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Variants, trade dress, virgin variants, Oh! My! – the complete guide to rare comic book variant covers and hard-to-find action figure collectable chase editions.

Wolverine 145 Nabisco Mail Away Wraparound Variant by Bill Sienkiewicz

Comic book lingo like variant covers, trade dress, exclusives, and virgin variants have a unique meaning in the pop culture collectible world. For those just getting into collectibles, it can be confusing. Below is a deep dive into the pop culture collectible lingo, specifically as it relates to comic books (most of the terms apply to other pop culture collectibles too). Below we will discuss and provide examples for the following:


Exclusives are collectible items that may only be purchased from a specific retailer. For instance, Walmart may offer an exclusive Funko Pop figure that can only be purchased at a Walmart store. These exclusive items are a type of variant (discussed below).

Below is an Exclusive Variant Guardians of the Galaxy #12 that was offered only by Funko. Note the Funko trade dress on the cover.

Guardians of the Galaxy #12 Funko Exclusive Variant
Guardians of the Galaxy #12 Funko Exclusive Variant


Variants are slightly different from the regular shipping item. For instance, variant toys may differ slightly in color or come in different packaging. With collectibles such as figurines, a variant may be as subtle as a different colored piece of clothing or an alternative prop held in the figurine’s hand.

Variant comic books may have different covers than the original comic book (while the content inside remains the same). Variant covers may use artwork created by different artists than the artist that created the regular cover or they may use alternative covers that were rejected as the final cover. Variants create a level of choice and collectability.

Below is the first modern marketed comic book variant – Man of Steel #1 published in 1986. The comic book cover on the left is the variant. It featured a closeup of Superman’s “S” logo.

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Man of Steel #1 1986

Note that a variant can fall into more than one category. For instance, a comic book variant could be a Exclusive Variant if sold only at a specific retailer or a Convention Variant if sold only at a comic book convention. They can even be all types of variants at the same time (see below).

Exclusive Variants or Retailer Exclusives

An exclusive variant is a variant that can only be purchased from a specific retailer. It’s a combination of the two characteristics we discussed above (exclusive + variant). Exclusive variants are typically only offered to big retailers who order large amounts of the product. The variant aspect of the product makes them collectible but the large quantities can diminish their value. It’s a balancing game the collector must be aware of and consider when making a purchase.

A Exclusive Variant may be stamped with “RE” on the cover indicating “Retailer Exclusive”. The retailer’s name may be included on or inside the comic book cover too.

Below is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #102 stamped with a “RE” variant designation. This Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Retailer Exclusive comic was only sold at Big Lick Comic-Con. It is considered “exclusive” because it was only sold at a comic book convention and a “variant” because the cover sold at the convention differed from the regular cover that wrapped the comic book sold in stores.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #102 Big Lick Comic-Con Retailer Exclusive Variant
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #102 Big Lick Comic-Con Retailer Exclusive Variant

Convention Variants

Convention Variants are variants that are distributed only at comic book conventions. It is a type of exclusive variant. Usually the variant has low production numbers (e.g. limited to 1,000 pieces) to make it more collectible. The box or cover will almost always be labelled with the logo of the comic book convention.

The Ducktales #1 cover below is a Convention Variant distributed at San Diego Comic Con in 2011.

Ducktales #1 2011 - San Diego Comic Con convention variant
Ducktales #1 2011 – San Diego Comic Con convention variant

Newsstand Variants

Unknown to many, covers for comic books sold at comic book shops, called Direct Editions, differ from the covers of comics sold in newstands, book stores, grocery stores, etc. Newsstand Variants are often more valuable than Direct Editions sold at comic book shops. Comic books sold in newsstands tend to be haphazardly stocked and well worn from shoppers thumbing through issues. Newsstand comic books tend to have smaller print runs than Direct Editions. Thus a good Newsstand Variant comic book is hard to find.

Identifying Newsstand Variants is easy. Older Newsstand Variants will have UPC codes on the cover. Direct Editions do not have a UPC code in order to present a cleaner cover image. Today, both Direct Editions and Newsstands Variants feature barcodes and use the words “Newsstand” or “Direct Edition” on the cover to note the difference. Newsstand Editions tend to cost $1 more than Direct Editions (another reason to support your local comic book shop!).

Compare the comic book covers below. The comic book cover on the left (newsstand variant) is identical to the one on the right (direct edition) except for the inclusion of the UPC code.

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Newsstand variant (left) compared to Direct Edition (right).

