Multiple covers around the same printed comic pages. They are a little piece of hell that comic readers and collectors either tolerate or celebrate depending on the how’s and why’s of your comic buying habit. There are a number of trains of thought about the benefits or lack thereof.
They do allow, under the best of circumstances, for publishers, creators and retailers to put a few extra badly needed dollars in their pockets.
First, a quick caveat before I start assigning blame. As the publisher at Malibu Comics, I absolutely employed this marketing gimmick a number of times to “encourage” sales on behalf of the company and the creators who would also benefit from additional sales. Guilty as charged.
If I have my history correct (and please feel free to correct me if you feel it is necessary), the first time this “technique” was employed in comics was 1989 with the release of Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #1. The decision to put the multiple covers on this book almost assuredly came during some kind of meeting between Bob Wayne and Bruce Bristow at DC Comics. But I don’t blame them.
If you look at it under a slightly skewed kaleidoscope (like I do), Frank Miller is to blame. Yeah, that’s right, you read that correctly, I blame Frank Miller … well sort of. How is that possible? He didn’t write it or draw it. He didn’t even do the cover art. Let me explain.
The circumstances were these. Legends of the Dark Knight was a Batman concept book. The idea was to get top-notch creative teams to create four-issue story arcs on a new continuing series that wasn’t tied tightly to regular Batman continuity. This would free creators to tell a wider variety of stories and also lend themselves to replicate the success of Frank Miller’s run on Batman #404-407, (better known as Batman: Year One) which became a super successful trade paperback in 1988.
That doesn’t seem like a novel idea today, but this was 20 years ago (or more depending on where you start counting).
So picture it: Bob Wayne and Bruce Bristow (who were in charge of sales and marketing at DC Comics at the time) are looking at the advance orders from comic distributors for Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #1 … and the orders are very, very good. You would think that that this would make them very happy (and it did I guess), but Bob and Bruce had a problem. We’ll get back to the problem shortly, but you have to understand what they understood.
More than two years earlier, Frank Miller had produced Dark Knight Returns for DC Comics to extraordinary success, both critically and at the cash register. Everyone made a lot of money and the fans were both happy and excited. Retailers were delighted (or as delighted as retailers ever get).
The fly in the ointment was Frank Miller’s Ronin that DC had published in 1983-1984. Miller had gone from “one of the guys” at Marvel to superstar with his exceptional work on Daredevil. He was the talk of every fan magazine. The prices on back issues of Miller’s Daredevil had skyrocketed due to retailers not anticipating the fanatical response from readers. And the fans were right, the Daredevil work was truly inspired. So when DC and Miller decided to do Ronin, retailers were anxious to capture lightning in a bottle … again. So given the chance, retailers anticipated rabid fan response and ordered very large quantities of Ronin.
So even though Ronin sold very, very well by any reasonable standard, many retailers had ordered too many and were left with unsold copies. This loss of potential income was a serious problem for under-capitalized retail outlets and this stress was felt both at the retail level and in the halls of DC Comics’ sales and marketing department.
So Bristow and Wayne had a problem on their hands. From their point of view (and I’m speculating of course, because I wasn’t actually there) the retailers had drastically over-ordered Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #1. Retailers had ordered this new title as if it might be Miller’s Dark Knight Returns or Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One. But this new title was written by Denis O’Neil and drawn by Ed Hannigan. Retailers seemed to have forgotten the lessons learned from Miller’s Ronin, but Bristow and Wayne had not.
What was a sales and marketing executive to do? They had to honor the retailers orders or face certain chaos in the system. They also didn’t want to be seen as responsible for publishing a book that went unsold in huge quantities even if the actual sales volume was quite good. Retailers losing money wasn’t good for anyone.
Time was short. No time to create new cover art. The printer was ready to go. And the orders were far too high. The plan was ingenious and I believe that Wayne and Bristow deserver a lot of credit for their plan. Put four different colored covers on the book (with art that could be produced by the DC Comics production department) and a certain percentage of the comic buying public would buy each one to keep their collection complete. DC gets to ship the huge amount ordered and retailers had a decent shot at selling most (if not all) of the copies.
So multiple covers on comics was a plan created with the best of intentions and the industry has had to live with the ramifications for the last 19 years.
That’s my version of the story behind the story. And please, if you see or talk to him, please extend my apologies to Frank Miller for shamelessly dragging him into it.