A practice used by a print publisher, particularly in the Western comic book market, to increase sales by giving collectors incentive to buy more than one copy of a book upon release. How? By making more than one "variant" of the book to "collect", of course. Take note that this isn't a matter of "it's a different edition or different printing, and therefore a different cover" - the whole point is this is exactly the same edition, released at the same time and with identical inside contents, with literally the only difference being the cover design.
Alongside whatever the "main" cover is, the "Variant Cover" is usually likewise announced in advance as part of the promotion for the book. The Variant Cover is sometimes, though not by necessity, printed in smaller numbers than the book's "main" cover and may be distributed to only certain venues, so as to increase the rarity or even provide incentive to buy from those locations. A common sub-type of this distribution model includes a limited-run Variant Cover that is only available from a specific convention, or from dedicated Comic Book Shops, or even specific comic book shops, if they have enough pull with the publisher.
A particularly controversial type of Variant Cover is the "retailer-incentive" cover. These are only supplied to comics retailers if the retailer commits to purchase a certain number of (non-returnable) copies of a specific issue, in ratios of 1:25, 1:50, or even worse. The hope here is that retailers will buy more copies of the issue than they can usually sell, in the hope of selling the incentive variant copy at inflated price. Sometimes retailer-incentive covers even require the retailer to purchase a completely different comic from the same publisher, or place a large order across the whole line.
Most commonly there is only one Variant Cover for a particular printing of a book, but with some books upwards of three different Variant Covers might exist; in these cases, sometimes the inside of the book will list them all and display thumbnails of the Variant Covers, alongside notes about where to find any venue-specific Variants. This functions as a convenient menu to choose your preferred cover from...or as a checklist to help snag them all, if you're devoted enough to actually want all five different versions of the issue.
Common styles of Variant Cover design for comics include:
- Normal full-color cover: Exactly the same kind of cover you'd normally find on the book, except it's just a different (often wildly different) picture. Usually done by a different artist than the one who does the "main" cover or the inside illustrations. This is the most common type of Variant Cover, and the one both DC and Dark Horse utilize the most in recent years (in contrast to the 1990s, which had more exotic styles with fancy add-ons being fairly common). About as cheap to produce as the "main" cover, which is probably why it's so prolific.
- "Sketch"-style black and white cover: The picture on the cover is a reproduction of the original pencils or inks of a drawing, rather than a full-color version of the image. May or may not be the same basic image (color excepted) as the "main" cover, or an early draft of the "main" cover's image. These have been done on occasion to commemorate the passing of a popular artist, by featuring multiple versions of one of their pieces, though it is by no means exclusive to that situation and can be done simply for aesthetic reasons as well. Apparently a lot of people enjoy this style of Variant, as several of the most valuable Modern Age comics have wound up being Sketch Variant covers of notable issues, including Uncanny X-Men #500, the first "New 52" era Batman issue, and Issue #100 of The Walking Dead.
- Parody or novelty covers: A less-serious Variant Cover than normal, this is more about the humor value or novelty than about printing an alternate-but-serious artwork on the front of the book. Marvel has done a whole slew of these featuring their resident absurdist character Deadpool popping into other characters' covers, for example, while others have been parody mock-ups of other types of magazines, such as a Variant Cover from the run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8 featuring the character Harmony, who had recently become a celebrity and made vampires chic in American society; the Variant Cover for the issue was done up like an in-universe Cosmo-type magazine, complete with mentions of beauty tips, discussion of the hip new vampire trend, and a promise of an interview with the character.
- Line-wide "theme" covers: many or all the comics published by a single company in a particular month have a theme variant cover, which may involve a specific guest character (who rarely appears as an actual cross-over inside the comic), a specific artist, or some kind of design or cultural theme such as Marvel's "hip-hop album cover Shout-Out" covers.
- Covers featuring special effects: Something extra unusual and "special" has been added to the design instead of just making it a different picture. May include holographic or "lenticular" effects (an issue of Harley Quinn did this for instance, allowing it to switch between two images to comedic effect), or metallic foil to make shiny or reflective bits, or unusual textures, or scratch-and-sniff spots...you get the idea. Was fairly common in the 1990s, but rarer in the 2000s, probably due to the cost of producing them.
- Mostly-blank covers: A relatively recent trend, these feature only the bare-bones logos and information (price, issue number, company and title, etc.), with a large white space. These are intended to be brought to artists at conventions and signings so that they can sketch you an original picture for the cover. Rarely seen outside of actual comic shops, since these in particular are for hardcore collectors and fans devoted enough actually go out of their way to meet the artist, but they're more common than you'd think, at least at conventions and shops that do a lot of events with artists.
Variant Covers began hitting popularity with major Western comics publishers like DC Comics and Marvel Comics in the early 1990s. The "overuse" of Variant Covers, particularly expensive "special effects" laden covers, was so common by the mid-1990s that it's often cited as one of the contributing factors to The Great Comics Crash of 1996. The industry did manage to find a happy middle ground later, though, as evidenced by the fact that Variant Covers are still extremely common practice decades later, with the Big Two being particularly persistent in producing them - though other companies, notably Dark Horse Comics, have engaged in this as well, especially for popular titles such as the aforementioned Buffy Season 8 (which had a Variant Cover for every issue of the initial release).
The practice is still most common in the comic book industry (if only because of the sheer number of comic books published each year and the popularity of comics with collectors, which encourages the practice), but other formats have used it as well, including magazines like TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly, which sometimes have a Variant Cover specifically for home subscribers, or might produce multiple Variant Covers as part of a special event such as a film release.
