We need to talk about Marvel.
As most people who read this site probably know, I am a gigantic Marvel fan. But I, and many other fans, have had some serious issues with the publisher that came to a head this past week.
If you missed it, David Gabriel, Marvel’s vice president of sales, blamed the “diversity” of Marvel comics for the slump in comic book sales that the company has seen in the past year.
“What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity,” Gabriel said at Marvel’s retailer summit last week. “They didn’t want female characters out there.”
Gabriel went on to say that people were turning up their noses at the diverse characters and books that Marvel has been offering. His comments made a lot of people angry including fans, critics and even some of the creators in Marvel’s roster such as G. Willow Wilson, who is behind the amazing Ms. Marvel series starring Kamala Khan.
He eventually walked back his comments by pointing out the popularity of Ms. Marvel, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur and other books, but the damage was done. Gabriel played into the fears of the overwhelmingly white, straight male fandom of comics that diversity doesn’t matter and left those of us not in that box angry at the state of our industry.
Over the past few years, Marvel has done a lot in terms of expanding its lineup of characters. Including the above titles, Sam Wilson, formerly known as The Falcon, took over the mantle of Captain America, Riri Williams took over the Iron Man mantle, and Miles Morales burst into the mainstream universe as Spider-Man. While many of these stories are still being written by white straight men, it’s a small step in the right direction for representing the real world.
But Gabriel is right, Marvel’s sales have slumped. According to Comichron, Marvel only had two books in the top 10 best selling list for February 2017 and both of those were Star Wars titles. Of the Big Two, DC is outselling Marvel left and right, even as the comic industry has dipped in terms of total number of books shipped monthly.
Diversity in stories and characters, however, has little to do with Marvel losing sales.
Compared to other publishers, Marvel publishes the most expensive books in the business. Single issues at DC stand at $2.99, while indie publishers will price issues anywhere starting from $1.99. Marvel’s single issues start at $3.99 and annual issues and oversized books will generally start at $4.99.
This price point is a lot of money to ask of both new and old readers. Personally, I have spent upwards of $20 a week on books from Marvel (and a hell of lot more in total), which can become unmanageable to sustain over long periods of time especially when you’re invested in multiple books.
Marvel and DC also have the added burden of the ridiculous amounts of crossover events on which they are constantly spending large amounts to promote. Not only do they have larger events across the entire line of books such as last summer’s Civil War II, but the publishers run smaller crossover events throughout the year such as the series X-Men vs. Inhumans, which just wrapped up in February.
Marvel is notorious for using these crossover events to relaunch entire lineups of books. Secret Wars served as the starting point for “All-New, All-Different” Marvel, but it was also a major cash cow in that it wiped out all the running titles Marvel had and forced readers to become invested in new ones that only lasted for a few months before the vicious cycle started all over again.
Marvel has done a number of these “relaunches” over the years from Marvel Now all the way up to All-New, All-Different and beyond. The constant churning of comic book titles and “fresh starts” that the company has done within the past few years causes new readers to feel intimidated and old readers to get bored and eventually drop Marvel titles in favor of other publishers.
Accessibility remains a major obstacle. The changing of titles and lineups aside, the diverse audiences that the newer books bring in can feel intimidated and unsafe due to the rampant issues of racism, sexism and homophobia that plague the fandom both in digital forums and in brick-and-mortar comic book stores. Many people in the fandom have been known to lambast changes to heroes and stories they deem as being unnecessary and will be quick to attack the “politically correct” audience.
These issues have come to a head in the past months as the company gears up for its next giant crossover Secret Empire. This event will be the climax of the “Steve Rogers is secretly working for H.Y.D.R.A.” storyline that has thrown the Marvel fandom into turmoil.
Not only is it another giant event that will sideline stories people are invested in, but the controversy of having a character that was created by two Jewish artists to embody American idealism in a time of international strife work for a Nazi-affiliated organization doesn’t bode well for Marvel.
This story line coupled with the vitriolic debates that have surrounded it is a major turn-off for new and old readers alike. Marvel is sitting in the middle of a storm of its own making.
Diversity in comics is not a bad thing. Having creators of different backgrounds opens the doors to new and exciting stories from different perspectives. These creators can bring a breath of life into the medium and entice readers into seeing the world in a new light. They also bring in new audiences that hadn’t seen themselves represented in comics before. Before G. Willow Wilson, there was no teenage, Muslim Ms. Marvel and since Kamala Khan graced her first issue, she’s become one of the most popular characters in the Marvel roster. Marvel will always have a special place in my heart. I’ll still be throwing reviews of America, Hawkeye and the upcoming Ice-Man at you. But the publisher has a lot of shaping up to do if they want to stay in our hearts and hopefully embracing diverse stories that reflect our changing world will remain one of the main tenets of Marvel.