Let’s Talk About Marvel Comics, the “Diversity Doesn’t Sell” Myth, and What Diversity Really Means

A few days ago a discussion and subsequent interview with David Gabriel, Marvel Comics’ Senior VP of Sales and Marketing, at their retailer summit began making the rounds, but not for the reasons the publisher was hoping. Marvel has every reason to be concerned, as their share of the market has shrunk dramatically in the last few months. Figuring out the cause of that decrease is vital for Marvel’s survival—yet the answer they’ve come to isn’t just inaccurate, it’s also offensive.

Later, Gabriel gave another interview that, in part, rehashed that hoary old proverb that diversity doesn’t sell: “What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity. They didn’t want female characters out there. That’s what we heard, whether we believe that or not. I don’t know that that’s really true, but that’s what we saw in sales. We saw the sales of any character that was diverse, any character that was new, our female characters, anything that was not a core Marvel character, people were turning their nose up against.” And with that, comics Twitter was all a-tizzy.

The stated goal of the summit was “to hear directly from [retailers] on what they are encountering within the industry and how Marvel can work with them to make sure they know that we hear them.” This summit was only open to cherry-picked retailers and Marvel offered no means of communication to those not attending, all of which puts the whole event—and the assumptions being made as a result—into question. Although the conclusions drawn by the summit can’t be totally dismissed, they also shouldn’t be used as the foundation of a whole new business model, either. Unfortunately, though, Marvel doesn’t seem to agree.

Disregarding the sugarcoated PR update Marvel made praising diverse fan favorites, Gabriel’s comments are so patently false that, without even thinking about it, I could name a dozen current titles across mediums that instantly disprove his reasoning. With its $150 million and counting in domestic earnings, Get Out is now the highest grossing original screenplay by a debut writer/director in history; meanwhile, The Great Wall, Ghost in the Shell, Gods of Egypt, and nearly every other recent whitewashed Hollywood blockbuster has tanked. Even sticking strictly to comics, Black Panther #1 was Marvel’s highest selling solo comic of 2016. Before Civil War II, Marvel held seven of the top ten bestselling titles, three of which (Gwenpool, Black Panther, and Poe Dameron) were “diverse.” Take that, diversity naysayers.

No, the crux of the problem with Marvel’s sales isn’t diversity; the problem is Marvel itself.

 

Old Guard versus the New Wave

Comic book fans generally come in two flavors: the old school and the new. The hardcore traditionalist dudes (and they’re almost always white cishet men) are whinging in comic shops saying things like, “I don’t want you guys doing that stuff…One of my customers even said…he wants to get stories and doesn’t mind a message, but he doesn’t want to be beaten over the head with these things.” Then there are the modern geeks, the ones happy to take the classics alongside the contemporary and ready to welcome newbies into the fold. I’ve walked out of at least a dozen shops run by guys like that gatekeeping retailer, and yet I regularly commute across two counties just to spend my money at a shop that treats me like a person instead of a unicorn or fake geek girl (Hera help me, I hate that term). I should also point out that these old school fans aren’t even all that old school: until about the 1960s, when comics moved into specialty shops, women read comics as voraciously as men. Tradition has a very short term memory, it seems.

This gets to the point made by a woman retailer at the summit: “I think the mega question is, what customer do you want. Because your customer may be very different from my customer, and that’s the biggest problem in the industry is getting the balance of keeping the people who’ve been there for 40 years, and then getting new people in who have completely different ideas.” I’d argue there’s a customer between those extremes, one who follows beloved writers and artists across series and publishers and who places as much worth on who is telling the story as who the story is about. This is where I live, and there are plenty of other people here with me.

Blaming readers for not buying diverse comics despite the clamor for more is a false narrative. Many of the fans attracted to “diverse” titles are newbies and engage in comics very differently from longtime fans. For a variety of reasons, they tend to wait for the trades or buy digital issues rather than print. The latter is especially true for young adults who generally share digital (and yes, often pirated) issues. Yet the comics industry derives all of its value from how many print issues Diamond Distributors shipped to stores, not from how many issues, trades, or digital copies were actually purchased by readers. Every comics publisher is struggling to walk that customer-centric tightrope, but only Marvel is dumb enough to shoot themselves in the foot, then blame the rope for their fall.

 

Stifling the Talent

As mentioned earlier, it’s not just the characters comics fans follow around, but writers and artists, as well. Marvel doesn’t seem to think readers care all that much about artists versus writers, but I’ve picked up a ton of titles based on artwork alone that I wouldn’t normally read. Likewise, I’ve dropped or rejected series based on whether or not I like an artist. Even with the lure of Saladin Ahmed as writer, my interest in Black Bolt was strictly trade. The main reason I switched to wanting print issues? Christian Ward. Veronica Fish single-handedly kept me on issues after Fiona Staples left Archie, and her leaving is the main reason why I dropped down to trades. I’ll follow Brittney L. Williams wherever she goes, regardless of series or publisher.