Sketch variants

Sketch covers are another type of variant and depict exactly what it says – a sketch of the actual cover. This lets readers see the pencil art or ink work process used to create the final cover. In the example below, the sketch cover variant is on the right.

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Sketch Variant vs. Regular Comic Book Cover

Print Edition or Reprint Variants sometimes occur when an additional printing is ordered. This lets publishers differentiate the print editions while adding to the collectability of all editions. Reprints typically have different trade dressing and often feature completely different cover art. Reprints are common in Toy Variants too.

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Print Edition Variant vs. Regular Comic Book Cover

Gimmick variants

Gimmick variant covers are covers created with unusual properties such as embossed covers, foil covers, and glow-in-the-dark covers. They are often expensive and some collectors consider them opportunistic.

A good example of a Gimmick Variant is the Protectors comic book below. The variant contained a hole that passed through every page of the comic. The “Forcebeam Hole” was integrated into each of the panels in the story.

Protectors Bullet Hole CoverProtectors Bullet Hole Cover 1
Gimmick Variant vs. Regular Comic Book Cover

Blank cover variants

An unusual type of comic book variant is a blank cover. Blank cover variants have no artwork and instead, present a blank, cardstock cover that can be used for custom, one-of-a-kind artwork. Collectors often use these to obtain original artwork from popular artists as shows and conventions.

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Incentive Variants

Incentive Variants are offered to comic book shops to incentivize their purchase of additional copies. For instance, a comic book shop may be offered exclusive cover work for a comic book cover if they purchase at least 25 copies of the comic book. Or they retailer may be offered one variant cover for every 10 issues purchased (a 1:10 Incentive Variant ratio). Some of the more common Incentive ratios are 1:5, 1:10, 1:25, 1:50 and 1:100.

Of course, the higher the Incentive Variant ratio, the more collectible the comic book will become. You can use the count of the full print run and divide by the incentive number (e.g. “100” in a 1:100 ratio) to get a rough estimate of how many variants will be produced. For example, a print run of 100,000 copies with a 1:100 variant will create around 1,000 variant copies (100,000 / 100).

Incentive Variants are very profitable for comic book shops since they may be sold at a much higher price than the product with a regular cover. Thus, they are more profitable for the publisher too.

Publishers in the past have offered ingenious incentives to retailers. For instance, publishers have been known to require comic book shops rip the cover from a competitor comic book (making the comic book unsaleable) and send in to receive Incentive Variant offers. Yes, the comic book world can be vicious.

The covers of Incentive Variants may be clearly marked as variants with labels such as “Variant” or “Variant Edition”. Sometimes a Incentive Variant is marked as “RI” for “Retailer Variant”. Sometimes they may not be marked at all.

The cover below contains a “RI” marking on the upper left. This is a incentive variant comic book.

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The value of the Incentive Variant can be estimated using the variant ratio. For instance, a $1 comic book variant with a 1:25 variant ratio should be worth $25. If you find an offer for less, it is a good deal.

Party Variants

Party Variants are a subcategory of Incentive Variants. A publisher may offer a retailer a Incentive Variant as part of a new comic book rollout allowing the retailer to become a part of the “party”.

Ghost or Phantom Variants

Exclusive variants may be offered as Ghost Variants or Phantom Variants. These are exclusive variant products that are offered with no prior notification. Collectors (and retailers) will not know a Ghost Variant exists until a day or two before they hit the shelves.

Below is a Ghost Variant cover of Saga Chapter Seven.

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Ghost Variant cover of Saga Chapter Seven

Store Variants

Store Variants are a type of Exclusive Variant. Stores may commission a publisher to create a unique variant to be sold exclusively at their store. This are typically only seen at big retailers.

DVD Variants

DVD Variants are variants used to promote a DVD, Blu-Ray, or digital movie release. The cover often looks identical to the original except for the phrase “Not for Resale” somewhere on the cover. DVD Variants also tend to be printed on cheaper quality paper than the regular printing.

Trade Dress Variants

Trade Dress refers to the trademarks for a specific brand. They are a form of intellectual property and may include logos or even font styles related to a publisher. A Trade Dress Variant may drop all trade dress on the cover. Or a Trade Dress Variant may be created by offering a variant as an exclusive and including the Trade Dress of the retailer on the product (instead of, or in addition to the publisher’s trade dress).

Notice the lack of trade dress on the trade dress variant issue below (right side).

Trade Dress Variant vs. Regular Comic Book Cover

Price Variants

Price Variant covers are difficult to spot – not many people pay attention to the price difference between comic books. However, when publishers increase the prices of their product, they often release test runs into the market to see if the higher price will impact sales. The location where these higher priced products are released is selected by the company according to their market research. Thus finding a Price Variant comic book is difficult.

