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Adversity in Diversity: Marvel’s Next Generation Heroes…

Much digital ink has already been spilled about the comments that David Gabriel made of the weekend.

Gabriel is the Vice-President of Sales at Marvel, and he was speaking to ICv2 about the company’s underwhelming performance in recent times. The company’s massive “All-New, All-Different” launch in late 2015 appears to have done little to stem the attrition, offering a brief boost that has not halted the decline. Addressing these concerns, Gabriel suggested one very clear reason for the audience’s lack of enthusiasm about these comics. “What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity. They didn’t want female characters out there.”

Gabriel’s statement has opened up a new front in the culture wars, drawing attention from a host of high-profile new sources not necessarily known for their history of comic book reporting or their understanding of the medium’s inner workings; The Guardian, The Independent, The Irish Times. In a very strange way, this was seen as real news, in a way that news inside (as opposed to “related to the multimedia franchises of”) the comic book industry rarely is. There was clearly a lot tied up in that interview given by an industry figure to an industry publication.

The reason that this story broke out so strongly is quite simple. This debate is part of a larger debate about representation in popular culture. It emerges in the same climate as the debates about cultural appropriation in Iron Fist and whitewashing in Ghost in the Shell. It arrives at a time when the public at large is increasingly attuned to the need for diversity of representation in media and diversity in talent. It was a story that was surprisingly important to a lot of people who don’t read comic books, because it resonated beyond comic books.

After all, when Gabriel talked about “diversity” in comics, he was talking about the fact that Marvel had (relatively) sidelined many of its major prominent white male characters to introduce a more diverse array of characters to the Marvel Universe. Iron Man is now Riri Williams, a young black girl; Tony Stark is in a coma. Captain America was now Sam Wilson, a black man; Steve Rogers was now a pseudo-Nazi villain. Thor is now Jane Foster, a white woman; the Odinson has been judged “unworthy.”

There are plenty of other examples. Ghost Rider is now Robbie Reyes, a latino teenager. The Hulk is now Amadeus Cho, an Asian American teenager. Miles Morales is now Spider-Man, although he shares the title with Peter Parker. Even low-tier heroes like Moon Boy have undergone a change, the role filled by Lunella Lafayette. Even heroes without cool codenames have undergone a transition, with the version of David Hasselhoff who looks like Nick Fury replaced by a version who looks like Samuel L. Jackson.

There is a sense that the Marvel universe actually looks a lot more like contemporary America, a diverse array of people from a wide variety of backgrounds. It is quite remarkable, a shocking contrast to the Marvel universe as it was originally envisaged in the sixties. In keeping with the social politics of the time, the bulk of Marvel’s classic Golden and Silver Age heroes were fairly generic white guys. The Marvel Universe looked a lot like mainstream film and television of the era, mostly white with a handful of notable exceptions.

Of course, film and television have changed over the years to reflect an increasingly socially conscious society. That change is enabled by the fact that the cornerstone of film and television is not a set of intellectual properties dating back to the Kennedy era. Television and film can change and evolve because they generally create new characters. Although, of course, any attempt to change the race or gender of a character in an adaptation inevitably become mini media firestorms.

However, comic book universes are different, for a number of reasons. In part, it’s because despite arguments that they tell on single (really) long-form story, comics don’t really move forward in time. Peter Parker is still swinging nimbly between building, despite having graduated high school in September 1965. The comics are stuck in a perpetual “now”, their past being constantly rewritten to avoid anchoring them too heavily. Was Frank Castle a veteran of the Vietnam War? Or did he serve in Iraq?

This unique framework of comics means that the characters exist in a perpetual status quo. After all, that is what makes characters like Batman and Superman so mythic, the fact that they are icons that transcend a particular cultural moment and that their stories really don’t have a clear end. (Some might argue The Dark Knight Returns counts, but it just ends with Bruce taking up the mantle again and has launched two sequels.) And this is arguably reflected in how static these media have become.

It is very hard for modern characters to break out. In terms of comic book characters who have gone on to enter the popular consciousness, the most recent examples are all over two decades old. Deadpool was introduced in the pages of New Mutants in February 1991. Harley Quinn first appeared in Joker’s Favour in September 1992. Bane made an impressive debut in Vengeance of Bane in January 1993. For these success stories, the industry is littered with corpses of countless original characters; Talon, Atrocitus, Echo.