Contributes to Crack Is Cheaper situations, especially when it's a somehow notable cover or work, which as noted above can result in a item that may sell for hundreds if not thousands of dollars to collectors, even if non-Variant Cover editions of that item would otherwise come nowhere close to that price.
Compare and Contrast: Related double-dip-purchase-inducing tropes Limited Special Collector's Ultimate Edition, in which there is actual extra content or bonuses inside the release and not just a special difference in packaging, and One Game for the Price of Two, where the full experience for the completionist might require buying two "versions" which are released simultaneously.
- Avatar Press publish multiple cover variants for almost every comic they produce. One distinctive feature is that each title will have its own unique series of themed variants, such as "fighter plane Nose Art" for War Stories, "in-universe propaganda posters" for Über, and "torture" for Crossed.
- Boom! Studios produces a very large number of variant covers for its comics, often exclusive to specific retailers.
- Dark Horse Comics:
- The canonical Buffy and Angel continuations have these for every issue. Common artists for these covers include Phil Noto (known for surreal and detailed covers heavy on symbolism) and Jo Chen (known for her borderline photo-realistic covers with striking resemblances to the original actors in the TV series). Most of these Variant Covers have been "serious" in tone and merely "Normal full-color cover" examples of this trope, but as noted above, there's at least one "parody" type example too.
- Two of the company's Serenity miniseries present an interesting case: the first one, 2005's Those Left Behind, which is supposed to bridge the gap between Firefly and The Movie, capitalized on the fact that the series had exactly nine protagonists while the comic had exactly three issues - the former of which you might notice is evenly divisible by the latter. It did this by having various artists contribute to a series of individual character portraits, with each issue having exactly three Variant Covers, each featuring a different character. The second miniseries, Better Days, however, was explicitly noted by its creators as "reversing the gag" from that first series, by making the three issues have only one cover apiece, each featuring three characters...but to top it off, the three covers themselves formed a triptych. Meaning the first miniseries played the trope utterly straight to the extent of featuring nine cover images for a 3-issue series, while the second utterly inverted it to the extent that an entire 3-issue series technically only had "one" cover image. The art used for the latter, coincidentally, was done by Adam Hughes, one of the artists who contributed to the Variant Covers for Those Left Behind.
- DC Comics:
- DC recognized that some people have become cynical of there being "excessive" numbers of Variant Covers for comics, so in the line-wide relaunch kicked off with DC Rebirth they indicated they were going to tone down their use of the practice by only making their titles have one Variant Cover for each issue. But since every single DC title will still have a Variant Cover for every single issue, this still meant fans would find a lot of Variant Covers on the shelves of their Local Comic Book Shop each week, particularly with a number of titles shipping twice-monthly.
- Harley Quinn had a particularly notable example during the New 52: one of the issues had the option of buying a "lenticular" holographic cover that would switch between two drastically different images featuring Harley and the Joker (one with an idealized romantic scene and one with the two of them trying to kill each other)
- During the "Death of the Family" arc, DC did an entire set of themed Variant Covers for multiple titles, which all featured The Joker. Considering the Joker's oft-teased Medium Awareness this sounds like a fun idea, right? Sure, and for the most part, this would be an unremarkable example of "novelty" Variant Covers...except that, unfortunately, one of the resulting covers, specifically for Batgirl, was so disturbing that there was a huge backlash from fans, ultimately causing the cover to be pulled. Oops.
- Marvel Comics:
- As stated above, Marvel Comics not only commonly features Variant Covers on their comics but even had a whole event where Deadpool showed up in other people's Variant Covers.
- In another example of a Variant Cover attracting unanticipated controversy, the first issue of Spider-Woman had a now-infamous one by Milo Manara, which featured the title character in such an awkward and shamelessly sexual pose (seriously, it's been compared to "a cat in heat", and not unreasonably), that it immediately attracted scorn, as well as loads of parodies and deconstructions digging into it for everything from the shameless fan service of the image to the improbable anatomy and the sheer silliness of the pose. Some of these were actually done by Manara's own peers in the industry. The thing became such an infamous meme that Frank Cho was still doing pastiches of the cover with different female characters years later, mostly satirizing the public reaction itself (e.g. having the character in question mutter that she was hoping to "boost sales to her book"). Such are the rules of Memetic Mutation that this controversy translated into permanent in-universe notoriety. In 2016 Spider-Woman met a Skrull teenager (i.e. someone from a different species and galaxy) who immediately identified her as "That Avenger ... the one with the butt."
- The Unbelievable Gwenpool is a comic that owes its entire existence to a variant cover. A set of variants for different titles depicted Composite Characters of Spider-Gwen with other characters. One, showing her in a pink and white "girly" version of Deadpool's costume, became so instantly popular with fans that a character with that appearance was actually created, although in-universe she has no direct connection to either Spider-Gwen or Deadpool.
- TV Guide has made use of this before more than once. As one example, sometimes the magazines for their home subscribers will have a different cover than those for newsstand editions. This mirrors the "venue-specific-availability" comic book Variant Covers mentioned in the introduction, as it's not uncommon for publishers like DC Comics to have the "main" cover version available in normal bookstore newsstands but have Variant Covers available only through specialty shops and/or subscription.
- Entertainment Weekly has done this on occasion as well, usually themed around different characters in a franchise that's got a cover story that week.
- Demon Hunter sometimes releases multiple covers for their albums, with a single artist doing variations on a theme. For The Triptych, fans could pick between a design with snakes, crows, or spiders. The World Is a Thorn featured a towering cathedral on the cover: in one version it's a gray, man-made structure; in the other it's brown and appears to have grown out of a mountain. And on True Defiance, fans could choose between... a red background and a grey-green one.