The harbinger in the disruption of economic systems in the 21st century appears to have fully revealed itself to changes in distribution systems with the proliferation of advanced consumer technology, especially in the retail sector. Consumers prefer to pay less money and/or do as little work as possible in acquiring product. As such, the distribution of wealth has shifted to services who can provide that for consumers. A job that would’ve been at a Barnes and Noble or Best Buy store is now going to Amazon, an opening for a business operations analyst at Olive Garden is now more likely to be a programmer for Seamless, someone that would’ve been a driver for a traditional taxi company is now a driver for Uber. Whether you think this is wrong or right, it is undoubtedly a central tenant of our reality and the price of doing business in a free market capitalist system. It’s also a bitter pill to swallow for anybody that at one time or another had benefited from said free market capitalist system when said system now appears to have turned it’s back on them through no fault of their own. It is even more disjarring for anybody who believed that “if you work hard, you’ll succeed” was a unequivocal truth of the systems they were operating in as opposed to the best possible outcome. A search for reason and questioning of self worth is a natural reaction to finding one’s self in said situation. Often times, an actor with an outsized role in that economy will in turn, have an outside role in that economies disintegration merely as a byproduct of doing business. Any company that exists to make a profit is ultimately abholdent to only that and as such, will do so at the detriment of it’s own industry simply as a matter of function. This is all pretty obvious for any objective observer but in these types of situations, no one is objective because everyone’s livelihood is at stake. If you want to look back further and find a central tenant of Western Civilization, it’s that often in these situations, participants will villify an “other” as the scapegoat for why the system has failed them. For example; here’s Marvel VP of Sales David Gabriel explaining the publishers continuing slump in sales that seemed to have coalesced in their most recent publishing initiative from the fall of last year
“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”
Forget changes in purchasing habits for consumers across the broader economy as a whole, forget the archaic nature of the comics retailer market and forget about any of Marvel’s business practices; diversity or the “other” are killing the comics industry; not the inherent illogical of the direct market in 2017 or Marvel’s many exploitations of that.
To be fair, Gabriel mentions several other factors in the interview including an allusion to the Presidential election and returns on unsold DC product. Furthermore, Gabriel followed up his comments about diversity with a seemingly contradictory statement that diversity actually helps and all those books you love about female superheros are never getting cancelled. Let’s parse out what we know; David Gabriel made these statements as an employee of Marvel Comics. Based on past experience, I know that Marvel requires their creative talent to have any interview they’ve conducted with a third party site to be audited by a PR person. Based on that, I’m making the assumption that Gabriel made his diversity comments with the blessing of Marvel PR, which is strange because Marvel PR has effectively endorsed said statement which would be contradictory to everything they’ve been telling comics for the last three years. Educated speculation, and I emphasize that this is purely speculative on my part, would be that Marvel figured that the comments wouldn’t get picked up by the public at large being that they were published on ICv2, a site that primarily caters to retailers. As such, Gabriel’s comments are talking points directed towards a very specific audience, ie: comic shop owners. And in reality, they aren’t explicitly untrue, just not the whole truth which is ultimately the most meaningful and painful for those on the receiving end of the message.
There’s little doubt that Marvel’s changes to core characters had to alienate some fans, long time comic collectors are a fickle lot who make many of their purchases based as much on habit or nostalgia as they do for the quality of content in and of itself. There is also no doubt that Marvel’s attempts at diversifying their line has brought in new readers as well, most evident in the sales of Black Panther #1 from acclaimed non-fiction writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, but also apparent in the extended success of titles like Ms. Marvel, The Unbeatable Squirell Girl or Moon Girl & Devil Dinosouar. But the extent by which any of those books have been a succes for Marvel’s sales as a whole and comics retailers specifically is where theres a divergence in perspective as those titles have reprotedly been most successful through digital sales and/or traditional book sellers. It is also one in what is a litany of factors that Marvel conviently ignores. Theres the fact that they’ve experienced a pronounced exodus of talent to Image where creators are making more money working on comics they own all the rights to. That’s in addition to the success that DC has had in their rebirth initiative and beyond, where the publisher has not only effectively signed exclusive contracts with up and coming talent that had some history with Marvel like Tom King, Evan Shaner & Mitch Gerads, but also brought on stalwart comics veterans like Greg Rucka & Warren Ellis whose work comes with a built in audience of readers following the talent in addition to fans of whatever property they’re taking over. Marvel has also done little to promote it’s newer voices that that could fill the talent void. Chelsea Cain’s exodus from comics after the debacle over the cancellation of her excellent Mockingbird title is the prime example, a great new writer with a singular voice whose ongoing series failed to get a foothold in a crowded market and ended up being the subject of online harassment before she left the medium all together. But beyond that, Marvel currently has a sizable portion of young writers and artists working on their titles like David Walker, Mariko Tamaki, Mathew Rosenberg, Britney Williams, Sanford Greene, Kate Leth, Nico Leon or Ramon Villalobos; yet it feels as if the majority of their titles haven’t been put in any type of position to succeed as they are competing for eyeballs and dollars with comics by veteran Marvel creators, many of whom are writing three or more titles with the publisher on more popular characters. This of course leads to another of Marvel’s problems in the sheer volume of product they’re producing feel’s unsustainable to be supported by the comics direct market where a successful title encompasses something like 50,000 units sold. On top of that, Marvel has been running event comics and crossovers nonstop for the last couple years now in addition to a seasonal re-launch every fall, often times giving ongoing series new #1’s without any rhyme or reason beyond a brief sales inflation. Add that up with the proliferation of variant covers and the increasingly rising costs for single issues, and what you’re left with is a lot of product being sold by Marvel to comics shops without the audience to purchase it.
