Marvel, Comics Retailers & The Diversity Myth

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.

13 thoughts on “Marvel, Comics Retailers & The Diversity Myth”

  1. Lots of good points. Look at the big budget movies that came out in the last few weeks that flopped hard. “Life”, “Ghost in the Shell”. Both worthy of slightly better performances at least but these are the times that we are living in. Wilson hasn’t even made a million dollars. I don’t know how theaters can survive. They are empty a lot.

    I imagine that the Marvel Unlimited app really hurt some shops. I used to buy 30 Marvel books a month for more than a decade and most of that came from my local comic shop. The more Marvel single issues people buy the more of an incentive that is to switch to the app. The shops are then left with the fans that buy less than 10 Marvel books a month.

    Does anyone know how 616 Logan died? Those comics were so shit that I didn’t bother to continue reading them until “the end” (and I really tried). Old man Logan and All new wolverine are fantastic though. Quality matters more for me than continuity or sanctity of established characters. When I was a teen I was less inclined to tolerate changing established characters. I did however read years of the Spidey clone sage and Azrael as Batman and was perhaps the only person (I’m aware of) that didn’t whine about it. I am the #1 Peter Parker fan but all anyone has to do is give Miles Morales a chance to realize that change or difference is what makes life interesting. How great is Thor right now. I do understand that people love male Thor and want him back but just get some fucking patience. What else? Killing Bruce Banner and having a smart asian Hulk; 50 years of Bruce Banner comics isn’t enough dudes? Sam Wilson as cap fighting like cap kind of bothered me in the way that Robin fighting 20 men at once does. Sam has no powers right? Still, just wait and Cap will be back as a Nazi? Ha. What? Is he still a hydra agent and has he always been one? That does seem like poking the bear. I haven’t read the new Iron Man yet; is Tony dead (don’t answer that)? Anyway making all these changes so quickly all at once was probably not a good idea. I would say that comic fans like to follow characters that they know so swapping suits is a tough sell. On the other hand racism and sexism plays a big role as well. Teen boys won’t buy many Captain Marvel comics but aren’t most comics fans grow up now? What’s their excuse?

    1. Life, Ghost & Wilson may not be the best examples. They all received, at best, middling reviews. Meanwhile Disney can pack ’em for nostalgia tinged endeavors from Star Wars to Beauty and the Beast. On Friday whatever number Fast and the Furious this is is poised to make a truck load of money. And over in the art houses a documentary about James Baldwin has been playing for 2 solid months with no sign of flagging interest. Yet plenty of other films from would be blockbusters to once sure thing art house projects (don’t ask Terrance Malick about his latest grosses) fail.

      Audiences are fickle. Always have been. At the same time, taste is changing. Movies have long passed from being central to American culture. To search for some reversal of that trend is as foolish as wishing for a return of how say opera was once central to cultural life. It ain’t coming back.

      There are still plenty of outstanding artistic films made every year. The quality product is out there. How to find it an audience is the tricky question. I do worry about the loss of the theatrical experience which is one of the reasons I patronize it as much as possible. I don’t care how state of the art your home entertainment system is — it’ll never be the same.

      1. I gotta see that James Baldwin movie. Also, don’t the Fast & The Furious or new Star Wars movies kind of make the anti-diversity argument a mute point? I understand they’re popular for very different reasons but both have really diverse cast and are like, the gold standard for franchises in terms of box office success.

        1. I was simply referring to the subject of the current economics of American film-going in general. But, yes, you make a very good observation about diversity. The casts of the new Stars Wars films & the Fast/Furious franchises are diverse which demonstrates that such choices do not hamper box office. And going from blockbuster to smaller scale we have Get Out which has scored exceptionally high with both critics and audiences. Whatever grosses Guardians or Episode VIII or Beauty and the Beast make (or continue) to make, Get Out will surely be one of, if not the, most profitable domestic film of the year when comparing budget to gross. (How that translates in foreign receipts is a an open question. International viewers traditionally have shown little interest in American “race” films. It is no coincidence that Kevin Hart’s biggest international hit is the one co-starring Dwayne Johnson).

