Are diversity and women damaging sales for Marvel?

Marvel Comics aren’t doing well. Sales have declined, even as Marvel has pushed out every major event and crossover it can over the past two years. In a recent interview for ICV2, during the Marvel Retailer Summit, Marvel VP of Sales David Gabriel decided to ignore all the problems and criticism in order to place the blame on diversity.

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.

Gabriel later reached out to ICv2 and “clarified” his statement, adding that many of the individual characters like Miles Morales, Ms. Marvel, Spider-Gwen, and Moon Girl are popular, and won’t be going away anytime soon. It’s also important to note that this was in response to retailer concerns presented at the first day of the summit, so some other issues may not have been discussed at that time. And it looks like, based on retailer discussions, those sales slumps had been increasing for a while, but were especially noticed as of fall 2016. Everything kind of came to a head, and Marvel’s been focused on righting the sinking ship ever since.

That being said, there are some who question Gabriel’s point, because it shelves blame onto the readers and blatantly ignores a lot of other reasons Marvel Comics sales are reportedly suffering. For example, there has been some crazy over-abundance of events and crossovers. During the discussion, retailers pointed out during the summit that the number of Marvel events, and the fact that they overlap, make it hard for fans to focus. Right now, for instance, there’s Secret Empire, which will bleed over with Generations, which starts this summer. In the past two years alone, there have been at least 12 events and crossovers. Events, in particular, have become more of a chore than a reward. There’s little build-up or anticipation because you know another one’s right around the corner. They also can completely screw over beloved characters for the sake of drama, like turning Captain America into a fascist as Sam Wilson has taken his mantle.

Then you’ve got issue cost and audience retention. Nowadays, individual issues typically cost anywhere from $3.99 to $5.99 or more, making it harder for fans to want to buy— especially if you’re swapping out an established character for a version they aren’t familiar with. While chatting with retailers, Gabriel actually boasted that their sales almost tripled when they upped the Spider-Man book from $3.99 to $9.99, even though it didn’t bring in any new readers. It just made the current ones pay more money.

Finally, and this is a major one, there’s the problem of talent management. There’s been a steady decline in Marvel’s talent pool, because of better offers and independent retailers. One retailer mentioned at the summit that it’s especially hard to keep talented writers and artists when they can make creator-owned books at publishers like Image. Not only does it give them more flexibility to tell the stories they want, but they also keep way more of the revenue.

Shelving the blame onto diversity ignores all the aforementioned internal problems in favor of one they have no control over. In fact, one retailer said during the summit that some of these diverse characters actually brought fresh faces into his store, including people who’d never thought about buying comic books before. “They do bring a different demographic, and I’m happy to see that money in my store,” he said. Of course, he added that they’re not bringing in the numbers that he’d like, but the fact that new characters enticed a new group of readers is not something to dismiss, just because they’re not buying as much as the established fan base yet. Cultivating a fan base takes time.

However, I’m not going to thumb up my nose at some readers preferring their core characters to new ones. Some have grown up with certain versions of characters for years, and choose not to read books that don’t follow that character’s journey. This can be motivated by intolerance, wanting to keep the white male ideal intact, but other times it’s not.

There’s no doubt Marvel Comics have been on a steady decline for a while now. Their latest Generations event will put some of the classic (largely white and male) characters back into circulation, and they think this will solve the problem. While it may result in boosted sales, at least for a little while, it will come at a cost. It again bloats the market, which has been Marvel’s biggest problem for a while, and it runs the risk of alienating newer fans who came in precisely because Marvel was taking risks. Bringing back older characters doesn’t inspire confidence that Marvel cares about continuing the newer ones. Marvel Comics have a lot of problems. Diversity is just the easiest one to blame.

Update: Ms. Marvel co-creator and writer G. Willow Wilson weighed in on Gabriel’s comments with a blog post on Tumblr. She noted how Ms. Marvel wasn’t part of a so-called “diversity initiative,” as some have claimed, and added how one of the main reasons the NYT-bestselling graphic novel resonated with people was how it approached “the role of traditionalist faith in the context of social justice.” Wilson added a couple of suggestions for avoidable problems Marvel has created for itself:

  1. This is a personal opinion, but IMO 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 sh*tty?
  2. 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.*
  3. Never try to be the next whoever. Be the first and only you. People smell BS a mile away.
  4. The direct market and the book market have diverged. Never the twain shall meet. We need to accept this and move on, and market accordingly.
  5. Not for nothing, but there is a direct correlation between the quote unquote “diverse” Big 2 properties that have done well (Luke Cage, Black Panther, Ms Marvel, Batgirl) and properties that have A STRONG SENSE OF PLACE. 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.

With Marvel movies being as successful as they are, why do you think Marvel’s comic book sales are suffering? Is there an issue regarding diversity that alienates readers? Is there a problem with how they are being marketed? Are the stories poor? Could it be that this is a media form that is slowly becoming out of step with consumer’s needs and desires?
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