So why then does Marvel think that “it’s harder to pop artists these days”? A lot of it has to do with the dearth of decent advertising (especially outside comics shops) and a lack of institutional support for those artists. Also, scattering artists from book to book before they can establish a presence on a title, turning creative feats into flashbang one-offs with little continuity, is a grave Marvel has dug for itself.

But we also have to talk about how publishers don’t let their artists talk freely about their projects. Social media contracts often make it impossible for creators to address audience concerns, as Gail Simone points out, and change the way they interact with their fans. The more the Big Two seek to control expression and discussion, both on the page and online, the more they drive creators to small presses, indie publishers, and self/web publishing. A tangential arm of this conversation is how craptacular the pay is for freelance comics creators and how publishers should be utterly ashamed of themselves. But that’s a topic for another day.

 

Oversaturation

There’s soooo much stuff. If longtime fans are drowning in options, think how newbies must feel staring at shelf after shelf after shelf of titles. CBR crunched the numbers and found that in a 16-month window from late 2015 to early 2017, Marvel launched 104 new superhero series. A quarter didn’t make it out of their second arc. How can anyone, especially new and/or broke readers, be expected to keep up with that? Moreover, with that many options on the table, it’s no wonder Marvel can’t establish a tentpole. They’ve diluted their own market.

At first blush, giving everyone what they want sounds good, but in practice it simply overwhelms. Right now there are two separate Captain America titles, one where Steve Rogers is a Hydra Nazi and one where Sam Wilson is an anti-SJW jerkwad. There are also two Spider-Mans, two Thors, and two Wolverines, one each for longtime fans and one for newer/diverse/casual fans. And the list goes on.

Adding a steady stream of events and crossovers isn’t helping matters. Event fatigue is a genuine problem, yet Marvel has two of ‘em lined up for 2017. Given the sales for Civil War II, I acknowledge that I’m in the smaller camp here, but I stopped buying all but my hardcore faves during that crossover event and will do the same again through Secret Empire and Generations, assuming they don’t get cancelled and relaunched. I’m not going to follow characters across half a dozen titles I don’t want to read when all I want is a good, self-contained story told by talented creators. Events often end up relaunching already strong-selling titles, sometimes with the previous team but oftentimes not, which forces the reader to decide whether to drop or keep. Given Marvel’s numbers, looks like most fans are opting to drop, and I can’t blame them.

 

Diversity versus Reality

When you look at the sales figures, the only way to claim diversity doesn’t sell is to have a skewed interpretation of “diversity.” Out of Marvel’s current twenty female-led series, four seriesAmerica, Ms. Marvel, Silk, and Moon Girl—star women of color, and only America has an openly queer lead character. Only America, Gamora, Hawkeye, Hulk, Ms. Marvel, and Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat! (cancelled), are written by women. That’s not exactly a bountiful harvest of diversity. Plenty of comics starring or written by cishet white men get the axe over low sales, but when diversity titles are cancelled people come crawling out of the woodwork to blame diverse readers for not buying a million issues. First, we are buying titles, just usually not by the issue. Second, why should we bear the full responsibility for keeping diverse titles afloat? Non-diverse/old school fans could stand to look up from their longboxes of straight white male superheroes and subscribe to Moon Girl. Allyship is meaningless without action.

“Diversity” as a concept is a useful tool, but it can’t be the goal or the final product. It assumes whiteness (and/or maleness and/or heteronormitivity) as the default and everything else as a deviation from that. This is why diversity initiatives so often end up being quantitative—focused on the number of “diverse” individualsrather than qualitative, committed to positive representation and active inclusion in all levels of creation and production. This kind of in-name-only diversity thinking is why Mayonnaise McWhitefeminism got cast as Major Motoko Kusanagi while actual Japanese person Rila Fukushima was used as nothing but a face mold for robot geishas.

Rather than getting hung up on diversity as a numbers game, we should be working toward inclusion and representation both on and off the page. True diversity is letting minority creators tell their own stories instead of having non-minorities creating a couple of minority characters to sprinkle in the background. It’s telling a story with characters that reflect the world. It’s accommodating for diverse backgrounds without reducing characters to stereotypes or tokens. It’s more than just acknowledging diversity in terms of race and gender/sexual identities but also disabilities, mental health, religion, and body shapes as well. It’s about building structures behind the scenes to make room for diverse creators. G. Willow Wilson said it best: “Diversity as a form of performative guilt doesn’t work. Let’s scrap the word diversity entirely and replace it with authenticity and realism. This is not a new world. This is *the world.*…It’s not “diversity” that draws those elusive untapped audiences, it’s *particularity.* This is a vital distinction nobody seems to make. This goes back to authenticity and realism.”

Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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