That Marvel is appearing to be bleeding the direct market for all it’s worth right now is probably not an accident, as comics retailers find themselves in the precarious position of still driving the industry, but doing so in a economic system that is structurally archaic, unfriendly and taxing for consumers, and wildly inefficient. Because of distribution issues created by Marvel in the late 1990’s, comics retailers are left with one company, Diamond, that acts as the middle man between them and the publishers. While retailers certainly hold the most sway over what ongoing titles are successful, Diamond set’s the rules for engagement and in doing so, creates the least amount of risk for them as an organization, which in turn effectively transfers that risk over to retailers. For comics retailers, mitigating risk means stocking the books you know will sell, primarily comics from major superhero franchises. For most comic shops, ordering anything that veer’s away from the traditional top sellers requires it’s consumers to order a book three month in advance, before they ever see the comic. Which also means that buyers are pre-ordering said comic for the following months, sight unseen. Comics is effectively telling it’s readers of single issue physical copies, if they don’t buy the first three to six issues of a series right off the bat, without any indication of whether they’ll like the first issue let alone the third or sixth in the case of double shipping, they’re shit out of luck. Think about that for a second, in an era where retail stores in general are struggling to survive selling products that literally everyone want’s or needs versus online retailers, the comics industry is making it even more difficult to buy their physical product through traditional retail channels. Marvel is asking readers to trust them in investing anywhere from $12 to $24 or more per series before they have a chance to read any of it for their physical single issue buyers, and they are releasing more of those comics then anybody by a wide margin.
Ever since the recession of 2008, we have lived in a era of prolonged economic uncertainty due to technological disruption, shifts in demographics and income inequality. Comics is in no way immune to any of this and Marvel’s recent struggles in the direct market clearly illustrate that. As big box retailers strain to say solvent, comic shops are in a place of profound uncertainty. It’s entirely plausible that Marvel will rebound and the market will go back to business as usual but it’s not any less plausible that the majority of consumers will switch to digital comics or that the young adult market ends up driving the industry through trade sales. Any kind of future for the medium in terms of the consumption habits of it’s consumers is pointing away from single issue buyers from specialty comic shops, at least as the industry stands in it’s current form within the larger economy. But explaining this to comic shop owners is a risk to Marvel’s immediate bottom line in that it gives them less incentive to keep buying as much as possible. And when in the most literal sense possible, Marvel’s CEO saw his big homie use diversity as a scapegoat for the platform by which he was elected President of The United States, it shouldn’t be surprising that they’re using a similar line of reasoning to explain away their own issues. But traditional readers rejecting diverse characters is only a symptom of a wider problem with the retail market as a whole; that’s a problem that’s not likely to go away and Marvel should know that, which is probably why they’re trying to leverage the system for all it’s worth while they still can. Retailers should see it too, but with their live and livelihood at stake, it’s hard to blame them for not having that foresight. Even comic shop owners that are completely aware of of the high probability of their obsolescence don’t really have any option besides play along to the very end with employee, business contract and credit obligations tying them down to the business. This doesn’t mean all comic shops are doomed, but the direct market as we know it can’t persist in it’s current incarnation, and there’s no way that all the comic shops will survive it. That’s a hard and complicated truth to face without an easy answer. With an important portion of the industry facing their impending doom and a major corporation whose only interest is in making as much money out of a dying system, there is nobody with any interest in addressing the underlying problems and in that, the diversity myth persists.