Banner Art by Humberto Ramos
So, those of us who are interested in comic books have heard about the statement made by David Gabriel, the Marvel Vice President of Sales, in an interview with ICv2 where he said, “What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity,” among other things that chaffed the readers a bit. He backpeddled on it the following day, but the statement was still out there. Plus, a candid, off-the-cuff response is always going to seem more genuine than a non-apology attempting to negate the original statement the following day now that you’ve had time to think about what you’ve said.
Now, there have already been plenty of think-pieces on the subject of Marvel’s very public push towards diversity in their characters. I’ve read many of them, and I will likely discuss them here as well. However, I think I can add to the conversation, so I want to have my input.
Firstly, I think Gabriel’s initial comment was a silly thing to say. The wide broadcasted love of characters like Ms. Marvel, Miles Morales, Squirrel Girl, and Moon Girl all contradict that statement. However, Marvel sales of the majority of Marvel comics have taken a hit, and their push towards diversity has been one of the most visible changes in the company in recent years. Note that I’m not saying that’s the only change, but it is the one that they have publicized the most.
Now, I am going to make some concessions in regards to my perception of the situation. Firstly, I have made it pretty clear that diversity in comic book heroes and villains is overall a good thing. I think inclusivity and not pretending that white males are the only types of people that exist in the world are good goals to strive towards. I wear these opinions on my sleeve, and I am going to link to my article about New Heroes for further expansion on my opinion on these matters.
I will also admit it’s been easy for me to exist in a bit of a bubble in regards to the reception of Marvel’s comics in recent years. I’m an at-best Z-List internet comic book critic with an as-of-yet non-vocal readership. I do talk to people about comic books, but they are few and most share my opinions on these matters for the most part. Those that I see who don’t are the screaming anons in Facebook comment sections upset that America Chavez exists.
It’s also worth admitting that I am the B-List Defender, and, for the most part, Iron Man and Thor being phased out did not affect me much. My favorite Marvel comics at the moment are Power Man and Iron Fist, the Thunderbolts, and the Ultimates. None of these are A-List teams or characters, so I haven’t had my reading habits impacted by Riri Williams taking over as Iron Heart. The “replacements” I have read are Sam Wilson: Captain America, another one of my favorite Marvel comic books currently being published, and All-New Wolverine, which I think is a solid and fun read. In other words, the Marvel collapse that some people speak of hasn’t really been visible for me.
To move onto the discussion at hand, I will admit to one drawback with Marvel’s strives towards diversifying their characters: they are often replacing a lot of their headliners. Where the introduction of Kamala Khan and Miles Morales went off fairly smoothly because no heroes were being taken out of commission for their inclusion, Steve Rogers was out of action then a Nazi when Sam was introduced, Thor Odinson was phased out of the picture when Jane Foster picked up Mjolnir, and Tony Stark is currently in a coma as Riri flies around as Iron Heart.
I’ve mentioned this before, but mainstream comic books exist in a weird space from a storytelling standpoint. They focus around characters that are often half a century old, and one of their appeals is that no matter how old you are or what is happening in the world, you can still pick up an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man and read about Peter Parker, the Amazing Spider-Man.
For those who love Steve Rogers as Captain America, the Odinson as Thor, and Tony Stark as Iron Man, I can understand the frustration with not being able to read about these characters right now (with the exception of the Nazi).
Now, if many vocal critics of Marvel’s diversity initiative were to focus on this idea, I would be able to sympathize more with them. However, a common conversation of the aforementioned screaming comment section anons is that Marvel is “pushing a PC agenda” and is “ruining comic books with diversity.” These people also like to sight Marvel’s slump in sales as some form of justification that their complaints are backed by the comic-buying public.
I’m sorry, but I’m not going to acknowledge these as genuine complaints. Having heroes that aren’t white males is not an agenda. It’s called being cogent to the varying racial, sexual, and religious makeup of your reader base. The only “agenda” being brought to the table is the one that these kinds of people have. A woman super hero is not an agenda. A Latina super heroine is not an agenda. A lesbian super heroine is not an agenda. If these people were to just be honest and say that they miss the Odinson and Tony Stark, I could accept and sympathize. However, they are trying to make it a matter of “right and wrong,” and, well, ironically I think being afraid of a shifting cultural makeup of super heroes is just plain wrong.
This also ignores how often indie titles that star a diverse cast of characters take off and garner a relatively smaller but dedicated following.
And, to play devil’s advocate to the idea of replacing super heroes to bring in a diverse cast of characters, that is one of the only ways to really sell these new heroes. John Stewart, James Rhodes, Carol Danvers, and Jaime Reyes only rose to popularity by replacing other established heroes. It doesn’t often work when a new character is made from whole cloth. For every America Chavez, there are five Arañas, Thunderbirds, Cardiacs, Night Thrashers, Patriots, Amethysts, etc. Hell, even Luke Cage was once considered a failed and dying character before Brian Michael Bendis put him back on the map with Alias and New Avengers. It’s easy to say that you want new characters, but, when you won’t support them, it ends with them being lost to the sands of time. Again though, I discussed this in my New Heroes article, so I will leave this conversation here and suggest you go read that full editorial.
Now that we’ve talked about the discussion around what Gabriel said, let’s talk about the actual statement. Is it true? In short, no not really. There are practices adjacent to the implementation of so many minority heroes that have hurt Marvel’s comic sales, but the minority characters themselves are not the ones hurting.