One of the ways that the industry has attempted to introduce diversity has been through the concept of “legacy” characters; new characters who take on the name and branding of a classic well-loved character. There seem to have been dozens of Robins across continuity, and the Green Lantern franchise lends itself to this storytelling. So the African American John Stewart and the Latino American Kyle Rayner could both take over for Hal Jordan as Green Lantern. Jim Rhodes slots into the role of Iron Man on occasion. A more diverse X-Men take over for the original five.

This is largely what happened with Marvel’s “All-New All-Different” reboot, spinning out of their sprawling Secret Wars event. It quickly seems like the entire line has been swapped out the classic white characters for a wave of more diverse replacements. Marvel’s All-New All-Different Avengers featured an African American Captain America, Iron Man and Spider-Man, a Pakistani-American Muslim Ms. Marvel, and a female Thor. (And an android and a white teenager.) It was a move that was breathtakingly bold.

It wasn’t as though the classic characters disappeared, either. Peter Parker is still also Spider-Man. Steve Rogers has his own Captain America book. The Odinson is at the centre of Unworthy Thor. Even Tony Stark is not “dead”, as much as any comic book character is ever dead, he’s just in a coma. He may as well be napping. It seemed like a very fair and reasonable transition, all things considered. However, the consumer base appears to have reacted with vitriol, and the sales numbers reported through Diamond have clearly been falling.

David Gabriel’s remarks about diversity were offered in a very particular context. He was talking as part of an industry process, as part of a conference between Marvel and major comic book distributors. He was speaking following conversations with people who owned bricks-and-mortar shops, the specialty vendors effectively act as reselling agents for the publishers. The comic book direct market is a decidedly strange beast, but one that has become increasingly insular and isolated as a result of economic trends and business decisions that were made during the eighties.

Gabriel’s comments on the negative impact that diversity was having on comic book sales did not come from any comprehensive survey or sampling. It did not come from rigorous polling or meticulous study. It was largely a reiteration of arguments made by a number of vocal comic book vendors who were reporting on their own experiences with their own customer base. It was not an observation that was supported with any evidence, it was anecdotal arguments taken at face value repeated without any critical analysis.

After all, even a cursory glance at the data suggests that Gabriel’s argument is tenuous at best. Discounting event books (IvX, Civil War II), the female-led Hulk was the Marvel Universe’s biggest selling book of December 2016. The female-led Mighty Thor is selling better (in terms of both units and relative position in the market) in January 2017 than the male-led Thor: God of Thunder was at an equivalent point in its run in November 2013. Indeed, Miles Morales’ Spider-Man has actually grown its audience between January 2017 and April 2015.

This is not discounting the bias towards the direct market, reflecting its own distorted influence on the comic book industry. Collection editions of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze’s Black Panther have made the New York Times‘ bestseller lists. Although there are no exact figures, Marvel has confirmed that female characters dominate digital sales. Indeed, Ms. Marvel has been confirmed as the company’s top-selling digital book. Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur has received a huge push (and warm reception) from Scholastic.

All of these tell a more nuanced and interesting story than David Gabriel’s comments suggest. After all, sales within the existing distribution system are falling pretty much across the board, even for “classic” and white male heroes. The indication is that while the audience in the direct market is openly hostile to these characters, as demonstrated by the rhetoric coming from retailers, audiences outside that traditional market are engaging. Women and people of colour may not be frequenting their local comic shops, they are buying through other channels.

And this is the rub. This is the context that is missing from most of the discussions about Gabriel’s comments. These minority heroes did not appear overnight. Marvel did not suddenly decide to swap out its a-list characters after Secret Wars because of some overwhelming commitment to social justice. The reinvention that came with All-New, All-Different Marvel was driven by low sales for those existing characters. Comic book publishers do not try radical new directions for the hell of it, they do it to fix problems.

Of course, the simple fact is that the original white characters will generally be treated as the default, and so will inevitably be the focus of any reboot or reset. Tony Stark can crash an Iron Man book any number of times, with critics citing everything from bad writing to crossover saturation to poor editorial direction. The character will inevitably get another shot, whether as a member of the Guardians of the Galaxy or as the Superior Iron Man or whatever. However, Riri Williams only gets one shot, and when that one shot fails, the blame is inevitably placed on “diversity.”

