You have no idea how much better I'll sleep tonight knowing that Chris Butcher is out there to protect me from myself. God bless you, good sir!
Snark aside, I actually don't have any particular reason to doubt Butcher (or Tom Spurgeon) that variant covers are bad for the industry as a whole, long term. But of course this begs the question of why publishers put them out and retailers order them, given that variants are destructive; what incentives are in place that make it rational for publishers and retailers to eat their young? The whole "because they're dumb (or Evil)" explanation seems unsatisfying. There has to be something more to this. Which is my segue into half baked, mostly uninformed speculation. Feel free to grab a donut on your way out the door.
So. Why do companies staffed by smart people do dumb things like bring back variant covers? In the case of Marvel or DC, I half suspect corporate politics might be to blame. I would imagine that the publishing arm of Marvel, especially, feels somewhat under the gun these days. Ari is clearly running the show, and he clearly sees Marvel not as a publishing house but as a licensing stable. The copyrights and trademarks making up this stable can be kept alive without month to month publishing; a toy or a pair of underwear is just as good at maintaining the intellectual property as is a monthly comic. At some point, I would expect that someone--one of the outsiders, likely--would question why Marvel is even in the publishing game. Which means that Dan Buckley and the others in Marvel's publishing wing have a real big incentive to gin up short term sales; this way they can show that their side of the business is growing, or at least not shedding readers. Sales spikes buy them time. It makes the publishing wing appear more viable. And anyway, why worry about the long term? From a corporate perspective--or rather, from the perspective of those who make decisions for the corporation--things look awfully Keynesian; hey, in the long run, we're all dead. Or retired and living in Vail. Either way, keep profits up, keep sales up, keep the publishing branch limping along until retirement. After that, it's someone elses problem.
That makes a certain amount of sense to me. Other hypothetical reasons would include milking a dying direct market for all it is worth to better fund a cut over to a bookstore model, but I'm not up enough on the economics of the situation to know if this would make sense or not.
Or, Marvel could figure that Oni and Fanta and Tokyopop are doing the hard work of growing the market, and that Marvel can piggyback on their efforts; if the market is going to grow even if Marvel does nothing, and if this will lead to more Marvel customers, maybe it makes sense to free-ride and make all the short term profit they can? Again, the economics may cut against this argument. Just thinking out loud here. In any event, I could, given time, think of some reasons why Big Comics would find it rational to go for the short term profit pump rather than looking out for the long term growth of the industry.
What makes less sense to me is why retailers are jumping on the variant bandwagon. At the end of the day, Joe Comicstore has more to lose than Time/Warner. Are store owners so beholden to the fan mentality that they like stocking variants? Is there some sort of perverse prestige in being big enough to collect 'em all? Are margins so small that most shops need the hardcore fanboy to come in and buy ten copies? I can't for the life of my imagine why a store owner would shoot himself in the foot by encouraging variants. And yet they do. Someone, please, help me out here. I mean, I know why fanboys like variants (that answer is easy, though disturbing), I can sort of see why publishers might like variants, but I can't for the life of my figure out why retailers would expose themselves to the risks that variants entail.
My Christmas wish is to be less ignorant. And some books. And a pony.