Superheroes R Us

So also in the realm of superheroes, the comics side of Marvel has been watching the collapse of its sales model, while dealing with a cross-over disaster that had a far right leaning writer making Captain America, the Steve Rogers version, into a Nazi/Hydra spy as part of a muddled multiverse idea. The collapse has not been a new thing; it’s been a process going on since the 1980’s that happened to then coincide with the great shrinkage of the wholesale market for magazines, newspapers, paperbacks and comics that took place in the 1990’s and helped pop the collectors’ hyper-valuation bubble in comics issues. Essentially, the big comics companies tried to increase monthly buys by staging big crossover stories that required buying from four to seven series at a time to follow, while comic prices went up, up, up. These crossover stories often made use of multiple universes to shake series up, allowing them to totally reboot characters and past stories with little regard for consistency.

This was certainly one of the reasons that my husband and I stopped really buying comics way back – it was too expensive to do and our child needed food. But the success of graphic novels, including bound omnibuses of monthly comic issues, and the emergence of highly successful live action superhero movies and animated t.v. series and movies from major comics helped keep especially Marvel afloat for a while. Now, though, retail markets are further squeezed and Marvel has made things worse with poorly planned stunt events, constant reboots and number one reissues to try to generate short term sales instead of reliable regular fans. Economic uncertainty in the face of controversial political events has further dampened sales recently.

When Marvel Comics held a retailer summit in late March with the comic stores, one of Marvel’s vice presidents of sales – a white guy – apparently brought up that some comics vendors were saying the diverse comics – the ones not about white guys and white guy led teams – weren’t selling and that maybe this was the reason for Marvel Comics’ poor comics sales showing the previous quarter. This was flagrantly untrue. Many of the “diversity” comics are Marvel’s top sellers and had clearly brought in more readers domestically and globally. And many of their white guy comics had sales in the toilet and were being axed. The race and gender of the leads in the comics neither guaranteed sales nor that sales would tank.

So why would a senior vice president of Marvel, with full access to the real sales figures, float a lie that was so easily disproven about his own company? And which he had to apologize for and take back not long after? Did some comics store vendors actually say this to him? Very probably. But the comics store owners also have access to sales numbers well beyond their own stores. So why would some of them push such an assertion?

Part of it was clearly deflection. Rather than admit that the problem was an unworkable production, pricing and marketing model, or admit that your store has adapted poorly to pushing your products under current market conditions, it’s an easier fix to blame the audience of the medium for being unreasonably bigoted, which then becomes the big talking point.

But as a form of deflection, it’s a poor one. The vice president’s trashing of his own company’s line was a PR nightmare for them. Presumably this same vice president respects and works with POC and white women artists, writers and editors at Marvel. Why would he then disparage what they do, and which helps pay his salary? Especially when he had said last year that women and kids as readers were a key component of Marvel Comics’ success?

In a word, reassurance. Marvel and the comics industry in general has been run by white guys, like most industries, particularly in the marketing and business end of things of course, but also on the creative front. While others were occasionally welcomed in, mostly they were blocked and certainly kept from obtaining leadership positions of influence if they were around. This has created a comfortable cushion of established and protected practice at companies like Marvel.

That’s changing a little bit. As they recognize the need for greater variety to hold on to and expand a global market, Marvel, like other comics companies, has been putting out more titles that offer a slightly wider range of characters and ideas. With that comes a slight increase in the variety of people who work there and create the titles. This allows Marvel in the long term to grow and expand its workforce and its product line – something that can benefit white guys too.

But right now, at the early stages of such a transition, it is for a lot of white guy employees (and white guy comics vendors who also dominate that part of the industry,) like the rumbling sound of an on-coming train. And they are uneasy that if the rigged system they are used to gets dismantled, that the train will leave them on the platform. So even though it makes no sense to say it, even though it’s actually harmful to their field, they can’t help raising the question about whether getting rid of the white male supremacy that makes up 80% of the business might bring the whole thing crashing down. Just, you know, maybe it’s an issue. Saying that work that doesn’t focus on white males may be actually bad for the field, a failed experiment, is reassuring for some that white guys will still have a top place in it – that they will still get preferential treatment because they claim that such treatment is supposedly essential to success.

This is not a gripe that is likely going to go away if the field gets more equitable. If they are used to a protected, rigged status and then increasingly they don’t have that protection and elevation — no longer control what’s becoming a more level playing field — many of them will worry and try to bolster their status. They will whine that “diversity” comics are not that special, aren’t that successful, and/or cause various problems, etc. Even if it’s against their own best interests and their companies’ interests to do so.

Such complaints have power because the rigged system is still in effect and there are plenty of others invested in spreading the worry around, no matter how false, because it also reassures them. But it slows down revenues in practice. And while it doesn’t look like Marvel Comics is making great changes to the business model that causes them and the store owners problems, the company has ramped up its commitment to providing more than just an offering of white guys. Because “diversity” – i.e. a visual closer to the real world population as opposed to a rigged bubble – is selling for them with titles like Ms. Marvel and Black Panther. It’s not perfect, but then sales of old established white guy superheroes haven’t been perfect either. And however nervous the white guys who run Marvel are about their protected job security, they are required to produce some performance results and that plays a role.

Unfortunately, they’ll still make demands that non-white-male works prove themselves to be worthy of simply existing, over and over again, and above and beyond what is expected from works featuring white males. The train is still in the distance. But when you hear this sort of complaining or worry, this fishing for reassurance, that’s the train whistle sounding. And it means better things for everybody.


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Filed under book publishing, SFFH, Social Equality, Women

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