When it’s time to blame someone, go for anyone who isn’t a straight white man. At least, that’s what Marvel did with its statement about how “diverse” characters are driving down their comics sales. According to an Entertainment Weekly report, Marvel’s vice president of sales David Gabriel said: “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.”
Based on our own research, he’s right: it’s definitely not true. At all.
But it’s not only gender diversity that’s to blame. Gabriel also points the finger at racial diversity for a real one-two punch: “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. That was difficult for us because we had a lot of fresh, new, exciting ideas that we were trying to get out and nothing new really worked.”
It’s true that Marvel comics haven’t been selling so well in comparison to other publishers; in February 2017, only two of the ten highest-selling monthly comics were Marvel titles. And Marvel has been introducing and reviving numerous “diverse” characters—that is, non-straight-white-male characters—in an attempt to appear less dedicated to preserving the status quo. Right now, Sam Wilson has taken up the shield and name of Captain America, placing a black male hero in the role of one of Marvel’s most emblematic characters. Similarly, who could forget Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American Muslim girl and the new Ms. Marvel? Or the queer Asian-American heroine Cindy Moon, the latest introduction to the Spider-verse? Or Ta-Nehisi Coates/Brian Stelfreeze’s Black Panther and its Roxane Gay-penned spin-off, World of Wakanda?
That’s a lot of change in a relatively short amount of time, so the reason Marvel isn’t selling as many comics as before—assuming that’s a correct assessment—must be those darn diverse characters. Any fan can accept trans-dimensional travel or shape-shifters from outer space, but the idea that women or people of color can also be good at fighting is a (rainbow) bridge too far, right?
Apparently not. Comic Book Resources has crunched some numbers and found that The Mighty Thor, starring Jane Foster as the Goddess of Thunder, is Marvel’s second-highest selling superhero title; likewise, Invincible Iron Man, which stars a black teenage girl, ranks among Marvel’s top 10 bestsellers. Under Ta-Nehisi Coates’s authorship, Black Panther became the top-selling comic of 2016. Not just the top seller among Marvel comics, but the top seller, period. Maybe it isn’t diversity that’s the problem.
But if diversity isn’t to blame, what is? Part of the answer is that Marvel fails at actually putting principles of diverse representation into practice. While heroes who don’t fit the straight white male mold are in greater supply than they were in previous years, most Marvel creators are still white men. This leads to issues such as characters of color whose attitudes towards race come from white authors, which does not sit well with many readers.
The Silver Surfer speaks for a lot of us here.
When Brian Michael Bendis writes Miles Morales as being upset with a fan who mentions his black heritage, or when Nick Spencer has Sam Wilson apologize to Steve Rogers for any activism-fueled anger he may have displayed in the past, it comes off as tone-deaf and leaves readers understandably less than thrilled. The same comic features multiethnic villains who are parodies of the “Social Justice Warrior” stereotype, who shout phrases like “You should be an ally, not helping to defend oppression culture!” and “Consider this your trigger warning!” as they throw grenades at Sam. (Spencer later jumped into a critical Twitter thread by Blerds Online to explain why he was in the right, which didn’t help.)
Let’s also remember SHIELD #8 (2015), written by Mark Waid, where a black woman viewing her young son’s corpse remarks, “He was no angel“—the same phrase used to vindicate Michael Brown’s murder.
Hiring more creators of color, more female creators, more queer creators, and really any creators who bring experiences from outside the current bubble to their work would help Marvel to avoid such egregious mistakes in the future. Diversity extends to the people behind the scenes as well as those on the page.
Side note: even if Marvel does do all this, there will be some comics that don’t sell and have to be canceled as a result, because the comics market can be cruel. In the event of a “diverse” comic getting canceled, Marvel needs to look at the specific places where that comic fell short (art, storytelling, marketing, premise, etc.) rather than simply resorting to the tired “diversity doesn’t sell” excuse. After all, Marvel’s canceled its share of comics featuring white male heroes and never made a public statement about how straight Caucasian men don’t sell. The company has to stop blaming difference and start figuring out how to do difference right.
It also doesn’t help that Marvel is unwilling to consider how other initiatives (namely big crossovers and continuity reboots) can do much more than the presence of a female and/or non-white hero to turn readers away. At the moment, Marvel is gearing up for Secret Empire, yet another major event that will presumably Change Everything Forever. But wasn’t it only yesterday that Tony and Carol Danvers were squaring off in Civil War II?
Launching this summer, Secret Empire is a nine-issue miniseries focusing on Hydra infiltrating the ranks of Marvel’s most powerful superbeings, led by Hydra agent Steve Rogers. (Kind of like the Skrulls in 2008’s Secret Invasion, except this time with Earth-based fascism.) As is standard for big company-wide events, numerous Marvel titles will tie into the main Secret Empire miniseries, meaning that fans will once again have to spend serious cash to find out what’s going on. Problem being? Many readers don’t want to invest that kind of time or money in something that’ll just get wiped out of continuity a few months later. Plus, a recent cover solicit featuring Magneto—a Jewish character who lost his family in the Holocaust—as a Hydra agent isn’t doing much to win readers’ hearts or wallets, either. This is what readers are sick of: not diversity, but Marvel sticking to the same old formula and rejecting the very factors that could turn it around.
What else could Marvel do to shake things up? Which underrated women, characters of color, and/or LGBTQ characters should get their time in the spotlight? Let us know in the comments!