          So, yes, diverse films have proven themselves quite successful at the box office.

          I need to see the Baldwin doc as well. When it first opened, a friend & me made plans to see it but it sold out before we bought tickets. Then i got sick, she was out of town, something else came up and so on. One of these days our availability will sync up again.

      2. Well. Ya I think it only a matter of time before most theaters close. They are surviving on popcorn, soft drink, and candy sales so the whole anti sugar thing doesn’t look like a promising forecast for them either. Everything is going mostly digital in the next few decades. But… “it ain’t over till the fat lady sings”. Opera humor…

        1. Well, theaters surviving on the concession stand is far from a new phenomenon. The standard theater/studio agreement for a blockbuster dictates that 90% of opening week moneys go back to Hollywood. So say something grosses $90 million opening weekend? Only 10% of that stays in the theaters. Second weekend split is 80/20, third is 70/30 and so on until it hits a prefixed flat rate. So, next time you’re enjoying the stadium seating or digital surround sound, remember it was paid for mostly by popcorn & soda.

          On the surface, the prognosis for theaters is not encouraging. Yet, there are those films (see above comments on Get Out) which are able to turn out large crowds. More importantly they are able to get 20 somethings into the theaters which is a big accomplishment as well. Indie distributor A24 has been able to do the same for art houses. Film audiences’ median age keeps getting older. Reversing/arresting this trend is one of the key challenges going forward.

          Theaters will survive in the larger cities. The open question is what will happen in medium/small ones. Does seeing the new Star Wars movie pack the same punch if the only option you have for it is your TV screen? Will there always be an audience for the spectacle side of things? Hollywood can’t bankroll a $100+ million superhero film if the only revenue source is pay per view streaming charges. Something’s gotta give.

  2. Speaking of diversity. This actually happened today. Seriously. At our Chicago office the son of a patient called in to complain about a “black” nurse. The problem wasn’t described except to say that he doesn’t want “a black nurse” for his father. When he called in our Jewish African American supervisor answered. The guy told her “let me speak to your supervisor”, ha. WAIT, IT GETS MUCH WORSE. The phone was handed to a clinitian who just happens to be a white American woman with a Japanese last name (because she is married to a Japanese American man). The guy asked what her name was and he started yelling. Let me speak to someone else. He was then transferred to an office manager (another white American/ married to a minority/ Latino this time). He continued yelling asking to talk to an American, even though everyone he talked to was American by birth and two of them were white American. He didn’t even let them explain, not that he deserved an explanation. This is Trump’s America. Fucked forever. Kids are going to be bad to each other. Minorities picking on white kids and vice versa and twenty years from now there is going to be some actual reasons to hate each other instead of made up ones.

  3. Oh. As far as Marvel being totally behind the diversity / sales statement. I don’t know about you guys but I’ve been noticing some changes in programming since Trump won. It’s almost as if corporations thought that we were more open and inclusive as a nation than we really were and are now making adjustments based on that. Food network and travel channel have traditionally been about international destinations mostly (when doing on location shows) but I noticed two of their more popular hosts are doing United States tours this year instead. Even chopped had military and police episodes in the last couple of months.

    Frankly I think we should do genetics tests on all US citizens and force them to only eat the food that their ancestors ate in their homelands a thousand years ago. The only way you could eat a potato or a rice dish or almost anything else would be to give up being a nationalist or a racist. That would solve this problem toot sweet.

    1. There’s things about this presidency that are terrible but I also can’t help but find hilarious. A mild version of this is Steve Bannon calling Jared Kushner a “cuck” I actually laughed while I typed that rn, dead ass

      1. I agree. You have to smile at the little things. I mean really. So Bannon just happens to have a conflict with the only minority within a mile of the White House or Mara Lago or Trump Tower or wherever “the President” is at the moment and he is still “just a nationalist and not a racist”. Right.

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