Variant Madness

My first ever paid writing gig was a story in 2000AD magazine, **ahem** years ago, but long before that I was an avid reader of comics. Back when I was in short trousers, my parents used to buy Look and Learn magazine for me and my brothers, but I was only really interested in reading The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire. Then 2000AD came along in 1977, and I followed the adventures of Judge Dredd, Slaine, Nemesis the Warlock and all the others with wonder, impatient for each weekly prog to arrive. I still read it, thirty-two years on.

I bought my first proper American comic sometime in the early eighties. It was for sale on a news stand at Waterloo station, and my parent had just dropped me off for the train back to school after half term. My leaky memory thinks it was an issue of the New Teen Titans, possibly this one, but I can't be a hundred percent sure.

Whatever issue it was, though, I was hooked. From the Titans I soon moved on to the X-Men, New Mutants, Batman and Spiderman. I was never that much of a Superman fan, but I followed Alan Moore from 2000AD into his run on Swamp Thing, and that was a springboard for the darker titles like Hellblazer and Sandman. As a teenager, pretty much all my spare cash was spent on comics or SF novels (I had a brief fling with EE 'Doc' Smith and Robert Heinlein). This I consider a good thing, as at the same time my contemporaries were spending all their money on cigarettes and booze; I was reading comics then spending two hours a day in the gym trying to be a superhero. Sad, I know, but healthy.

Back in the early nineties, in Aberdeen, I was bumming around wondering what to do with my life when I stumbled into an event organised by the city library. Grant Morrison and Mark Millar, who at the time were pretty much running 2000AD, had been invited to come and talk to a sceptical public about the seriousness of comics. In a question and answer session at the end of the talk, someone asked the fairly obvious question: 'how do you get a story published in 2000AD?' To which Mark answered 'send them a script' or words to that effect. It was an epiphany, a moment when I realised what I needed to do, what I yearned to do with my life. I went home and bashed out what I thought were the best stories ever, stuck them in an envelope and posted them off.

I remember all too well the embarrassment when they came back, firmly rejected, and with a wad of guidelines showing exactly how a comic script should be structured. Still, lesson learnt and all that. I wrote some more, in the correct form this time, and sent them off.

They too were rejected, but I was nothing if not persistent. Over the course of a couple of years I must have written more than a hundred Tharg's Future Shocks, and I guess that almost every one of them is dreadful. I don't know, since most of them have long since disappeared into the electronic mess of endless uncatalogued floppy discs, but none of them impressed the Mighty Tharg. The only one that ever made it was one I handed to one of the editors, John Tomlinson, at the Glasgow Comics Convention. He said he'd read it that night and let me know what he thought the next morning. I was bitterly disappointed when I turned up at the stand and found he'd not had time - too busy drinking into the wee small hours like the rest of us, I suppose. Still, he took it home with him, and a few weeks later I received the best letter of my life. They wanted to buy the story. They were going to publish it. I was going to be a writer!

Ah, the naivity of youth. Years have passed since then, and I'm not a comics celebrity. Not even a workaday hack writer. Apparently perseverance is the key to success in writing, but I found myself increasingly ground down by the constant rejection, and more particularly the line that was peddled so often in those recessionary times: 'we're not buying at the moment.' That's code for 'it's shite, try again' or possibly 'it's shite, go away.' I never did work out which, and eventually I found more distracting things to do with my time, like writing novels.

But I'm still addicted to comics. Every month I get a call from my old friend Mike at Asylum Books and Games, telling me what he has lined up for me. I give him some money and a couple of weeks later a parcel arrives full of comicky goodness. No work gets done that day; even if I try, the pile of funny books calls to me from the other side of the room, or the other side of the house. It's no good ignoring that siren call.

As well as being a sad comics geek, I am by nature a hoarder, so I've kept pretty much every comic I've ever bought. These now languish in many, many boxes in the basement and one of these days I might even get around to sorting them out a bit. I've been cataloguing the more recent titles though - in particular the regular monthly shipments from Mike - and that's where the point of this little nostalgic ramble comes in. You see, in the olden days a comic was a comic. It came out once a month (if the writer and artist met their deadlines) and it had a cover that usually reflected what was going on inside. Nowadays things are a little different. Take Warren Ellis' new title, Ignition City. To date, three episodes have hit the shops (although I've not got number three yet), but if you go to the Avatar website, you'll find twelve comics on sale. That's because each edition has four variations of cover.

This is just issue one...

Garth Ennis' Zombie comic Crossed has so far run to six issues (including issue 0 - an annoying comics affectation that may be the subject of a later rant) and yet if you want to buy all the possible editions, you'll need to pay for twenty-nine comics. Twenty-nine! Issue one apparently has nine variants.

