It would be easy for someone browsing their local comic shop's shelves to get confused these days.

Take this week, for example. At first glance, it appears Marvel is releasing seven different “Captain America” comics and four for its new “Superior Iron Man” title. DC isn’t far behind with three versions each of “Batman” and “Batgirl.”

But they aren’t different stories being churned out. Only the covers are different. In industry terms, they are variants.

Variants come in a lot of flavors. Most of them are simply other artists’ renditions of cover art. Love artist Alex Ross’ illustrations? Pick up “All New Captain America” #1, Ross variant. More of a Sara Pichelli fan? Grab the Pichelli variant. Skottie Young has practically made a career out of his superheroes as little kids variants.

But variants don’t end with different artists and their interpretations. Many of them are themed, like DC’s recent selfie covers or its Halloween-themed monster variants. Some support a cause, like Marvel’s stomp out bullying series. While others, like Rocket and Groot, are purely promotional.

Variants Pack a Fiscal Wallop

The intent here is pretty clear – any TRUE collector needs ALL of these variants to keep her collection complete. But the sheer economics alone make it a daunting task. Even if the retailer sold variants at their cover price – usually around $4 – buying this week’s “Captain America” comic would cost $28.

Again, keep in mind the story is the same. It’s just the cover that’s different.

But of course, the retailers aren’t charging cover price. They can’t because of the way the publishers distribute the more rare versions. For example, a publisher may allow a retailer to buy a special variant for every 50 or 100 copies of the main cover. With that kind of required investment, just to purchase a single variant, you can’t expect the retailer to charge the cover price. And many smaller comic shops don’t even sell close to that many of a standard issue, so their customers are out of luck.

Economics aside, does the variant cover gimmick work? I’m tempted to say that it must be working, otherwise the publishers wouldn’t keep cramming them down our throats. It’s certainly not leading to better storytelling. And it has a lot of pundits concerned the market can’t sustain the gimmick much longer.

But these covers do create an undeniable emotional reaction. It’s a variant. It’s special. It’s different than that same ol’ book that everyone else has. I know when I’m at a larger shop in Manhattan or a convention and see unique covers, I want to snap them up.

Until I see the price tag, that is.

DID YOU KNOW: This year an edition of Superman’s first official appearance in “Action Comics: #1 sold for $3.2 million.

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Tom Smithyman is a newspaperman turned marketing executive. A comic book enthusiast since the ’70s, he tries to keep up with these alternate realities while juggling a professional career, family, community theater roles and passion for travel. Connect with him on Twitter @tsmithyman andlinkedin.com/in/tomsmithyman/