Several months ago Bleeding Cool reported that Marvel Comics will shift its books away from politics and back to storytelling, action, and adventure. As I noted in my previous post about the change, Marvel’s sales took a hit in recent years. Their numbers are not low enough to result in bankruptcy, however, they are low enough to cause concern. The reason is that most of the books with low numbers are their newer titles. Many of these books feature so-called “diverse” characters. Despite Marvel’s active promotion of the books, the titles simply do not sell.
One person at Marvel has an explanation for this. ICv2 interview Marvel VP of Sales David Gabriel. Gabriel responded to several questions about the impact of the “diversity” initiative at Marvel:
Part of it, but I think also it seemed like tastes changed, because stuff you had been doing in the past wasn’t working the same way. Did you perceive that or are we misreading that?
No, I think so. I don’t know if those customers with the tastes that had been around for three years really supporting nearly anything that we would try, anything that we would attempt, any of the new characters we brought up, either they weren’t shopping in that time period, or maybe like you said their tastes have changed.
There was definitely a sort of nose-turning at the things that we had been doing successfully for the past three years, no longer viable. We saw that, and that’s what we had to react to. Yes, it’s all of that.
It is not a matter of people’s tastes changing. If it were, one would expect a greater audience, not the ever shrinking audience that the industry has seen in the past two decades. The problem here was that Marvel attempted to appeal to people who do not buy their product and are more interested in identity politics. The books that Gabriel claims were a success all saw dwindling numbers within a year of their release. Gabriel names several characters — Squirrel Girl, Ms. Marvel, The Mighty Thor, Spider-Gwen, Miles Morales, and Moon Girl — so let us look at the debut and current sales of their books:
- Ultimate Spider-man – Sept 2011 (87,237) / Feb 2017 (34,195)
- Ms. Marvel – Feb 2014 (50,286) / Feb 2017 (19,870)
- Mighty Thor – Oct 2014 (150,862) / Feb 2017 (40,175)
- Squirrel Girl – Jan 2015 (41,693) / Feb 2017 (11,898)
- Spider-Gwen – Feb 2015 (254,074) / Feb 2017 (29,168)
- Moon Girl – Nov 2015 (38,133) / Feb 2017 (8,440)
I listed the books in chronological order to make it easier to see how the numbers played out. Several of the books had massive debuts, yet also suffered some of the biggest losses. In order, Ultimate Spider-man lost 61% of its audience, Ms. Marvel lost 60%, Feminist Thor lost 70%, Squirrel Girl lost 70%, Spider-Gwen lost 89%, and Moon Girl lost 79%.
More recent titles suffered similar losses. Black Panther debuted with 253,259 in April 2016. As of February 2017 it sold 35,492. The book is almost a year old and it has lost 86% of its audience. Even the tie-in book Black Panther World of Wakanda written by feminist Roxanne Gay sold poorly. It debuted in November 2016 with 57,073. It now sits with only 17,454 sold in February 2017. Within four issues it lost 70% of its readers.
This is not a change in taste. Books normally do not experience this level of falling sales so quickly. Something else is causing this, and it it obvious if one knows anything about the listed books. Many of the books are drenched in progressive identity politics. Despite some of the books being written by talented writers, much of the dialogue is cringy Tumblr speak. This is not limited to the above mentioned books. The new Wasp and America books suffer from the same ridiculous writing, mediocre art, and absent story. The point of many of these books is not to tell interesting stories about new characters struggling to be superheroes, but to check off the “diversity” and “inclusivity” and “representation” boxes on the progressive checklist.
As such, the characters are bland, flawless sock-puppets for their authors to rant about their progressive agendas. Whatever story that might exist gets lost in the need to virtue signal to the progressive readers who ironically do not buy the books.
That is the biggest problem with this initiative. The very people Marvel sought to court do not appear to buy their books. Despite the marketing of the characters and the relentless mentioning of them in progressive circles, the numbers do not lie: it appears that the progressives who claim to want these characters so much are not willing to spend money to prove that. Even if one considered the digital sales (Marvel never releases the numbers), that would not explain why the classic versions of the characters sell better than their so-called “diverse” replacements that are “needed” despite no one asking for them.
The most logical conclusion to draw from this situation is that the audience Marvel wanted to bring to the books are simply not loyal enough to sustain a book. They will drop the title within a couple of issues, resulting in massive sales drops that rarely recover. When coupled with Marvel’s tendency to relaunch a book with a #1 for the sake of boosting sales, it is not surprising that the numbers are so low.
The stories are not interesting, the characters are generic, and the books are thick with politics.
Or Gabriel put it:
What we heard [from retailers] 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. 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.
No, it is not that people do not want female characters; it is that people do not want the overt politics in their comics.
