As retailers push back on Marvel variants, is it covering up a bigger problem?

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Marvel Legacy starts a bridge between the old and new as fans speculate that the fall event could mean some older characters reclaim their mantles from the Marvel NOW! initiative characters. Legacy is the upcoming Marvel event that will kick off with Marvel Legacy #1 with a total of 53 different titles starting new storylines, new titles or being renumbered, connecting the past with the present. That’s made longtime comic book fans thrilled at the prospect of seeing some of their titles revert back to familiarity, but there’s one problem -- those gosh-darn variants.

Comic shop retailers have had it with the restrictions on Marvel Comics’ Legacy incentive covers.  Each first issue will sport a number of variants, including a lenticular Legacy treatment that shows a modern-day cover that’s also an homage to one of Marvel’s classic cover of the past. It’s these lenticular covers that are causing the problem with retailers everywhere who feel the incentive restrictions are too costly to get those specific variants in stock. Here’s how it breaks down:

Retailers must order double what they normally bring in to qualify for the lenticular covers at 200 percent of their orders. If your shop normally stocks 20 copies of Thor, that retailer must bring in 40 copies to meet the minimum to qualify. The retailer can then order the amount of lenticular variants on top of that. So if a retailer needs to bring 20 variants into his or her store for their loyal customer base, and they normally sell 20 copies, they’ll need to order 60 copies minimum just to do so. 

A shop could just refuse to participate in bringing in the covers, which some have done, but lenticular covers have historically been very popular with fans. DC Comics recently did it with “The Button” storyline. If the price is the same, and fans have a choice between a regular and a lenticular cover, they’re going to want the lenticular.

Now, incentive variants are nothing new; oftentimes they are based on meeting a minimum requirement. For example, a retailer could get one rare variant for every 10 copies they order of the normal cover. There are 1:25 and 1:50 chase variants, which are super rare, but those chase variants don’t have a set price. 

The lenticular covers, priced equally as the standard cover, are going to be in high demand. In the end, these variants usually help push a publisher to get a chunk of the market share. But rarely has a publisher forced to over two or three times their usual number, just to qualify for a chance to bring the cover in that the mass majority will desire. Also, Marvel is capping the retailer discount on the lenticular covers to 50 percent, which some stores carry as high as 59 percent. That may not seem like much to the end buyer, but for retailers that extra 5 to 9 percent adds up, especially when you’re covering 53 titles. Factor in subscriber discounts that are offered at some stores, which cut into any profits that would be made. Retailers are in a tough bind.

Personally, I’ve long outgrown the need to chase down variants. Having spent time behind the counter, I know how difficult they are for retailers to bring in and how much more they need to spend and move copies in order to keep a handful of completist customers or the random curious satisfied. Retailers cross their fingers that they can move the extra books ordered or be stuck with inventory they can’t sell. That being said, people want what they will want, and I don't have a problem with fans chasing these variants down. Just don’t be surprised to see retailers marking up the lenticular covers and then later be blamed for doing so, unfairly. But this isn’t just a retailer problem. What is really the issue at hand? Marvel is looking for a quick fix for slumping sales, and they already tried to blame it on diversity. Now they want retailers to look like the bad guys?

Profit margins are slim for retailers, and an event like this could crush a small retailer over the course of several months who simply cannot afford to have 100-200 percent of 53 titles lying around, only to be left unsold. Think a retailer can just get lenticular covers for just Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Captain America, but not Falcon or Jessica Jones? Good luck with that.

A boost in sales built on variant cover craze is false security. Sure, they will flood the market with copies to boast numbers at the start, but what’s the fifth issue of Legacy storylines going to look like for all of these titles? The 10th? Will Legacy turn the tide needed to bring back longtime readers? Time will tell. DC Comics' Rebirth initiative shared the same skepticism, but so far that's proven to have righted the ship at DC.

Brian Hibbs of the Comix Experience stores in San Francisco has written about the numbers in great length in his August column of Tilting at the Windmills. The initial percentage needed to qualify for the Legacy books were as low as 125 percent, and ran as high as 250 percent to qualify for the lenticular covers. He also explains at great length that Marvel's lenticular restrictions don't add up for retailers who want to pay the bills and that Legacy could be less gratifying for fans hoping for an instant change back to the main Marvel heroes.

Since Hibbs has written about this and retailers have done their own math and complained, Marvel has adjusted its requirements on some titles, but some of the popular titles still require the 200 percent increase to qualify. It’s speculator poison again, and the industry hasn’t learned from the sins of the past when chromium, gatefold, die-cut hologram covers flooded the racks with little return on the investment. I lived through that as a customer and as someone who worked behind the counter in the late ’90s. Catering comics for the speculator is bad in the long run.  Here’s a taste of Hibb’s deja vu. 

“I wish I can remember who it was, but I remember talking to a retailer who told me they had built a literal chair out of the leftover copies of “Adventures of Superman #500” they had; with similar stories about just how many unsold and unsalable copies of “Turok” #1 were left over.  Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it, and while I’m hopefully we’ve wised up as a class to not fall down that same rabbit hole again, when I see Marvel’s August plans, added to DC’s August books with foil covers (three), Lenticulars (two) and even a glow-in-the-dark cover I think “Damn, we’re there again, where greed and glitz has overwhelmed common sense.”

“So they know how to sell a first issue – and these lenticular are going to sell to the national market like a house on fire because they are speculator-bait – but how do they sell a fourth issue? Marvel kind of sucks at that.”

Another problem with Legacy is that few titles are getting new creative teams and few are new titles, so unless these new stories are all home runs, this push to get retailers to make up for slumping sales with a mass incentive cover is just a temporary band-aid for Marvel’s bigger concerns. I'm not saying that the current crop of characters or creative teams are the problem at all. Diversity is definitely NOT the problem for me as a comics reader of nearly three decades.

But I do think having ALL of Marvel's major characters being switched out for younger, more contemporary characters at the same time is one valid reason why so many Marvel readers who have been around for decades are uninterested in today's crop of Marvel titles. Some who share that opinion include the bitter and angry old-school reader who will never be satisfied to have their comics unchanged. They'll never be happy. But it's fair to say that the current Marvel comics don't correspond with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is fine, but it can be confusing for the new reader.

Legacy is an attempt to gain some of those lost readers back, but the truth is, they need to find a way to bring most of them back and keep the new readers gained with the Marvel NOW! initiative. Maybe some new creative teams could help usher the Legacy storylines with some fresh eyes. Maybe finding a way for Legacy heroes and Marvel NOW! heroes to co-exist in a satisfying way is what's needed, ASAP.

Marvel has found a way to push the problem onto the retailer first, as customers will come in looking for an opportunity to get a lenticular cover, and if they don't, guess who looks like the bad guys? If Marvel wanted the help of the speculator to get them more market share, then mission accomplished, because on the eve of Legacy beginning, we’re talking about lenticular covers instead of what is happening in the pages between the covers. 

So sound off in the comments: Are you going to be chasing these lenticular covers? Do you gobble up every variant you can? Does this seem like deja vu of the variant age, or are we forever going to deal with variants? Does Legacy sound like a step in the right direction, or can you sniff out a good "cover-up" when you see one?

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