I read a couple of recent articles in which Marvel exec David Gabriel stated that issues of Marvel titles featuring women and ethnically diverse characters just weren’t selling well. He was quoted as saying, “people didn’t want any more diversity. They didn’t want female characters out there.” In effect, titles starring or featuring female characters front and center weren’t selling, and by extension, dragging down overall sales figures for the entire line.
Well, it’s starting to emerge that this is pretty much a big pile of horseshit.
Marvel has always had a reputation, from the start, of featuring female characters in either strong supporting roles, as costars in comics, or as characters featured in books on their own. While true that back in the Sixties these women were quite a bit cringe-worthy in their portrayals – Sue Storm, Scarlet Witch, Enchantress, even Black Widow – they were still much more empowered and interesting than the vast majority of their counterparts from other companies. And as time went on, these women gradually started coming into their own as characters to be reckoned with. In recent years, Sue Storm has emerged in recent years as a fierce and able leader of the Fantastic Four, Black Widow went from simpering lover of Hawkeye to a badass fighter, and Scarlet Witch herself essentially remade the Marvel Universe in her own image in the House of M story arc.
Marvel even kept testing the waters for even more female heroes – Ms. Marvel, Dazzler, She-Hulk – through the Seventies. These three actually got their own books back then. Compare this to DC at that time, whose only female leading characters that sold well were the relatively safe examples of Wonder Woman and Supergirl. The Marvel Women titles may have been written by men – with the male writers’ “how liberated women act and think” characterizations and by male artists who found it nearly impossible to shy away from cheesecake portrayals – but by gosh, Marvel kept trying.
And, gradually, Marvel women started coming into their own. And people noticed. Most notably comic fans and other comic publishers. DC, for example, scrambled to throw out strong characters of their own – new ones like Vixen, older ones like Zatanna, Poison Ivy, Catwoman, Power Girl, Black Canary, Batgirl, etc. – to see what stuck. Most of them, like female Marvel characters, failed as stars of their own books or features and got relegated to team or supporting roles.
In recent years, though, Marvel has led the way in presenting strong female role models in their own books. True, quite a number of them have taken on the mantles of established male superheroes – Thor, Iron Man, Captain Marvel, Wolverine, Captain America (Chavez) – but all of them have carried their respective series well enough to maintain interest in the characters and, most importantly, not totally destroy sales of the books they’re featured in.
There’s still a ways to go, but Marvel, as always, is leading the pack.
But, and there’s always a but in pretty much anything I post here, some people don’t seem to think so, and want you to think so, too, despite real evidence to the contrary. The above quote from Gabriel is the most glaring example. He cited slumping sales and growing disinterest from fans as the prime reason. And the implication here is that, since these titles are tanking, they’re also dragging down the rest of the Marvel line.
Marvel’s lowest-selling title is called Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, selling, at last count, under 9000 issues. However, that title, as well as books featuring the new Ms. Marvel and Squirrel Girl, is getting acclaim and selling well in trade paperback. In fact, the latter two trades made bestseller lists. So while sales of individual issues may be relatively weak, interest is very strong. (One may argue that such a situation could be applied across the board, however. It’s more convenient and easier to follow compilations of stories or a single story arc when the pertinent issues are collected in a single volume, no matter what the title may be.)
The truth of the matter is different. Comic sales everywhere are slumping. During February, Marvel’s two top sellers were The Amazing Spider-Man and The Mighty Thor, with the former, a perennial favorite, being the higher of the two at almost 62,000 issues. The next ten highest selling books, though, only sold between 35,000 and 39,000 copies.
In other words, every comic book being published in recent months is selling low. The market itself is slumping. And none of that is due to low sales of female-centric books.
The real problem is Marvel’s overall approach to the current comics market lately. And that approach is achingly reminiscent of another company’s horrendous mistake.
In 2011, DC Comics relaunched their whole line, to varying degrees of success, as the New 52. All then-current books were cancelled, and the more prestigious ones were all relaunched with #1 issues. An almost complete do-over. Some of the comics sold well, some got acclaim, some got cancelled early (always, inexplicably, to be replaced by another title, to maintain the 52-titles motif Dan DiDio obsessed over), some were bad and some were complete disasters (nymphomaniac Starfire, anyone?).
The two major comics lines got into the bad habit of relaunching their titles after Crisis on Infinite Earths, whenever they found the current continuity at the time either confusing or an inconvenience. The positives for this move were strong initial sales of almost all books, mostly out of curiosity from long-timers and new readers. But as time would wear on, longtime readers would be turned off of the new iteration of a character or team, and new readers would as well. And so, in their finite wisdom, a company would do another relaunch, not learning a thing from previous mistakes.
How does that enter into this conversation? I’m getting to that.
In Marvel’s soft relaunch a couple of years ago, following the original Civil War company-wide arc, it was decided that possibly there was an untapped market for books that featured diversity in race, ethnicity and gender. And so came changes in existing titles and the creation of new ones: Riri Williams taking on the mantle of genius-who-builds-their-own-high-tech-armor, Jane Foster as the new Thor, and Kamala Khan as the newest incarnation of Ms. Marvel; and Doreen Green as the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (seriously, this girl beat up Wolverine, Deadpool, Doctor Doom, and, for Tippy Toe’s sake, Thanos!). The characters Thor, Ms. Marvel and Squirrel Girl are even finding their way into video games and television, with the last one getting her own animated series, Squirrel Girl: The New Warriors Are Here Too I Guess, and serious interest from Anna Kendrick to play her in a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie.
To say that comics starring female and ethnically diverse heroes are not doing well in the comics market is disingenuous at best, and, at worst, reeks of the still prevalent male-dominated and male-centric viewpoints of those in charge of making comics, especially at the top levels. This view does a real, concrete disservice to the new fans who are finally finding heroes that they not only can look up to, but can relate to as one of their own. As boys have role models in heroes like Captain America, Spider-Man, Superman and the like, now girls, Muslims, and people of color are discovering role models of their own. Something to love and to aspire to. Something to read about, to cherish and hold to their hearts and finally say, after over 75 years of comics history:
This is mine. This is me.
Marvel has a long way to go, but they’re getting there, and still, after all these decades, are leading the pack. They’re racing into the hearts and minds of new readers at a record pace, expanding their base and exposing previously untapped groups of fans to comics in a way never seen before.
As long as they don’t stumble.