Ever since Dreamwave started it with Transformers in 2008 – and then IDW revived it with Godzilla, the idea of the retailer-exclusive cover has become a significant part of the American direct market experience. Comic book retailers order a hundred times more copies of a comic than they would have ever considered doing, in return for a comic book cover that is exclusive to them. Then, they can use it as a calling card, an advert, a collectible — a reward for longstanding customers.
But as well as retailers, we have seen comic conventions, subscription boxes, and other events commission their own exclusive covers. And of late, we have also seen comic book creators do the same, buying thousands of copies of a comic with their own art on the cover and selling them — often signed — at a premium, directly to the collector.
Prominent examples include J. Scott Campbell, John Tyler Christopher, Art Adams, Rob Liefeld and recently Sean Gordon Murphy. Bleeding Cool has been happy to cover their existence — and will continue to do so.
But some people are really angry about this.
I have spoken to some longstanding comic book retailers with a concern that this is very bad for the comic book market indeed, described to me as “a gaping black hole that sucks money in and returns nothing to the health of the comic market.” And that it does nothing for Marvel than to inflate print runs for one issue of a comic — they get to sell another 10,000 copies, but it only adds greater costs to the publisher with each exclusive cover they add.
However, when retailers, subscription boxes and comic cons do so, it supports the comic book market or creates opportunity for people to sample the comic books in question.
But for creator-sold exclusives, the theory is that this only targets existing collectors — people already buying comics — without providing revenue for retailers in the process. And the only comic book creators who can mount such an operation are those who already have a strong fan following willing to spend over the odds on such a comic, rather than several new comic books off the stand.
And it can add up to a significant sum. A recent offering by J. Scott Campbell may have brought in around $300,000 to the creator from an outlay of around $20,000 — plus shipping and handling, of course. Unlike other exclusive cover vendors, he won’t even have to pay the artist — because he is the artist. But that’s $300,000 that now wouldn’t be spent in comic book stores.
But the argument goes that this is $300,000 from comic book buyers that wouldn’t have been spent in comic book stores.
The choices are also targeted, such as allowing John Tyler Christopher to create a Boba Fett action figure cover for Star Wars for his own exclusive cover variant sold in his own store. And this was the most desirable cover — one that could have helped a lucky retailer make rent that year.
Add all the artists doing this over a number of covers, and that is millions going to Marvel and DC Comics that is not going through the usual retailer system, and doesn’t have the benefit of increasing sampling or the frontline of direct market sales at a time when they might need it more than ever.
When you look at those Diamond figures every month, how much of that actually went through a comic book store? And like the likes of more recent Loot Crate exclusive covers, how much is no longer going through comic stores as a result?
Now, the industry has had a long history of exploiting comic creators. This allows some with the business noise and the fan popularity to match, the chance to make a tidy sum for once. Right now it’s just a handful of creators, but what about when Frank Cho, Adam Hughes, Stanley Lau, Emanuela Lupacchino, Bill Sienkiewicz, Joshua Middleton, Stjepan Sejic, Jock, Amanda Conner, and others decide that actually they’d like to do the same?
It’s a concern that has been expressed. Is it one that you share? Whose side are you (potentially) on? And is anyone reading the comic books inside these exclusive covers anymore?
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