Marvel, the comic book juggernaut known for bringing many iconic superheroes to life, is still figuring out how not to look like a villain.
Over the weekend, part of an interview with Marvel vice president David Gabriel made the rounds, in which Gabriel inelegantly and inadvertently suggested that poor sales reflected readers’ disinterest in comic books featuring nonwhite and female superheroes.
“What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity,” Gabriel said in the interview with ICv2. “I don’t know that that’s really true, but that’s what we saw in sales.”
Bleeding Cool’s aggregation of the interview — “Marvel’s David Gabriel On Sales Slump: People ‘Didn’t Want Any More Diversity,’ ‘Didn’t Want Female Characters’” — went viral, and other sites quickly picked up the story. “Marvel VP of Sales Blames Women and Diversity for Sales Slump,” io9 wrote. The Verge reminded Marvel, “Of course your comics are political, Marvel,” while Nerdist asserted, “Marvel is wrong about diversity killing its comics.”
Marvel and Gabriel quickly issued a statement clarifying his response, but that was about as useful as an umbrella in a hurricane. The genie was out of the bottle.
The rapid response to Gabriel’s words isn’t just about one quote from one interview, though. Marvel’s push for representation and diversity, both on the page and behind it, has been a years-long initiative. Gabriel’s response, and the reaction to it, represents a flare-up of long-simmering issues on both the business and artistic sides of the industry, issues that boil down to one complicated question: What is the value of comics diversity, and how do we measure that value?
The context of Gabriel’s interview is really, really important
It’s important to acknowledge that Gabriel’s conversation with ICv2 wasn’t just some random interview; it was part of Marvel’s summit with comic book retailers. In the first part of the three-part report, two retailers who spoke up asserted that diversity hurt sales. Marvel executives, including Gabriel, were present for those remarks.
“I don't want you guys doing that stuff,” one retailer said, explaining the political content in some of Marvel’s comics. “I want you to entertain. That’s the job. One of my customers even said the other day he wants to get stories and doesn’t mind a message, but he doesn't want to be beaten over the head with these things.”
When you talk about the Academy Awards, and how [inclusion and diversity] was a prime topic, I look at the cold, hard reality, and I'm in business. A lot of those movies, or other things in other media, aren't really big money makers. For me, I care more about whether I'm going to sell it or not.
But there were also retailers who pushed against these statements, saying that sales for comics involving nonwhite heroes, like Miles Morales and Ms. Marvel, were doing well and that diversity was needed. Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso also talked about the beauty of diversity.
But what Gabriel reiterated, and what everyone focused on, was a sentiment from the retailers who came to their own conclusions about why they thought their sales were low.
In order to fully understand why Gabriel echoed these sentiments, you need a basic understanding of how important comic book retailers are in the industry. The business side of comic books is still figuring out how to adapt to an age when we consume art a lot differently than we did five, 10, or 15 years ago. But where television shows and music have figured out new ways to measure consumption (through streaming, DVR recordings, etc.), the comic book industry is still wedded in large part to retailers, even though you can get comic books digitally or via a subscription service.
Without getting into too much esoteric detail, retailers and publishers still abide by a system that’s based on orders from independent owners — and that system is part of what’s informing the views of the retailers who spoke out against Marvel’s diverse titles, as well as Gabriel’s response.
Writer and comic book creator Kelly Sue DeConnick outlined the importance of preordering books on her Tumblr, but it basically comes down to comic book shops having limited space, not being able to return stock, and making the savviest orders. Comic book shop owners don’t want to spend their budget on books no one wants to buy, so they tend to go with the safe bets — like A-list comic books featuring well-known heroes. Preorders, which customers can arrange through comic book shops, also represent a confirmed sale for the retailer.
Publishers like Marvel, in turn, base their sales numbers off these retailer orders — every order is considered a sale, since retailers don’t return unsold comic books. This is what makes customer preorders so important, especially for newer books and books from less well-known creators: They signal to retailers and publishers that there’s interest in the book.
