Diversity Push May Have Hurt Marvel’s Comic Sales
Executive backpedals on his blunt comments that 'nothing new worked' — but the concerns expressed are likely quite valid
Many of today’s top-earning films are based on comic books, specifically Marvel comic books. The wild box-office victories of movies like “Captain America: Civil War,” “Iron Man,” “Doctor Strange,” and “The Avengers” would likely lead the average consumer to think the comics themselves are seeing big upticks in sales.
The opposite happens to be true — and the reason could surprise some. The past few years have seen the Marvel comic line make an aggressive push for diversity in its stories. Popular characters such as Iron Man, Spiderman, Thor, and others have been replaced with younger characters of varying minorities and genders.
To note just a few examples: The original Peter Parker (Spiderman) was replaced with biracial teen Miles Morales. Captain America sidekick Sam Falcon (an African-American) took over the patriotic suit from WWII hero Steve Rogers; Thor’s hammer was claimed by a woman; Tony Stark’s suit went to a 15-year-old African-American teen — and a Pakistani-American became the new Ms. Marvel.
David Gabriel, Marvel’s senior vice president of print, sales, and marketing, recently said it was likely this push that led to a sales decrease for the comic-book company in the last quarter of 2016.
“What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity,” Gabriel said to the online magazine iCV2 at the Marvel Retailers Summit last week in New York City.
Gabriel added, “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 [it].”
He also cited “too much product” as a reason for a slump in sales, as well as the new stories replacing core and popular characters as outright failures. “Nothing new really worked,” he said.
Gabriel’s blunt talk was a bit much for media outlets and social justice warriors who have praised Marvel for abandoning old characters in favor of new, more ethnically diverse ones. That is likely why Gabriel reached out to iCV2 to clarify the company’s stance after his words resulted in headlines everywhere.
"Discussed candidly by some of the retailers at the summit, we heard that some were not happy with the false abandonment of the core Marvel heroes and, contrary to what some said about characters 'not working,' the sticking factor and popularity for a majority of these new titles and characters like Squirrel Girl, Ms. Marvel, The Mighty Thor, Spider-Gwen, Miles Morales, and Moon Girl, continue to prove that our fans and retailers are excited about these new heroes," Gabriel said in a statement.
He also assured readers that the new characters would remain in circulation.
It's likely Gabriel's statement was simply a face-saving gesture for the company, an attempt to put out any potential fires with people who would rather see a company fail than avoid putting social agendas above storytelling and sales.
A slump in sales for Marvel is likely indicative of the same issue experienced by last summer's "Ghostbusters." The film seemed like a brilliant idea. It was a female-led extension of the classic comedy starring Bill Murray and Harold Ramis. However, fans turned against the film when they found out it was a simple remake of what had come before — and the trailers were just not funny.
Distributor Sony and the filmmakers pivoted their pitch, and suddenly anyone disagreeing with the new film was a misogynist. The movie predictably flopped and was reported to have lost $75 million for Sony.
People have criticized Marvel comics in similar fashion. When some of the most popular characters on the silver screen are Tony Stark, Thor, and Spiderman, why outright replace those characters with ones that have nothing to do with the movies?
And, above all, why not create something fresh and original rather than toss aside beloved and popular characters? That alienates fans and puts them in an impossible situation, in which criticizing it seems akin to being a hatemonger.
Beyond this, Marvel’s push was incredibly aggressive. One character after another hit the bricks in a relatively short period of time. The goal of the company seemed to be less about storytelling and more about an agenda to say all the "right things" that would please all the "right people." Yet if the storytelling is no good, customers will flee.
And storytelling is what it's all about in the end. We know comics fans are no strangers to diversity in their storytelling. Black Panther was a strong (and strong selling) African-American character who is now getting his own film after a popular appearance in the latest "Captain America" movie.
"Wonder Woman" has long been a staple of DC comics — and a character who will get her own standalone adventure in June. "Captain Marvel" is another female superhero ready for a solo outing in 2018. On and on the list goes: Luke Cage (African-American), Harley Quinn (who had a recent popular appearance in "Suicide Squad"), and more.
The majority of these characters were original figures, not half-baked replacements for previously popular creations that didn’t need to be replaced.
Diversity is a wonderful thing when it comes to art — but not when it comes at the sacrifice of story. Marvel seems to have unfortunately done this, and it's paying the price.