It’s been recently reported that Marvel Comics’ David Gabriel stated Marvel had come to understand “that people didn’t want any more diversity. They didn’t want female characters out there” as a reason for the recent sales slump. I think this is a narrow view and doesn’t look at the wider elements causing said slump. The House of Ideas needs to look a little deeper here at a myriad of issues contributing to this and what exactly it is about the ‘all new, all diverse’ Marvel that isn’t resonating with readers.
Let’s face it, comics have gotten expensive. $2.99 is the good deal these days with many titles at $3.99 or even $4.99 for a standard length issue while special editions and double size issues can be $5.99. The price really racks up if you’re buying a large number of comics. Alterna Comics made the move this year to bring prices down by returning to newsprint (#bringbacknewsprint) for their books, which might not be a bad idea.
Comics used to be seen as disposable. It’s one of the things that makes issues like Amazing Fantasy 15 so valuable and it might prove beneficial for comics now. If you want the slick beautiful image, digital options are available from the publisher. If you’re a collector, newsprint books for $1.99 or $2.99 could be appealing, especially if you want to collect multiple titles every month and occasionally dabble in new titles. What’s more, if people see the lower quality paper as disposable, they might read and toss once more, making comics kept in mint condition a collector’s item once again.
Being perfectly blunt, Marvel has gotten event crazy. Every year there’s a huge event that will “change everything” or “alter the course of the Marvel universe forever.” Whether it’s Secret War, Secret Invasion, Secret Wars, Avengers vs X-Men, X-Men vs Inhumans, Death of X, RessureXion, or the upcoming Secret Empire, there’s always some huge event involving seemingly every book. Readers are simply getting exhausted.
In the 1980s, there were a total of 11 crossovers events.
There were 27 in the 1990s.
Down to 20 in the 2000s.
And a total of 41 announced from 2010 to 2017. FORTY ONE crossovers with two years left in the decade. In the 80s and 90s, crossovers were also a bit more contained. You usually had a Spider-Man crossover that was contained to Spider-Man titles (3 in the 90s). X-Books had a contained crossover (3 in the 80s, 12 in the 90s, 6 in the 2000s). Over the years, though, it’s become more and more necessary to buy titles all across the publication line that a reader normally never picks up just to follow a single crossover event story, as well as a separate 8-or-so part mini-series.
I personally blame this guy for starting the all-titles crossover mega events.
To solve the event fatigue, just take them down to a smaller level like they used to be. Have a big “Marvel Universe” crossover event that impacts everyone once every 5 years or so to make them feel really special. Meanwhile, you can still do Spider-Man crossovers that cross all the Spider-titles and X-Men events that cross X-titles, and Avengers events that cross various Avenger member titles. Age of Apocalypse never touched Spider-Man or any Avengers or the Fantastic Four and it’s one of the most liked crossover events I can recall.
This may be a big issue, even bigger than the whole diversity angle, but a lot of readers are just tired of having writers’ politics not just presented, but crammed forcefully in their face and rammed down their throat. Sure, Marvel has always had a little politics in their comics. Steve Rogers punched ol’ Adolf before the US had entered into WW II and he dealt with a Nixon-esque character IN the White House during the Watergate scandal, but largely these on the nose political statements were the peak of a crescendo while their build up was often told with subtlety, nuance, and grace. Now writers push the real world into their stories more often than having readers think about hypothetical story scenarios applied to the real world.
Subtle. Real subtle. And totally what an Asgardian would be spouting, right?
What’s more, in the post-Internet age, we live more than ever in a world of grays rather than stark black and white. While we still like our heroes a bit more cut and dried in right and wrong with the occasional anti-hero walking the gray territory, we know the real world isn’t like this. I’ve seen people sharing panels of Red Skull and questioning why the villain is the one making sense when he says people aren’t evil for fearing space alien neighbors who first pledge their allegiance to an alien emperor with open distaste for inferior humans.
Instead of taking a stance of “liberal politics = hero, anything else = villain” writers could offer some heroes who lean left, some who lean right, some who are more central, and some who personally lean one way but acknowledge understanding of another view.
We’ve seen heroes oppose one another on political issues twice now in Civil War and Civil War II (three times if you count the film). The most positive thing our super heroes could possibly do right now is have opposing political beliefs, but still work together and still respect one another. You want your heroes to reflect what society should strive for? That’s about the most idealistic thing I can think of at this time, bringing people together to work towards a middle ground of common good despite their differences.