According to Comic Book Resources, who looked into recent sales statistics of Marvel Comics, the first major hit to the company’s sales happened in the shadow of 2015’s Secret Wars. The story, one of many huge crossover events that was also delayed, launched the All-New, All-Different Marvel initiative. This was the first major sales drop, with many series being relaunched at a much lower selling rate, from an average of 38,521 to 22,972 (again, CBR’s research being cited here).
After Secret Wars, Marvel started throwing a lot of series out to see what would take off. That’s not actually a bad strategy when you have a catalogue of thousands of characters, any one of which could turn into a sleeper hit. However, even this strategy they got squeamish about, as a fair number of these recent books were executed at issue four or five.
That being said, we find one idea here that is perplexing to me. If you are selling more series, wouldn’t you expect the sales numbers to spread across the series to some capacity. Much of the discussion here seems to be about the sales numbers of specific series, but Marvel is printing more books at this time than they have at any one moment in their lengthy history. I’d like to see how many sales they are making across the board as opposed to specific comic books. I suspect this might still show a somewhat healthy intake of proftis.
Back to which comics are selling; The Mighty Thor is actually Marvel’s second best-selling super hero book behind the Amazing Spider-Man at an average of 40,000 copies being shipped. This contradicts the many vocal complaints about there being a woman Thor, as her book is selling more than almost every other Marvel comic book at the moment.
Also according to CBR, many of Marvel’s worst-selling comics have been series like Foolkiller, Slapstick, Hyperion, Drax, and, Solo¸ all of which don’t really fall under the category of diverse (but Drax has green skin hahaha haven’t heard that joke before you’re so funny). Starbrand and Nightmask, Patsy Walker AKA Hellcat, Red Wolf, and Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur all have had weak sales too, but that is less than half of the worst selling Marvel comics since 2015, contradicting what Gabriel’s statement would have you believe.
As an addendum to that statement, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur sells incongruously well in trade paperbacks due to their being stocked at Scholastic Book Fairs.
So what do I think is hurting Marvel’s comic sales the most? If I had to be honest, the back-to-back crossovers that are punctuated with major status quo shifting initiatives are probably doing the job. All-New, All-Different Marvel barely had a year before it was replaced with Divided We Stand: Marvel NOW! or whatever it’s called. That’s to say nothing of the repeating Marvel NOW! iterations that existed before Secret Wars and the Heroic Age, Dark Reign, and the Initiative shifts which all came before that.
When you feel like your comic is going to either go away or be aggressively meddled with in only a couple of months, that makes it hard to stay as engaged with the series. It’s frustrating to me, and I know it has to be frustrating to many other people too.
The aforementioned initiatives also serve to show Marvel’s skittishness in regards to the status quo. They often change everything dramatically only to change things back the following year. The Heroic Age in particular was supposed to be a return to form for the Marvel Universe, and it was upturned in the following years by the first round of Marvel NOW! titles.
The upcoming Marvel slate of stories under the umbrella of Generations threatens to upturn All-New, All-Different Marvel by bringing back all the classic heroes. While I’m not opposed to the return of said classic heroes, I think it would be a massive crime to bury characters like Jane Foster as Thor and Riri Williams as Iron Heart, and it would hurt to see Sam Wilson return to just being the Falcon and Laura Kinney return to just being X-23. I think these characters are really interesting and have filled their current positions really well. I hope that is not the intention of Generations, but I suppose we will just have to wait and see.
That being said, I’m wondering if the slumping in sales of specific titles is missing the forest for the trees. Yeah, the top sellers aren’t selling as well, but how is the whole fleet doing? I’ve been having difficulty finding the numbers on that, but, if I track anything down, I’ll write it in a supplement to this article.
Here’s the curveball I’m going to throw you though: Marvel’s lacking comic book sales do not really matter much to the company. That hurts, I know. You have to remember though, they make movies, cartoons, television series, toys, video games, clothes, stickers, cards, board games, and all sorts of branded merchandising that pulls down more money than I could ever imagine.
This encourages a sort of apathy in the higher ups in the company in regards to their comic book division, because it is one relatively small cog in a massive behemoth of a machine.
As such, Marvel has recently been weird about engaging with their audience and communicating beyond the occasional fluff piece and solicitations about the next big story and the next big initiative. They don’t engage the public much, and that helps them avoid bad PR like the storm that Gabriel’s comments have stirred.
I’m going to talk more on this in the following weeks. As the title implies, this is only the first of such editorials that I’m going to write about Marvel Comics, because they and their employees have said a lot in the past week that are worth discussing. The back-and-forth between the company and its fans over the mega events are one topic, their general PR situation is another, Axel Alonso’s oddly out-of-touch comments about artists definitely needs to be tackled, and general perception of the big two and the nature of fandom is something that has been on my mind too. So expect more editorials like this one in the coming weeks.
Below are some links to the various articles that I read and researched in formulating this one. Comic Book Resources’ and “Moviebob” Chipman’s commentaries on the situation definitely added a lot to this article and helped spur me on to write it. I recommend you view both.
One last thing: Comics Alliance went down this last week. As someone who is running their own rickety comic review and analysis website, this is very sad news. They and others like them helped inspire me to start this website. It’s a shame, and I wish their writers and contributors good luck in their next endeavors.
And with that, we bring this to a close. See you soon, and keep reading comics!