There have been several notable Price Variant runs.

30 Cent Variants

From April to August 1976, Marvel tested a price increase from 25 cents to 30 cents. Six markets were tested and the price box in test markets was typically illustrated with a starburst shape printed in a different color.

35 Cent Variants

From June through October 1977, Marvel tested a price jump to 35 cents from 30 cents. The test took place in six markets. Unlike the 30 Cent Variant, Marvel kept the price box style the same on the 35 Cent Variant making it nearly indistinguishable from the regular 30 cent comic books. 35 Cent Variants are extremely rare, some selling for thousands of dollars.

75 Cent Variants (Canadian Price Variants / Canadian Newsstand Price Variants / Canadian Edition)

Between 1982 and 1986 when the exchange rate between the United States and Canada grew abnormally large, both Marvel and DC introduced 75 Cent Variants for Canadian markets. The display of the price differed between Direct Editions (sold in comic book shops) and Newsstand Editions (sold in stores). Comic books sold in comic book stores featured prices for each country on the cover – US 60 cents, UK 25 pence, and Canada 75 cents. However, Newsstand Variants did not follow the same format and instead, only printed a single country’s price on the cover – Canadian comic books were printed with just the 75 cent price and no country specification.

95 Cent Variants

Between February 1986 and April 1986, Marvel and DC printed 95 Cent Variants for the Canadian Newsstand Editions.

Error or Recalled Variants

Error or Recalled Variants are variants that were not purposely created. They may contain a flaw or misprint that was not discovered before the product was released to the public. This category also includes products that may have been recalled due to public outcry (typically over something the public considers offensive). The public outcry leads to a recall and products that have already been purchased increase greatly in value.

For example, Action Comics #869 was recalled almost as soon as it hit the stands. The original cover featured Clark Kent holding what appeared to be a beer (DC says it is a root beer drink). The cover was changed to a bottle clearly labelled “soda pop”.

Action Comics Vol 1 869 Recalled Cover 2Action Comics 869 1

Mail Away Variants

Mail Away Variants are extremely hard to find and often very valuable. Mail Away variants are often sent in response to a customer coupon. For example, Nabisco ran a Mail Away Variant campaign for Wolverine. A UPC code from the product could be mailed in to receive the variant.

Wolverine 145 Nabisco Mail Away Wraparound Variant by Bill Sienkiewicz
Wolverine #145 Nabisco Mail-Away Variant December 1999

Mail Away Variants are particularly valuable if in good condition. Often the company knows little about packaging and mailing comic books or pop culture collectibles and thus, damage to the product is quite common. A Mail Away Variant in excellent condition is a treasured find.

Foreign Variants

Foreign Variants are products that were created in the USA or Canada, then translated and distributed to other countries. For example, Incredible Hulk #181 is highly sought in the German language and is specifically known as the “German Variant.”

The Incredible Hulk #181 German Variant 1974

Virgin Variants

Some comic book variants may include a cover with no Trade Dress leaving only the cover artwork. This is referred to as a Virgin Variant and features the same cover as the regular production run without the Trade Dress components.

Action Comics 1000 Virgin Exclusive Variant Graphic Novel 2316543b 1024x1024

Mark Jeweler Variants

Mark Jeweler Variants are an unusual variant and extremely valuable. From August 1972 through July 1986, Mark Jeweler placed four-page jewelry advertisements in the middle of about 692 different Marvel and DC titles. It is estimated that about 5% of a title’s print had the advertisement inserts.

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Whitman Variants

For a time, Western Publishing was allowed to re-print comic books for sale at department stores and other non-traditional outlets. These comics were printed under the brand “Whitman” and sold in bagged sets. They were cheaper for retailers to purchase but unlike newsstand comics, comic books that did not sell were non-refundable. Whitman printed bagged sets for D.C. and Treasury comics for Marvel and D.C. The Whitman Variants are easily distinguishable by the Whitman logo on the cover (top, right in the illustration below).

DC Comics Presents Vol.3 22 Whitman Variant

How to obtain variants

Variants are offered in a wide variety of ways. In some instances, variants are randomly inserted in the production run. More often, they are offered to retailers as incentive to purchase more product. For instance, a comic book store may be offered an Incentive Variant cover for every 10 issues they purchase. For items like comic books that can be purchased by monthly subscriptions, variants may be offered to subscribers as a reward for their loyalty. Resale of variants occurs on auction websites such as EBay.

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