<i>Mars Attacks</i>, and the invasion of the variant covers

This week IDW Publishing released the first issue of its Mars Attacks series, and, like so many comics these days, the book was being promoted with variant covers. Unlike many comics these days, however, the number of variant covers accompanying this particular issue was mind-bogglingly large: 55.

That's not a typo, and you're not suffering from double vision. There are actually 55 variant covers for Mars Attacks #1.

Which makes this as good a time as any to take a few moments to consider the variant cover in general. So, variant covers — threat, menace, the work of the devil or the absolute worst things ever? (I’m sorry, "none of the above" is not an option. Please select one of the four options.)

When it comes to moving comic books in the direct market, variant covers must work or publishers wouldn’t employ the strategy with such frequency. But the way variants seem to work — enticing comic shops to order more issues of a particular book than they might otherwise do so that they can get the variant covers, many of which are only attainable to shops that meet a certain buying threshold — does overall damage to the industry, in my own generally ill-informed opinion. And, I think, does some small amount of damage to the medium. (Go ahead and click "Continue Reading"; I'll get to a review of Mars Attacks #1 eventually, I swear)

Essentially, the existence of variant covers treat comic books — brand-new, hot-off-the-presses comic books — as collectibles, and thus make the business of buying and selling comic books that of a collectibles business. But shouldn’t the comics industry be focused instead on the business of publishing high-quality (or at least highly entertaining) content? Are today’s comic book companies publishing comics to be read and enjoyed, or are they manufacturing things to be collected, speculated upon and later re-sold?

Sure, one of the greatest booms in American comic book sales came when the industry was oriented toward collecting rather than reading, but that didn’t end so well for most of the folks involved, did it?

Now, publishers can certainly seek to meet the needs of those two different audiences simultaneously, but it’s a fine line to walk, and chasing the collectors’ dollars doesn’t seem like a great long-term strategy for selling comic books, as readers who buy comics out of speculation or as an investment will inevitably be disappointed, and that disappointment can be a pretty strong motivating factor in eventually saying to hell with comics and finding something else to do with one’s leisure time and money.

As a reader and consumer, I find that variant covers tend to ward me off of  buying a particular issue of a particular comic book, rather than entice me  to do so (which isn’t to suggest that I am the typical or representative consumer and reader of comic books; I’m just one who can type faster than most). In cases where a book is published with two or more covers that are both great pieces of art, and thus I find myself  unable to choose between them, I’m more likely to give the series a pass in comic book form and just wait for the trade — the variant covers are almost always all in the trade collections.

That said, IDW’s Mars Attacks and its 55 (55!) different covers isn’t as completely insane and nihilistic as it might be if it were pretty much any other comic book.

The thought that maybe it was publishing strategy as metaphor did cross my mind — you know, copies of Mars Attacks are invading the comics racks just like the Martians are invading Earth — but the fact is that this is a comic book series based on collectible cards from 1962 (which spawned a 1996 movie, and a mid-'90s comic book series from Topps). Mars Attacks being sold as a collectible more so than a piece of literature or entertainment is as natural as if IDW were publishing Baseball Cards: The Comic Book.

And as for how the publisher arrived at that particular number of variants, it’s actually fairly clever: That’s how many cards were in the original set, and each variant cover for Mars Attacks reproduces the image from one of the original cards by Len Brown, Woody Gelman, Wally Wood, Bob Powell and Norman Saunders (but bearing Wood's original inspiration and general sense of design).

So, in effect, you can collect the original series by buying 55 copies of Mars Attacks #1, if you were diligent, rich and insane. Although IDW’s actually made it easy for those who want to do that — rather than asking you to spend the $220 and God knows how many hours and trips to various shops it would take to track down all 55 covers of the $4 book, the company also put together a $200 "Mars Attacks #1 complete box set," which includes all 55 #1s and a bonus 56th cover in a collectible box.

I don’t know that the circumstance or context of this publishing decision ameliorates any potential damage to the market and the medium that variant covers in general do, but then, it is just one drop in the bucket — even if it’s a much bigger, more interesting drop than all the others — and all those variants certainly makes sense in a more direct, easy to understand way than a lot of other variant cover strategies don’t.

Now, as someone who has just stated that I think comics should be purchased to be read and enjoyed rather than collected and sold, I’d be remiss if I spent this whole post talking about the variants themselves and ignoring what’s under those covers in Mars Attacks #1.

It’s actually pretty good comics. It’s not terribly ambitious stuff, and there’s nothing that will surprise anyone picking up a comic book titled Mars Attacks with a  little green skeletal-faced, bug-eyed alien with a ray gun on the cover. It doesn’t transcend its cheesy origins or the confines of its genre. But it does what it does well, clearing its modest hurdles with grace and charm.

It’s written by John Layman, of the hit Image series Chew, and drawn by John McCrea, the artist who co-created DC’s Hitman with Garth Ennis.

Our hero, or at least point-of-view character, is one of the Martians, distinguished from his identical peers by a scar. He and his crew crash-land on Earth, and he quickly meets with a variety of unpleasant experiences at the hands of a variety of unpleasant characters. Two good old boys knock him out, kidnap him and sell him to a freak show. The carny who bought him abuses him, and then frames him for murder. Well-armed, gun-toting locals kill his friends.

By the time we see an armada of flying saucers spinning sideways toward Earth, it’s not hard to be rooting for the little green men. Based on the Earthlings we see in this first issue, Earth has it coming.

McCrea does a fine job with the peculiar designs of the Martians, even managing to wring some different emotions out of faces that weren’t really made to emote. His style is well-suited to a book like this, given his ability to strike a balance between cartoony and representational art, funny and serious, and to modulate within a fairly elastic range, depending on the needs of a scene.

I look forward to seeing more of McCrea’s work on the series, although I’ll probably wait for the trade. That’s  more likely to contain all the variant covers, after all.

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