Each one of these “diverse” characters could have worked if Marvel made them their own character with unique backgrounds. Instead, Marvel chose to demote the preferred characters and move their names to new, obvious token replacements. These tokens, by virtue of being representative of their respective groups, could have no actual flaws. They could not be arrogant, stupid, egotistical, absent-minded, selfish, aloof, or selfless to a fault. They could not possess any of the traits that made characters like Peter Parker, Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner, or Thor interesting and relatable.
Even when one hears the stories about kids relating to the “diverse” characters, it is never on a personal level. For example, Alex Alonso told ICv2 the following:
Alonso capped off the discussion on this topic with a personal anecdote. “I tell this story all the time,” he said. “My wife is Korean, and I’ve got a Korean nephew. This Korean-American kid couldn’t sleep at night. At 4:00 AM, he’s looking at the ceiling because he just found out the new Hulk is a Korean-American kid. He’s terrified he’s going to be the next Hulk. I had to get on the phone with him and tell him, ‘you’re OK. First of all, it’s not a curse, and second of all, there can only be one Hulk. But put down the phone and settle down for a minute. Just let it settle in for a second.’ This little kid suddenly identified with the Hulk in a way he never had before. He’d seen the Hulk before, he liked Hulk, he liked Captain America, but now, suddenly, he can actually imagine himself as the Hulk. I think that’s a cool little story.”
It is not a cool story because it probably did not happen. Yet let us assume that it did. What did this boy connect with? Did he connect with Amadeus Cho’s character? His personality? His intelligence? His hardships? No, he supposedly connected with the character solely based on his race. There is no depth to that connection at all.
That does not mean that there is anything wrong with liking characters that look like you. The problem is that this is literally all that is offered with these characters. The intent is to get someone to connect based only on race, sex, sexuality, and religion. So what happens when a reader is not Korean, black, Hispanic, female, gay, or Muslim? Who do they connect with? If readers are to connect based on the previous characteristics, then white, straight, Christian, and male readers can only connect with the original versions of those characters, most of whom have been killed, demoted, or turned into villains.
The interesting thing about characters like Steve Rogers and Peter Parker is that the appeal of the characters was never about their race, sex, or sexuality. It was about who those characters were as people. That is the connection that people made. That is the connection I made with characters like Batman. It is who they are and why they do what they do that makes them iconic and important. One cannot simply take that character’s name, slap it on another character, and expect that to work.
Gabriel backtracked the above statement after facing some backlash from progressives:
“Discussed candidly by some of the retailers at the summit, we heard that some were not happy with the false abandonment of the core Marvel heroes and, contrary to what some said about characters “not working,” the sticking factor and popularity for a majority of these new titles and characters like Squirrel Girl, Ms. Marvel, The Mighty Thor, Spider-Gwen, Miles Morales, and Moon Girl, continue to prove that our fans and retailers ARE excited about these new heroes. And let me be clear, our new heroes are not going anywhere! We are proud and excited to keep introducing unique characters that reflect new voices and new experiences into the Marvel Universe and pair them with our iconic heroes.
“We have also been hearing from stores that welcome and champion our new characters and titles and want more! They’ve invigorated their own customer base and helped them grow their stores because of it. So we’re getting both sides of the story and the only upcoming change we’re making is to ensure we don’t lose focus of our core heroes.”
Except the numbers show that these replacement characters are not all that popular, do not bring in that many new readers, and ultimately hurt the business because it over-politicizes it.
This is major problem because the comic book industry is slowly dying. This was bound to happen as other media such as film, anime, and video games took away potential readers. The industry did more to push this shift than prevent it, starting with focusing on proving that comic books could be for adults. While there is nothing wrong with proving that people can tell mature stories with comics, the impact was for many companies, particularly DC Comics and Marvel, to alter most of their titles to appeal to an adult audience. They shifted from the all-in-one comic format to the long-form, writing-for-the-trade format. This is commonly seen in manga, yet the American audience was unfamiliar with this, and shift eventually cost the industry readers.
At the same time this happened, manga and anime became popular among younger Gen X-ers and older Gen Y-ers, resulting in books and shows like Naruto and Bleach and Death Note receiving the audience the American comic industry abandoned. By the time the industry realized this, it was too late to fix. And this is where the industry currently stands. Print media is slowly dying, the comic industry’s core audience is aging, and those the companies want to appeal to are more interested in identity politics than buying books.
I do not think this means that Marvel should do away with their progressive characters. I do think they should realize that these characters are not and likely will never be as iconic as those they were crested to replace. Instead of trying to force people to like characters they have no interest in, Marvel should tell interesting, unique stories with those characters in order to build a bigger audience. Comic book fans are some of the most loyal fans in the world. Respect them and give them something they want to read, and they will gladly give you their money.