This system has helped create a market that’s really difficult to break into or change, because its whims are dictated by a specific set of fans who go into the shop and buy individual floppy issues. Moreover, these sales are made three months in advance, sometimes with just bare-bones information about the book (title, author, artist, cover), meaning the sales also favor established writers and artists and legacy titles over creators just getting onto the scene. These sales also reflect the taste of regular customers versus expanding audiences.
It’s a system that skews toward the status quo, instead of toward breaking new ground.
Gabriel’s gaffe was a public relations nightmare for Marvel’s diversity initiative
When Gabriel spoke about the relationship between diversity and sales, he was speaking about sales and feedback from retailers, not necessarily offering a personal opinion. He’s very clear in his response (the passage that’s gotten a lot of attention) that he’s talking about retailers, and what he heard them saying about how diversity hurts.
But things get stickier when Gabriel seems to take the retailer feedback and apply what sounds like a company perspective to it:
ICv2: Now the million-dollar question. Why did those tastes change?
I don't know if that's a question for me. I think that's a better question for retailers who are seeing all publishers. 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.
It was the old things coming back in that time period, three books in particular, Spider-Man Renew Your Vows, that had Spider-Man and Mary Jane married, that worked. The Venom book worked and the Thanos book worked. You can take what you want out of who might be enjoying those three books, but it is definitely a specific type of comic book reader, comic book collector that really liked those three series.
Saying that diversity, female superheroes, and nonwhite superheroes are the reason sales are down — essentially what those retailers claimed — without questioning it or challenging it isn’t a good look for a Marvel representative. What’s worse is that Gabriel reiterated a vocal dissent from some retailers and seemed to apply it to the whole market.
That’s why Marvel decided to clarify his answer with a statement in which it tried to make clear that it heard from retailers championing the company’s diverse books at the summit too, but unfortunately only talked about the negative aspect:
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. And let me be clear, our new heroes are not going anywhere! We are proud and excited to keep introducing unique characters that reflect new voices and new experiences into the Marvel Universe and pair them with our iconic heroes.
We have also been hearing from stores that welcome and champion our new characters and titles and want more! They've invigorated their own customer base and helped them grow their stores because of it. So we're getting both sides of the story and the only upcoming change we're making is to ensure we don't lose focus of our core heroes.
The damage was done. Though Marvel tried to bring clarity to the issue, a lot of people were alarmed by Gabriel’s initial words.
For fans who want diversity in Marvel’s books, Gabriel was at best missing the point, and at worst signaling that Marvel saw diversity as a failed marketing experiment.
Annnnd here comes that "Black ppl? Women? We DID diversity. Now, back to NORMAL." transition I warned you about. https://t.co/NHK6cwgFQT— Iron Spike (@Iron_Spike) March 31, 2017
This alarm is understandable: Characterizing diversity as a trend that kills comics is a slippery slope, and not a fair assessment. There have been A-List comic books that feature marquee characters such as Tony Stark/Iron Man that bumble into mediocrity. There are also a lot of bad books featuring white male characters that live on the bottom of the comic book ecosystem, but retailers don’t up and tell Marvel to stop making white male characters because their books don’t sell:
straight white dude characters spun off from your hyper mega popular character who had a movie that did big numbers and they selling GARBAGE— Colin Spacetwinks (@spacetwinks) March 31, 2017
As the retailers and Gabriel point out, Marvel didn’t have the strongest 2016. It’s also true that Marvel has recently focused on diverse heroes. But to connect the two and think the latter begets the former without taking into account any other factors asserts causation with correlation.
There are other metrics by which to measure a comic book’s success. But they’re harder to quantify.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that retail sales are only one metric by which to determine the success or failure of certain comic books.
What those miffed retailers failed to mention is that, according to Comic Book Resources’ analysis, The Mighty Thor, Marvel’s comic with a female Thor, is a top seller, as is Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze’s Black Panther.