Also, maybe don’t have good guys say stuff like this to an actual Holocaust survivor, even if Magneto is a villain in his own right.
Now to the topic David Gabriel touched upon, that readers don’t want diversity or women leads. Mr. Gabriel, I respectfully disagree. Readers don’t want hamfisted diversity pulled out of nowhere and forced upon them as a replacement for beloved figures. I personally feel that’s been Marvel’s biggest problem. These characters are quickly tossed in the mix as replacements for long standing characters without ceremony or transition. A few have made sense, but most simply don’t. The most frustrating aspect of this goes back before the big diversity push of the last few years and is probably a bit out of Marvel’s hands, but I’m still going to call it: The X-Men.
We’re not going to pull any punches here: While wanting to promote diversity, you’ve completely shot down the most diversity driven team in your entire roster. Over the last number of years you’ve completely gutted this team.
Jean Grey, Xavier, Cyclops, and Wolverine are all dead now. Probably four of your most popular X-Men killed in the last number of years. What’s worse, before killing off Cyclops, you completely murdered his character as he became more and more militant and resembled Magneto more than Xavier. Whoever thought this was a good idea needs a smack in the back of the head.
The X-Men were always about opposing ideologies (sound like a familiar current societal topic?), Xavier’s Martin Luther King opposed to Magneto’s Malcom X and accepting one another despite our differences (sound like another familiar current societal topic?).
By bringing Magneto to the X-Men in approval of Scott, you eliminated this element entirely and corrupted the X-Men a little in the process. What boggles my mind is how you took them down this path when a clear alternative was available in Havok. Always more brash and hot headed, the right sequence of events could have led Havok towards Magneto’s point of view while Cyclops remained in pursuit of Xavier’s dream (even if he was a little more realist about it. I liked “General Cyclops” vibe that placed him a bit more like Cable in approach, but carrying the weight of his decisions as Xavier would have). Having the brothers as the new flag bearers of Xavier and Magneto’s views would have allowed you to carry on the overall X-Men theme with a new dynamic of opposition in the opposing sides.
So with the X-Men essentially out of the way, the push for a diverse cast of characters moves to other titles. This in itself is fine, but again I feel some stark errors were made.
Diversity via Addition by Subtraction: Race/Gender (and a sexuality) Swapping
This seems to be a big issue for many readers. Instead of creating, introducing, and cultivating new characters, it seems to be more common to replace an existing character, typically an iconic and beloved one, with the new character so the hero name will sell the book rather than the character behind the mask.
Thor, except a woman:
Jane Foster becoming Thor is the most cited example and I still don’t understand that one at all. Nothing about it makes sense and to my knowledge it still haven’t been explained. Nick Fury shouldn’t be able to whisper Thor into unworthiness. What’s more, if Jane Foster picked up the hammer, it isn’t entirely clear why she would transform into Thor rather than just receive his powers. After all, Captain America, U.S. Agent, Iron Man, or Storm didn’t transform into Thor (though I think Storm got an Asgardian outfit from it) when they wielded Thor’s hammer. It also seemed to me that rather than gender swap Thor, you could have had the Unworthy Thor off on his quest while another Asgardian took on his position in the book. Valkyrie would be an obvious choice, but I’m more surprised Sif wasn’t brought up to the big time, especially after she was well received in the Thor films and on Agents of SHIELD on television. If Marvel wants new readers from the movie & TV popularity, having Sif headline the Thor book seemed like a no brainer.
Hulk, except he’s Asian:
Totally Awesome Hulk is race swap that seemed somewhat out of nowhere. Now, I understand that Amadeus Cho has been around for over a decade now, but the point still stands – why a race swapped Hulk to replace Bruce Banner? Why isn’t Amadeus Cho instead a Hulk-like character: able to transform, super strength like Hulk, but not big and green? You could have a character that fits all the traits of Hulk without being Hulk, perhaps even more monstrous than the green goliath. My first thought is something akin to Beast in Bill Willingham’s Fables.