Indeed, even the original five X-Men, five white teenage characters who were so bland and generic that they tanked what would become Marvel’s most successful team franchise, have gotten multiple opportunities to reunite and rebrand over the years. They were the original X-Factor, before writer Peter David gave the title its own unique identity. More recently, they were dragged into modern Marvel continuity as part of Brian Michael Bendis’ All-New X-Men. However, the X-Men line is still in decline. The original five are no stronger a seller than they were the first time.

There is a credible argument to be made that the comic book industry is in a terminal decline, driven by a number of factors that go beyond storytelling and character. The price of comics is simply absurd, particularly as measured against other forms of entertainment. The comic book universes are largely driven by events, and continuity makes it difficult for readers to jump on in. More than that, comic books are no longer sold at newsstands, which makes it harder and harder to put comics in the hand of a young reader and so to get a new generation reading.

Perhaps comic books themselves are not sustainable, at least not in their current model. Comic book publishers like Marvel and DC are arguably most useful to media conglomerates like Disney or Time Warner as an intellectual property, creating characters and concepts that will generate far more money in other forms; in merchandise, in branding, in feature films, in video games, in television shows. Increasingly, it seems like comics are almost treated as batteries powering multimedia entities.

Of course, this is terrifying. It is worrying for anybody who appreciates mainstream comic books as an industry of itself, although it should be noted that companies like Image and Dark Horse have demonstrated that it is possible to sustain a comic book publishing company with a much smaller base. Many of the joys of Marvel and DC comics are to be found in characters and concepts that seem unlikely to ever make it to the screen, playing with established character in interesting and intriguing ways.

However, this threat is particularly unsettling to comic book fans who concern themselves with the concept of the “canon”, with the ideological and continuity of the books. The fans who use rhetoric like insisting that something is valid because it is intended “for the fans”, and who treat anybody venturing in from outside the industry as a challenge; the fans who complain about Twilight fans clogging up Comic Con. In some respects, the fans who feel uncomfortable sharing something that they believe rightfully belongs to them.

(In some respects, this is a feature of the twenty-first century culture wars, where the goal seems to denying entry to a particular medium to the “enemy”, where the enemy is generally presented as a group overlapping significantly with women or people of colour. GamerGate might just be the best example, where there was a lot of rhetoric around so-called “objective” reviews that were defined by the subjective preferences of the movement and which specifically targeted feminist critics.)

However one might want to think about comics, there is a sense that the industry (and more importantly the corporate owners) need to start approaching comics as a long-term investment rather than a short-term money-maker. If Marvel and DC are to effectively cement their position as research and development divisions of larger media empires, the strategies within the marketplace need to reflect this. There needs to be more of a focus on the impact of characters and concepts outside the direct market instead of pandering directly.

After all, it seems fair to argue that the impact of this diversity push has been surprisingly broad. This is evident just looking at the response to Gabriel’s comments, which drew articles from a wide variety of publications that would not normally engage with the happenings in monthly comics outside of the occasional coverage of an upcoming blockbuster. However, even beyond of that, Ta-Nehisi Coates was interviewed about Black Panther in publications like The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal. That is an outsized impact.

More than that, there is some sense that pop culture is more broadly moving in a more inclusive direction. Last year, Ava DuVernay became the first black woman to direct a film with a budget over one hundred million dollars. Jordan Peele recent broke the record for highest original debut. Although they had to release a bunch of movies about a talking racoon and three white guys with blonde hair named Chris first, even Marvel Studios is pushing towards a more diverse slate of pictures including Captain Marvel and Black Panther.

 

If comic book publishers wish to continue their current role as intellectual property farms, then they need to get moving in that direction as well. There is a sense that if the medium falls behind, it will be left behind. This is the challenge; the two big publishers need to evolve and grow. Part of that means understanding that they need to keep these characters around for longer than a couple of years in order to let them permeate the consciousness. They need to allow those characters to break into other media.