Many people also buy their comic books in collected volumes (trade paperbacks) and/or digitally, and the digital market has been growing. According to a 2015 report from the digital retailer Comixology, comic books featuring female leads dominate in digital sales. In a 2014 interview with Marvel’s Sana Amanat, Amanat said that Ms. Marvel was the company’s top digital seller. There are also comic books like Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur that do well online, in trades, and in the Scholastic arena but don’t have stellar retail sales.
What gets tricky is that companies like Marvel aren’t usually very open about releasing digital numbers. On top of that, retail sales are the biggest driver of which comic books get green lights and which ones get canceled — even when an audience doesn’t really know a book exists (because of a lack of marketing or the lack of stock on shelves), or because they don’t know the ordering and preordering system.
There’s also the harder-to-quantify matter of prestige, and the nonmonetary value it brings to a title. To that point, the Hugos, which award the year’s best science fiction and fantasy works, released their nominations on Tuesday. Three Marvel comic books were honored — Black Panther and Ms. Marvel were two of them.
G. Willow Wilson, the writer of Ms. Marvel, wrote about Gabriel’s interview on her personal site, directly addressing the idea of the two different markets and how the industry needs to adapt. “The direct market [the retailer/comic book shop market] and the book market have diverged. Never the twain shall meet. We need to accept this and move on, and market accordingly,” she wrote.
But aside from the numbers, there’s another conversation happening here about the deeper meaning of Marvel’s commitment to diversity.
The real value of comics diversity
I haven’t always been a fan of Marvel’s editorial choices. The past couple of years, I’ve found myself dropping some Marvel books in reaction to prices going up, the company’s relentless crossover events, and a weird editorial decision that left one of my favorite characters, Emma Frost, missing from a lot of the action after Marvel’s giant Secret Wars event. I’m also puzzled as to why some of the company’s best books (Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vision, Unstoppable Wasp, etc.) don’t receive the marketing push other titles do. Beyond me, there’s been a vocal pushback against some of Marvel’s editorial decisions, like its Captain America-is-a-Hydra-agent reveal.
That said, when it comes to what Gabriel was trying to say and what he ended up saying, he deserves a genuine shake. Undercutting his argument or cherry-picking his words doesn’t achieve anything. If we’re looking for a serious discussion about diversity and sales in the industry, his statement about their sales potential should be taken seriously.
There needs to be an honest conversation about balancing the sales potential of diverse comic books and the value of said books. Marvel has to look at the books it’s publishing — taking into account everything from the artists creating them to how they’re being marketed — and consider how, or if, they’re getting to the audiences that want to read them.
And when there are statements that directly blame diversity for a slump, the company should (and probably will, considering this nightmare of a news cycle) really think about all the other factors at play before giving it credence.
It’s a two-way street too.
The way the comic book industry records sales and fan interest isn’t going to change overnight. There’s an opportunity here for audiences to consider how they support good books. Getting annoyed with retailers is the easy part. Figuring out how to support good writers —especially nonwhite and female writers who are just breaking into the industry — and the good books they write is more difficult.
Grant Morrison, a comic book writer who worked for Marvel and DC, wrote in his 2011 book Supergods that comic books and superheroes have the power to be as influential in shaping a person’s morality as religion. It’s something that’s stuck with me, partly because Chris Claremont’s X-Men run was hugely influential in my view of humanity, empathy, and kindness.
Morrison’s observation is pertinent here for how it encapsulates how we look at superhero comic books. They’re stories about morality, justice, humanity, and the good in people. They’re pieces of art.
They’re also products.
Marvel is connected to the morals of the art it creates in a way other artistic pursuits aren’t. There’s an implicit expectation that the company pumping out these lessons about life and justice should be as good as the stories it’s creating. It would be a death knell for the company if its culture and its product became diametrically opposed.
The appeal for diversity in comics comes from the expectation that a company that’s built on stories about finding the good in one another, about brilliance in the overlooked, about finding heroes where you least expect them and standing up for what’s right, should be exhibiting those values in real life. Even when some people in the business say otherwise.