Just ignore that this pic suggests he ignores leg day entirely
Iceman, except now he’s (always been) gay:
This one was a big one for a lot of people because, much like JaneThor, it didn’t jive with history and it was handled really poorly. Iceman has a history of relationships with women, they just aren’t stable and haven’t lasted long (then again, Marvel seems to hate long term relationships for all characters and destroy them anyway). He’s been in a love triangle or two, vying for a woman’s attention against another guy. Nothing but the exception of one single panel that some point to has ever indicated he’s gay (yet some claim it’s always been obvious).
I asked my friend for his opinion on this one, wanting a perspective on how it comes across for someone it would have more impact on and he was pretty adamant: “It’s total crap.” He agreed nothing has indicated Iceman is gay and there’s too much history to the contrary to pull a Jean Grey handwave saying it’s so and thus it’s now canon.
Instead he pointed to Northstar, a character who had much less relationship history, or character history in general, until they decided to do more with him and develop him as one of the first notable gay characters in the X-Men books. Northstar had become one of my friend’s favorite characters and he feels was handled in such an organic way that his development was outstanding. Where Iceman was outed by another character and just went with it, Northstar himself made the announcement and even had a storyline with a team mate being weary of him for his sexuality. Northstar’s story actually dealt with issues that real people face, albeit in a world of super heroes. It’s worth noting I don’t recall an uproar over Northstar’s coming out, nor his marriage in the comics.
Captain America, except now he’s black, after being old, after having a metal arm:
This one I’m a bit conflicted on personally, but some still aren’t crazy with it going as long as it has. On the one hand, it makes sense with Steve Rogers out of action that he’d pass the shield to his most trusted friend in Sam Wilson. On the other hand, once Steve Rogers is restored to super hero status, it seems like Sam would insist the shield go back to Steve. Of course, it’s even more complicated with having them both acting as Captain America at the same time. Sam’s only been wearing the name for two years while Bucky Barnes was Captain America for four before he could no longer carry the shield, so I’d actually put more criticism on bringing Steve back to Cap status too soon. He could have been a SHIELD director for longer, which would have tied in well with the next example…
Captain America, except he’s a Nazi Hydra Agent:
I’m not conflicted on this. Anyone who’s read comics for more than a year knew this was a fake out from the beginning, but it doesn’t make it any less infuriating. This is blatant pandering for shock sales and definitely upset a lot of people. Captain America means something, he stands for something. This is a pretty sticky one to step in, no matter the story you’re trying to tell. On its own, apart from all the other changes and shake ups, I don’t think this one would have been seen as a fake out and readers would have gone along to see how things panned out before Steve is returned to normal. But it was released at a time when it was just another straw on a straining camel’s back.
Riri Williams, however, may have been the straw that did that camel in. With all the various changes building a strain, it was announced a 15 year old black female MIT student would replace the out-of-action Tony Stark as the new Iron Man. There was the inevitable backlash and uproar, which was written off by many people as white nerds angry about a black female lead, but that’s taking a very dismissive and superficial view. These aren’t just white nerds, or angry men. It’s long time Marvel readers of all walks of life, all sexualities, all skin colors that are upset.
Falcon is now Captain America.
Captain America is now a Nazi.
Thor is now a woman.
Hulk is now an Asian kid and Banner is dead.
Hawkeye is now a woman.
Wolverine is now a woman.
Cyclops is dead (after he cheated on his wife, hooked up with his mistress, utilized child soldiers, took an aggressive stance against humans in defense of his declared nation, and became Magneto 2.0, if not worse than, oh and KILLED XAVIER).
Xavier is dead.
Jean Grey is still dead.
Spider-Man sacrificed the love of his life for selfish reasons to the devil himself.
Spider-Man is now also a woman in Silk.
Spider-Man is also now a woman in Spider-Gwen.
Spider-Man is ALSO now a mixed race kid.
On their own, none of these are that big a deal. Some are really well done, even. But character after character gets changed and you build up some ill will that this universe is simply no longer meant for people that loved these characters for the past 10, 20, or 30+ years. So, feeling it’s no longer written for them, they stop buying and you blame the sales slump on “readers don’t want diversity” and paint your customers as sexist, homophobic, misogynistic, etc.?
Marvel, it’s not that readers hate diversity or female characters, it’s just that they don’t like the entire Marvel Universe being completely replaced over the course of a couple of years. They just love the characters they’ve grown up with and don’t want to see them replaced. DC Fans didn’t embrace Dick Grayson as Batman, even though he’s the only heir worthy of the cowl and they KNEW it was temporary. But they still didn’t love it because Bruce Wayne IS Batman.