Indeed, that last part is key. The only truly successful legacy characters are those who have broken into other media, because it is film and television that shape the public perception of superheroes more than the material comic books. John Stewart is arguably the most successful minority replacement character in comic book history, in large part because he happened to be the Green Lantern who appeared in Justice League and Justice League Unlimited.

This is true even of white characters. The legacy characters who caught on tend to be those who feature in media outside of comics. Barry Allen arguably supplanted Jay Garrick because he appeared in Superfriends and The Flash. The public thinks of Dick Grayson as Robin because of Batman! and Batman Forever. Again, the key to ensuring the survival of these characters means placing them in front of children who will grow up with a particular individual as “their” version of an iconic legacy.

Indeed, it could reasonably be argued that the best hope for getting these legacy characters into the popular consciousness is by having them make the leap to the big screen. And that is not a risk that the major studios seem ready to take yet. Spider-Man: Homecoming will feature Peter Parker, despite borrowing some of Miles Morales’ cast. Thor: Ragnarok will not even feature Jane Foster. The heart of the MCU seems like it will always be Robert Downey Junior as Tony Stark.

However, there is arguably hope. After all, Robert Downey Junior is not a drawing on a page. He will have to retire at some stage. Similarly, Chris Evans has signaled his desire to move on from the role of Captain America. Imagine a world where a major studio was willing to experiment by shifting minority leads into their most high-profile roles. After all, it is not as if the actors were the original draw to audiences. Robert Downey Junior acted nothing like the comic book version of Tony Stark, and was considered box office poison when he took the role in Iron Man.

Indeed, Marvel Studios has arguably already demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach. Mark Millar might have introduced the concept of an African American Nick Fury in the alternate universe titles Ultimate X-Men and The Ultimates, but that version became the default when Samuel L. Jackson stepped out of the shadows during the credits to Iron Man. Most audience members have no idea that Nick Fury was originally white. Indeed, through some decidedly complicated continuity hijinks, the Marvel Universe now has its own Samuel-L.-Jackson-inspired Nick Fury.

That seems to be the best hope for diversity in the Marvel Universe, taking the opportunity to tell legacy stories on the big screen. After all, Marvel Studios has long prided itself on adapting the methods and style of the original comics for cinema; The Avengers was effectively a gigantic crossover, while Ant-Man was a legacy character, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a tie-in. It seems like the real opportunity for this diversity initiative, for a more representative Marvel Universe, lies in breaking out of the panel borders into other media.

After all, it will be very hard to attract diverse audiences if women and people of colour are told that they are not welcome through the medium’s primary distribution channel, which is the message that the retailers seem to be sending. More than that, they seem unlikely to invest in these attempts at outreach if they know that these characters will inevitably be snatched away or shoved out of the limelight to make room for the same old white characters to placate a very vocal and traditionalist (predominantly white and male) audience.

To be fair, Marvel seem to have recognised the public relations schnafu that they have created. Gabriel clarified his position early in the week, insisting that “our new heroes are not going anywhere!” At the same time, his assertion that Marvel would continue to “pair” them with the original iterations did little to assuage doubts. There was a sense that that stable was being locked long after the horse had bolted. (More reassuring was the promise to move away from events after Secret Empire.) Still, it seems the best hope for these characters lies beyond the comic page.

All they need to do is survive long enough in that medium for the transition to be viable.

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2 Responses

  1. Great write up Darren and I’m glad that you went into the industry and fandom issues beyond David Gabriel’s comments and the reaction to them. While the initial response from critics, journalists and fans has been a heartening display of support for diversity in comics there has been a frustrating lack of coverage of the factors that led to his comments, such as the exclusionary elements of the fandom and the overall drop in comic sales. Instead a lot of news outlets seem to treat Gabriel’s comments as an isolated event, something to be (rightly) discredited with no concern for the deeper issues that have festered in the industry for some time and will (unfortunately) continue to exist. Even a lot of comic focused news outlets seem to be unwilling to probe deeper past Gabriel’s claims and instead treat it as a one off event.

    • Yep. I was in part motivated to write this because there’d been so much comment on it, but so little actually engagement. Just a cacophony of (entirely justifiable) outrage without any real attention to the particulars of what he said and why he said it and whether it was true. It was frustrating, knowing that there are comic book journalists out there who actually do this stuff for a living, but no major news source could be bothered to draft them in to write the piece.

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