A wise person once said that “wisdom is not a product of schooling, but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it”. Comic book collectors and investors could learn something from Albert Einstein. Studying the comic book marketplace allows one to avoid pitfalls while exploiting opportunities. The key is seeing the bigger picture and extrapolating that for the individual collector and investor. Knowledge is power. Nowhere is this more important than in the variant comic segment of the marketplace.
Avoid New Variant Comics Inflated Prices
New variant comics are the beanie babies of the comic book marketplace. These books are manufactured collectibles. Variants are the impulse buys of comic books because people want them before they even know the reason why. Collectors may love a comic book cover from their favorite artist and pay a premium for these books, but the prices paid are not established by the market.
Investors hope to buy them to get a good return on their investment but have to act quickly to obtain copies. Both are told to strike fast or miss out because there is a race to buy these books. The problem is that unless these books’ covers become iconic, they may not have long-term viability. Bernie Madoff made his investors feel the same way.
The biggest reason comic book investors and collectors should avoid paying high prices for these books came in a court filing. Frankie’s Comics LLC was a former brick-and-mortar store in North Carolina that went strictly online. This retailer specializes in variant comics. This company recently filed for bankruptcy protection under chapter 11. A copy of some of the court’s docket that is accessible to the public can be seen here.
A store that specialized in variant covers filing for bankruptcy is not a good sign to people paying high prices for these types of books. The rationale is if a store has gone deeply into debt selling these books, the viability of these books being worth the high prices to individuals should be called into question.
The problem with variants is that, in order to hit on a few books, you have to cast a wide net. Many books might not end up hitting. A low success rate can tie up capital. This is not a good strategy for companies, collectors, and investors in today’s economy.
Collectors and investors are cutting back their spending because of the world’s economy. Modern variant covers are one area that is seeing downward trends when you talk to collectors. Many collectors have stated that, with certain keys now within their reach, they have greatly cut back, if not completely eliminated, variant purchases. The view on the street is that it is much safer for collectors and investors to target proven books rather than dip their toes in the modern comic book variant market.
Investors who target variants can not target only one book. Variants are introduced with many versions and finding the one that will be successful might be costly. This may have been the same type of problem that Frankie’s Comics experienced. Capital expenditures to find the right books were high with low rates of success. A business cannot survive spending a lot for few sales and neither can an individual.
Spending a lot for books that are dropping is not a viable option for many. Finally, the long-term interest of many variants wanes over time. Prices drop because collectors and investors move on to different books.
Not all Variants are Bad
Variant comics do exist that were not created to be collectible. Marvel and DC Comics introduced many comic books in the Bronze Age that were trial balloons for price increases. These books were sold in select regions to see how a price increase would impact buyer tendencies. Canadian variants also exist for some books when publishers tried to offset the difference between the two countries’ currency exchange rates. They were not introduced to be collectible. Instead, they were created as a market research tool. People search for these books because of their rarity and for the historical significance of these copies.
One of the best examples of this is Iron Fist #14 (35 cent variant). This book is a key because it has the first appearance of Sabretooth. Only 67 TOTAL graded copies exist at the time this article was written. A 7.0 is the most recent copy that was sold on 4/8/22 for $6,500. In comparison, the most recent 7.0 Iron Fist #14 regular edition sold at a Hake’s auction for $267 on 1/18/23. Both are keys, but one is much rarer than the other. Imagine then what will happen if the 9.6 variants of these issues ever come to market.
Did I do that…
A variant comic can also be created by accident. Defects at the printer or art images that are later intentionally altered by publishers also can create a variant edition. These variants were not intended to be collectible, but some collectors view these editions as more desirable than the normal editions. Scarcity is one attractive feature of these editions. Another is the cache. Imagine a hidden erotic image buried in the artist’s work that passes through the editorial team without them noticing. These examples of comic book history are highly valuable to some in the marketplace.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #4 (Misprint Variant) is a nice example of an editorial mistake. This edition was sent to the printer with the wrong cover. A total of 178 graded copies exist at the time of this writing. On 1/16/23 a 9.8 copy sold at Heritage Auctions for $2,880. In comparison, a regular copy in this grade sold on 10/31/22 for $1,996.
Both of these books are second prints but the variant edition of these second prints is more sought after by collectors. The irony is that both versions sell for more than the regular first print of the book.
The Hot Artist Hype Factor
Many books are introduced with variants by hot artists. The important thing to remember is that an artist may be “hot” today but forgotten tomorrow. The whims of the market change as time passes. Many comic book sites hype a recently-released book and how successful it is on the secondary market. Even fewer evaluate the artist’s work. Rarely do these sites look at these editions long-term. These sites spread FOMO.
