When the flow of money starts to falter and turn to a dribbling stream, those in charge will always look for something to blame — and usually, they find easy and undeserving targets. Such is the current situation at Marvel Comics HQ, as sales have dwindled in the past year or so. Recently #Marvel's sales VP David Gabriel blamed the sales drop on their diverse slate of characters from different ethnic backgrounds, and their abundance of female characters. Except, that's not the problem at all.
We all know how quick those in charge are to blame women, #LGBT people, and people of color for pretty much anything — it seems like too much of a cliche, but this is a real problem in Hollywood (and y'know, the real world). There's a pervasive view that women and people of color don't sell movies, which is why it took the MCU 11 years and 20 movies to release one with a female protagonist (Captain Marvel, 2019).
Here's exactly what the not-so-angelic Gabriel had to say at the Marvel Retailer Summit:
"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. 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."
Declining to explain who the "they" are that "don't want female characters out there", neither saying how he "heard" this information or giving concrete figures, Gabriel's statement has naturally sparked a fierce and enraged debate in the media — which makes sense, as he's glossing over Marvel's real problems.
Let's Check Those Facts
Granted, I'm not Marvel's sales chief, so I don't have access to the same kind of figures that Gabriel has. Having said that, let's take a quick look at what we do know — and why sales don't equal popularity.
We've known Marvel was in trouble for a long time now, but even as their sales dwindled, fan-fave characters like Ms Marvel (a young Muslim woman) and Spider-Man remained at the top of the heap. Other female titles have seen a sharp increase in sales in 2015 and 2016: The new female Thor outstripped male Thor (now called Odinson) in comic sales, and the alternate universe Spider-Gwen proved so popular (and lucrative) that Marvel dragged her into the main canon.
Ms Marvel especially has proved to be one of Marvel's most successful characters in recent years — which prompted creator G Willow Wilson to defend her Hugo Award winning comic against claims that Ms Marvel was causing the drop in sales. She explained on her Tumblr that the reason for Kamala Khan's success isn't just because she represents Muslim women, but because her struggles are those that many people experience.
We are at a point in history when the role of religion is at a tremendous inflection point. What I didn’t realize was that the anxieties felt by young Muslims are also felt by young Mormons, evangelicals, orthodox Jews, and others. A huge reason Ms Marvel has struck the chord it has is because it deals with the role of traditionalist faith in the context of social justice, and there was – apparently – an untapped audience of people from a wide variety of faith backgrounds who were eager for a story like this.
At the Marvel Retailer Summit, comic retailers expressed similar findings, with one telling io9 that Marvel's diverse characters have introduced "a different demographic" to comics. The Guardian points out that the marketing for these "diverse books" is very shortsighted, limited to comic book stores which have historically been unfriendly places to women and people of color — meanwhile, the MCU is populated vastly by white, straight men, which doesn't exactly suggest that their comics are any more diverse. Clearly, Marvel needs to branch out in advertising its own comics.
And yet, Gabriel does have a point when he talks about the unpopularity of other legacy characters — the new Iron Man, Riri Williams, hasn't gone over well, and although X-23 was popular, Laura Kinney's Wolverine wasn't. However, as G Willow Wilson points out, this probably isn't because of the characters themselves, but because of how they get their titles.
Launching a legacy character by killing off or humiliating the original character sets the legacy character up for failure. Who wants a legacy if the legacy is shitty?
This reasoning makes a lot of sense. No-one wants to see their favorite characters die or be disgraced, just so the heroes can be replaced by characters the readers don't know.
Of course, we know that legacy characters can work — young Hawkeye Kate Bishop is another fan-fave, and Carol Danvers proved so successful as Captain Marvel that she's the version of this character that will be introduced to the movie universe. So if diversity and female-lead titles aren't the problem, why are Marvel's sales dwindling?
Too Many Events In A Complex Continuity
Marvel does have a problem. Actually, it has many problems that have caused these dwindling sales. We've examined them before, but ultimately many people are blaming the rise in prices — $5.99 for a single issue?! — along with Marvel's constant crossover events.
At the Marvel Retailer Summit, io9 reported that retailers complained about the sheer number of Marvel's events — at least 12 in the past two years — saying that the overlap confused fans, with even longtime readers deciding not to buy these titles. Controversial decisions like turning Captain America (and possibly Magneto too) into Hydra agents has also biased fans against the current Marvel Secret Empire event.
I can personally attest that the overabundance of crossover events is exactly why I stopped reading Marvel #comicbooks in favor of DC (shock horror!). While Marvel's diversity was a huge pull for me, the constant complicated plots put me off, especially as they interfered with titles that I loved — like the 2016 run of Captain Marvel, which was cut off so that she could be the baddie in Civil War II. I just have no motivation to buy Marvel comics when there's so many confusing events that conflict with each other.
#DC, on the other hand, recently launched their Rebirth reboot which gave new life to the continuity — restoring characters to their former glory (Green Arrow, Batwoman), taking beloved heroes in interesting directions (Wonder Woman, Batman in Detective Comics), bringing back popular teams (Batgirl & The Birds Of Prey), and shaking up the fictional universe by transplanting Watchmen into the main canon. There's a lot of exciting things going on in DC's comics world, and they're all very accessible because the canon reset means this story is both restarting and developing what's come before.
Marvel deliberately have never done a reset, which has made for a long and insanely complicated narrative history. The current events draw from what's happened in the past which, if you haven't kept up with Marvel comics for years and years, really means you're missing out on a chunk of the story.
Of course, this is just one of Marvel's problems. The price hike has put many people off, they're losing talent to other retailers (especially indie comics that let them create their own characters and stories), and the move to digital has seen a huge increase in comic pirating. If Marvel want to prevent the decline and start making money again, they definitely need to make some big changes — but blaming diverse characters and female-lead titles is just a way to bury their heads in the sand.
Tell us in the comments: Why do you think Marvel's sales have dropped off?