necessarily better/safer/higher quality, it's just that they don't get your money if you buy them from someplace else. Variant covers are a way specifically to target completist collectors to buy the same issue mulitple times; they're selling you the same product repeatedly because it's a way to get more of your money.

That's what we're dealing with broadly speaking. Capitalism today isn't about providing goods and services; it's about transferring as much of your hard-earned money as possible into the hands of a corporation that already has infinitely more money than you'll ever see in your lifetime. I think most comic fans understand the cynical way in which variant covers are made. But what Sablik is saying that maybe isn't as commonly known/understood is that their entire business model is predicated on telling the best stories possible, or providing the best entertainment value, or anything like that, but by using business tricks to get the most money out of people with the least amount of effort. And I don't say that to single out Sablik or BOOM! or even comic publishers generally who do the exact same thing. It's the entire structure of 21st century capitalism. You are not a person to them; you are a consumer. Your only purpose, as far as they're concerned, is to send as much money to them as possible.

I don't have a good -- or any, frankly -- solution for realistically opting out of this situation. The only thing I can suggest to folks is to understand the actual rules at play here -- not the ones you were taught; the ones Boomers use to complain about how these kids today don't work hard enough and buy too much avacado toast -- and work around/through all the loopholes they haven't gotten around to closing up yet. I heard someone recently complain about the phrase "if you're not paying for the product, you are the product" not because it's a lie but because it's only half of the truth. The truth is that you are the product whether you're paying or not. Again you are not a person to them; you are a consumer. Your only purpose, as far as they're concerned, is to send as much money to them as possible.

I'm not saying don't buy anything from any coporation ever; that's not realistic. You can enjoy and get a lot of use out of the products they produce. Enjoy their smart phones and comics and movies and whatever else. But understand what they're doing -- what they're really doing -- and act in your best interests, not theirs.
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