And Steve Rogers IS Captain America. Tony Stark IS Iron Man. Bruce Banner IS the Hulk. And Thor Odinson IS Thor. Others may step in to fill the role temporarily, but not as a permanent replacement, yet that no longer seems to be something readers can rely on. I thought Jean Grey would come back and the Peter / Mary Jane marriage, or at least relationship, would triumph over the devil Mephisto, yet here we are a decade later and nothing on either front.
Alright, Smart Guy, How Can Marvel Still Do Diversity Then?
First off, pace yourselves. Change doesn’t come overnight and cramming every race, gender, orientation into your books all at once causes massive upheavals and you get what you’re getting now. People get tired of all the changes for the sake of change and just walk away, resulting in sales drops. Decide on a few things to focus on, do those, and do them well.
For example: The Avengers can put Rogers and Wilson together as Cap and Falcon again, using both characters on the team. Keep Stark, but bring in T’Challa (remember when I said opposing ideologies/politics? Iron Man and Panther have enough in common that opposing ideals would make them an interesting pair to butt heads). Bring She-Hulk in as both the Avengers’ legal council and a team member rather than Banner. Keep Luke Cage and Jessica Jones on the team. And introduce a couple of new characters to join up (I would have said Ms. Marvel, but I think she’s getting her own team elsewhere soon).
Over in the X-Men, you could introduce a gay character, or a transgender character, and have them dealing with feeling as a bit of an outsider even among outsiders. I’m kind of surprised a mutant with shape shifting powers hasn’t been used to explore some themes of self identity and orientation themselves, taking real world concepts to the super hero level when their powers allow them to quite literally be fluid in who they seem to be.
And here’s a key: Don’t throw it in reader’s faces right off the bat. You don’t introduce yourself to someone at a party as “Hi, I’m Jeff. My sexual orientation is….” because it’s not THE defining feature of the individual. You start with your interests, your job, who you know in common, what movies or shows you like. Let the readers learn about these characters before you start stepping into the intimate areas of their personal lives. Let your characters breath first.
Second, introduce new characters as entirely new characters. You can base their core features on legacy characters, like I previously suggested with Cho’s Hulk being Hulk-like instead of a copy of the original. For example, Hulk and Thing are the same character – big, strong, brawlers. One’s green and the other’s a blue eyed teddy bear made of stone, but they’re the same super hero qualities in different physical forms. Utilize the key elements, but make the character new and unique.
Look at your diversity successes – Squirrel Girl, X-23, and Ms. Marvel Kamala are the primary “this is how you do it” examples, I think. Squirrel Girl was introduced in a quirky way, but really struck a chord and has grown in popularity over time. X-23 did the same with her original introduction, then her time with the X-Men (though how Jubilee was Wolverine’s sidekick for years yet you guys never did any father/daughter bonding with Logan & Laura over some ninja killing globetrotting is beyond me). Also, Laura was always cooler as X-23 than she has been as Wolverine’s replacement. Her upcoming new costume looks way better than wearing Logan’s.
Way cooler. Just enough Wolverine without fully copying Wolverine.
Miles Morales is a bit of a unique situation since he was a response to the Ultimate Universe becoming too carbon copy of 616, but despite some initial resistance, he built up his own foundation and gained his own personality, along with his own costume design, to gain acceptance and a huge fan following.
Moon Girl is also a good example. Yes, she’s a gender swap, but of a character that many readers have likely never heard of or followed if they had. There are plenty of lower tier characters you could revive with a new version and bring them up to A List status.
Ms. Marvel may be your most successful diversity character of all and look how she developed. She wasn’t just a replacement of Ms. Marvel with the same look and similar powers. She could have been given any name, really. That Danvers’ story had taken her on to a new role and left the “Ms. Marvel” name open was a great fit for a huge fan to take on the name (and let’s face it, it’s a very fan girl thing to do). But Kamala has her own look, her own powers, and her own basis. She doesn’t feel like a copy & replace design.