The rationale behind this is not difficult to see. It plays on the geek comic collector mindset that has to have every issue of a title, however spurious the definition of 'issue'. I'm not immune to this - I have a complete run of the original New Mutants series even though I had to buy a few back issues to make up the set. I've also got a complete run of Hellblazer to date which is more of an achievement as I've bought every issue, one a month, since the title first appeared in January 1988. If we're being really sad, then I've also got the Alan Moore Swamp Thing episodes where the Hellblazer protagonist John Constantine first appears. I've not read them in over twenty years, but I've got them, and that's what matters.

But I'm not that much of a geek. Honest. Despite having paid my 8p for the first edition of 2000AD in 1977 - complete with free space spinner! - there are large gaps in my collection (including an entire box of early editions which mysteriously disappeared when I moved house some years ago). I don't have sleepless nights over the missing progs, even though I do sometimes balk at the £1.90 it now costs. Some fans are obviously more insomniac than I. And have a lot more disposable cash.

I remember the first comics boom in the late eighties, when Forbidden Planet in Denmark Street in London was the place to go for American imports. Then the well-heeled would buy three copies of any given title. One to read, one to keep for a year and then sell to cover the cost of the other two, and a third to put in protective plastic, box up and keep for a time when it would be worth a small fortune. Since at the time decent condition first editions of Superman and Batman were fetching thousands of pounds, there was a logic in this. Except that everyone was doing it, so whilst there may be three good condition original Spider Man comics in existence, there are now many thousands of mint Sandman #1s.

I can't remember when the first variant covers came in. Possibly it was with the X-Men, mid-nineties when my comic buying was at its lowest ebb due to severe impecunity. X-Men itself had gone from the original one title - The Uncanny X-Men, to two titles, then the first spin-offs, New Mutants and Excalibur, then X-Force and Wolverine (always the most popular of the mutant band of heroes), and occasionally going bi-weekly rather than monthly. I've completly lost track of just how many X-titles there are now, and it always annoys me when I'm reading a story in Uncanny and there's a huge plot jump that requires you to go and buy a dozen different titles to try and work out what's going on. But at least with these multiple titles you're getting a lot of story. You might not have a clue who half of the characters are, and worse, you might get sucked into buying those other titles each month to see what those unknown characters get up to later on (that's the point, I guess), but you will be entertained for twice as long if you have to buy two titles, three times if it's three and so on.

With the variant covers, you pay time and again for exactly the same words and pictures inside. And neither is it cheap. Ignition City is $3.99 (or £2.99 from Mike). It's a good enough story, if a bit generic Warren Ellis, but pay for each variant of each issue and you'll already have spent almost £40 on just three episodes. My regular monthly list runs to about a dozen titles; if I felt I had to buy each variant cover of each story I'd be broke by the end of the summer (though Mike might be a bit cheerier, at least in the short term).

Avatar Press, who publish both Ignition City and Crossed seem to be the worst for this trend, but they are by no means the only ones doing it. Marvel regularly put out variant covers for the X titles and others, cynically screwing yet more money out of the unsuspecting buyers. Warren Ellis has himself pointed out, on may occasions, that it's not his decision to market his books this way, and he'd much rather it didn't happen. But there must be enough sad people out there religiously buying every different variant of the same comic for the publishers to make money commissioning and printing them.

It's a relatively cheap exercise, I suppose, to get an artist in just to do a cover. And a lot easier than creating a whole new comic. Printing costs are lower now, and quality higher than they've ever been. So the temptation is there to exploit the fans' stupidity. Back in the old days, when I used to get the train to London and spend the day wandering the dark aisles in Forbidden Planet, I'd pick up comics because of the cover, not the number. I couldn't remember whether I'd read Batman #256 or Power Pack #67, but I could remember the picture on the front, and so I didn't often buy multiple copies by mistake. (The sensible purchaser would take a list of titles and numbers in with him. I tried that from time to time, but for some reason it never really worked.) I'm sure that I'd have cottoned on to the variant cover trick quickly enough though, had it being going on back then. So I have to assume that the modern day comic geek actually wants all these different versions of the same book.

A fool and his money, as the saying goes. I still prefer the 2000 AD format. A comic every week with five or six ongoing stories in it. Something for everyone.

And no variant covers.


Anonymous said…
Somewhere, in another lifetime, I had a copy of the 2000 AD with your story...I gave it to a student who was most impressed that his teacher knew someone who wrote comics...

And it's thanks to you that I became an X-men fan!
John R said…
It's all in the numbers; as I understand it Avatar's base readership isn't big enough to make it viable to publish full-colour indie comics in the way they do, even for a big name like Ellis. They're reliant on the extra sales from collectors. It annoys a bunch of people, but to be honest I don't see it as any sort of big deal unless you are actually a collector.
Vincent said…
Those Ignition City covers made me think of a comic a wife of a friend of a husband of a friend did that started as part of the recent Ada Lovelace day:

Which then spun off into further adventures involved... the economy!
Vincent said…
Involved the economy? I, of course, meant *involving* the economy. Which actually still sounds a little odd.

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