Buying a book only because it is “hot” is not a way to collect or invest. The cover’s composition and quality matter. Jack Kirby covers have been in demand for decades. Collectors still realize that some of his covers are better than others. People want those books and the result is higher prices for the more iconic covers. Hype sites never consider this with new “hot” variant covers. Collectors paying top dollar for a book that could drop in the future eliminates cash reserves for buying other books. Investors may have great short-term gains but the risk for those payoffs will be very high. FOMO causes people to not fully evaluate decisions because the time to process information is decreased.
So Now What
Variant covers have been a part of the marketplace for decades. These editions will not go away. The long-term existence of variants does not make all versions equal. Many additional factors need to be evaluated to separate fact from fiction. Some variants are desirable because rarity makes them more attractive than other editions. Other variants have cache with very short life spans.
Collectors and investors that evaluate the key attributes of a variant edition will be better equipped to purchase quality variants while avoiding the hyped-up editions. The key is to ask the question that many fail to ask when buying a variant copy…Why is this variant special?
What’s your opinion on variants? Let us know in the comments!
*Any perceived investment advice is that of the freelance blogger and does not represent advice on behalf of GoCollect.
Comic dealers, pros or amateurs, are the only people who make money on variants as they offload quickly for maximum FOMO effect, unless there is potential for a certain cover to be tucked away middle term…Collectors generally know the ‘right’ variants to collect and hold. Usually luck plays a part. If you are only buying a comic with an ‘alternative cover’ to sell, then you are really just a flipper to make money. There are so many good variants to hold long term as long as you do not overpay or go above your budget. But expect to hold….Take for instance Dr Strange 11 Adam Hughes variant i believe was a 1:50. I collect harder to find Hughes covers and have done so for over 10 years. Not to sell but for the collection. It is fun to go digging and find overlooked covers at low prices. You can sometimes find examples from most eras overlooked be it variant or standard cover. Just keep your expectations low. buy cheap or slabbed at your price and watch the market over the years. If you can, read the stories from the comic or trades for comic runs. You will find lots of clues from overlooked storylines, links and underused characters to build a collection on…..It’s not so bad then if you get a few bad years where the comic collection values drop down the plughole…..
As always great comments. What gets me is that there are sites that only focus on variants has the hot comics. They have then on there one week and are gone the next. The comment of keeping your expectation low though is the perfect way to view new variants. I love certain artists but the prices they go for because of speculators makes it problematic for me. Rather buy keys then take the risk.
Joseph your comments are correct. Yes, variant store only web sites are a bit nonsensical but they are a business and there to make money. Here today gone tomorrow. So be it. …Keys, first appearances usually from older eras are always desirable but expensive. But it depends how you hunt for books. If online, you can choose what you are looking for at any given time. If however you only search at physical stores you can only pick what is available. Many variants (alternative covers) are forgotten about short term.So you can usually pick up a potential book you have been after at cover price in the hope it will become desirable. There is usually criteria on a book i am after. Long term potential (in my mind not others). interesting storyline event (writer), desirable cover artist and/or great cover.For moderns and copper only a nice high grade (raw only) and print run estimate. Older eras, bronze and silver, a nice considered grade (no mould or brittle) with good cover, price (cheap). . If i can justify 2 or possibly 3 of the agenda i will consider buying that particular comic… Plenty of my local stores hide their key silver age comics (usually in very poor condition) and only make available to their top end clients who wish to spend many hundreds of dollars at any given time. I am not one of them.You can always see someone wandering in flashing their cash around and asking to see the shop owners key issues, as they don’t seem to know themselves. Money talks. These flippers only want to sell at profit quickly. Perhaps due to the current climate we are in…
Great comments as always. There are ways to get better situated variants but most do not put in the time and instead run to what someone says is hot or buys them all. If a store could not make it selling books that had more money than most buyers do, how can a person like you or me? And I hate when stores hide their stuff…put it out there…you are there to sell books…years ago one store would hide their books so people stopped going there and then all of a sudden a cash crunch hit and they needed quick sales. Guess what, NO ONE WENT THERE. Hiding books is like not placing your most popular thing on a menu at a restaurant. Make sales!!!
It is helpful to read a well worded piece on this topic. Variants perplex me, I’ve had some luck but usually I buy just for personal taste. It seems to be driving the market now though and I fear another bubble. My only criticism would be that a single variant-only site filing bankruptcy isn’t a strong indicator of the market in my opinion, it could just be poor management.