Third, once you’ve created these new characters, with their own superhero persona and their own costume and identity, give them just a mini-series to introduce them or add on stories in other titles. I know it’s risky publishing books that might not sell, but this is where we look back to digital and newsprint options being cheap ways to introduce new books. Who’s going to say a 99 cent first issue isn’t worth picking up, even on newsprint? If the mini-series does well, don’t jump the gun. Guest star them in another title or two or pick an existing team for them to join. Build up their popularity before they break out on their own.
Once these new characters are ready to spread their wings and fly (or swim, bound, teleport, swing, or whatever they do), let them actually do so. Don’t put another hero in New York or Los Angeles. If you want to start introducing new characters to increase diversity, let them spread out. A new character all alone against the street crime of Chicago. A superhero immigrant dealing with criminal schemes of drug or human traffickers in Miami. Put a team in Dallas, Seattle, or Atlanta. You’ve dabbled with these ideas briefly, but give a character or team the devotion the New York characters had in their early years this time.
Occasionally, a legacy character can come through town for a team up. Punisher would make sense to be moving around the country. Blade or Ghost Rider and a new character could go road tripping fighting supernatural enemies as they train them to fight more than just street thugs, but with the expectation they’ll break out on their own once they finish the hunt. I’ve heard Ben Reilly is being brought back as Scarlet Spider, so set him in a city well away from New York and let him mentor a young character if you wish. Just be sure these new characters have their own personalities and gimmicks.
And of course not every character is going to be a big hit. Some won’t resonate with readers, but that just gives you a cast of fodder to introduce on a team and potentially kill off to heighten the stakes of whatever threat they face.
Again, Riri Williams came along at the end of all these changes and may have simply taken the full brunt of reader frustration. Please, Marvel, listen when I say that readers did not show resistance to Riri because she’s a young woman, nor because she’s black. They resisted her because she was presented as Tony Stark’s replacement.
If you had a story that took Tony away from the U.S. on an international trip that lasted a good long time (or into space, or other dimensional), Riri could have been introduced as a “meanwhile, back home” situation. Same basic concept: reverse engineering Stark tech, starts using it as Ironheart, and fighting villains. As the Stark story away continues, you devote more time to Riri until the comic is almost 50/50 split between them. Riri becomes a new character expanding Tony’s book rather than replacing him.
Personally, I would have made Riri an anime fan and given her Iron Man reverse engineered suit a bit more of an anime mech suit vibe to further distinguish it. She looks like she’s simply wearing Tony’s Mark Hojillion armor rather than her own design.
Imagine if a fan of this got Stark’s design and did a merger of the two
Once Tony returns to the US, he could find out about this “new Iron Man” getting headlines and look to confront her over patent violations, copyright issues, and just what the heck she’s doing with his tech and what her intentions are. Once it’s sorted out, Tony goes on being Iron Man while Riri continues being Ironheart. Going back to politics, you could even have Riri not wanting to be under Tony’s wing due to difference of opinion on various matters.
Remember, Peter Parker didn’t take over Johnny Storm’s role. Ororo Munroe wasn’t introduced as the “new Marvel Girl!” X-Force debuted as the “New Mutants” but not the replacement to the X-Men and even the second generation of X-Men were a new team, not replacements of the old. Storm, Bishop, Dazzler, Jubilee, Black Panther, Luke Cage, Psylocke (including a body swap), Falcon, She-Hulk, Forge, Blade (first Marvel character to get a modern movie was black btw), War Machine, M, Skin, Mondo, Synch, Cloak, and more are all minorities or women and readers didn’t hate them. There was no outcry over them. When they were introduced, though, none of them were brought in as replacements for popular characters, but as additions to existing rosters. Additions that brought diversity to those rosters.
To summarize this long winded ramble from a long time Marvel fan, diversity itself and female characters themselves are not why readers were driven away from the books. To get readers back, you need to address these simple challenges:
- Price point – Consider a return to newsprint to lower cost and potentially revive the collectability of comics.
- Politics – Tone it down instead of preaching to your readers. Acknowledge issues aren’t black and white and let your characters have varying degrees of opinions, but mostly address politics through metaphor with occasionally on the nose stories. Super heroes are escapism and too much real world politics shatter that outlet to forget about life for a while.
- Build diversity by adding new, well developed, characters without replacing others.
- Pull the big events back to one or two smaller ones for specific groups per year with the major events far apart and thus more anticipatory.