Beyond The Pale (Male): Marvel, Diversity And A Changing Comics Readership

Apr 8, 2017
Originally published on April 8, 2017 9:42 am

It's a Wednesday at Fantom Comics in Washington, D.C., and the store is bustling.

Every Wednesday is New Comics Day — when subscribers come in to pick up the week's new titles, check in with each other, and talk comics. This Wednesday is no different.

Well. It's a little different.

I'm used to comics-shop chatter that revolves around things like which new books are worth checking out, what storylines have gone one way too long, and which hero could kick which other hero's butt.

Generally speaking, the word demographics doesn't crop up as much as it does today.

"We live in 2017," customer Erin Lisette tells me, "in a day and age where there are so many different demographics reading these comics, and most importantly, children! And it's like, GUYS. Maybe this was okay in the '30s, '40s, maybe even '50s, but come on: there are these kids with brown skin and different textured hair and all these different features reading these books and they never see themselves represented as the good guy. And that sucks."

She's reacting to remarks made to the website ICv2 last week by Marvel Comics' VP of Sales, David Gabriel. He gave an interview about some of the feedback he had heard at a sales summit with the country's top comics shop owners and managers.

"What we heard was that people didn't want any more diversity," he said. "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."

He later clarified that even though some of those retailers weren't happy with recent Marvel decisions (decisions which include making Iron Man a young black woman — long story) the company's commitment to their increasingly diverse roster of heroes remained firm.

Controversy

It didn't much matter that only two of the retailers who attended the summit expressed misgivings about books featuring women and people of color, while the rest maintained that those books were selling well in their shops. The damage was done.

The many, many headlines that followed — "Marvel Blames Diversity For Sales Slump," fueled a lot of online disbelief and outrage and thinkpieces offering alternative explanations for why Marvel's titles might be selling less.

Fantom's second-in-command, Leah Ly, wonders if Marvel's recent strategy of big crossover events — mini-series that require readers to buy many different titles — might have some customers shying away.

"Marvel's in a bit of event fatigue right now," she says, "because they've had two years of events, and people are a little tired."

Other potential reasons for a recent Marvel's sales slump? Cover price (especially compared to DC, whose "Rebirth" relaunch featured reduced prices across their entire line, at least at first), and the fact that some of their top writers and artists are making the jump to independent publishers, where they can own the characters and the stories they tell.

New readers

But Ly is quick to point out that any readers and retailers who reject diversity aren't the whole story. There's a new comics readership coming in — she sees them every day — readers who are eager for different kinds of heroes.

Readers like Lisa Fumia, visiting Fantom from Tulsa, Okla.

"I'm a mixed woman," Fumia tells me, "so I would like to see more people color, and more people who look like me, or that I can at least somewhat identify with. I think that's important."

So even if it's true that a core cohort of longtime readers prefer to stick to the old, male, white heroes, industry surveys show that the fastest growing demographic — there's that word again — of comics readers are women aged 17-33.

And Fantom's Ly says that means that readers who reject diversity are gonna have to get used to a new normal.

"They're such a vocal minority at this point," she says, "because they've had everything to themselves for so long, and now they kind of have to share it — and they don't want to."

Slump?

But let's back up — is there any evidence that diversity is depressing sales?

John Jackson Miller is an author of books and comic books, and he maintains comichron.com, a website that exhaustively(!) tracks comic book sales. He doesn't see much evidence of Marvel sales slump, because, he says, the numbers people are pointing to — the month-by-month sales of individual issues, sold at comics shops — don't begin to tell the whole picture.

One of the issues is just how many moving parts there are in the comics market. There are more ways for people to get comics than ever before: comics shops, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, indie bookstores and, just over the last few years, via digital download. Each of these channels reaches different readers, and have vastly different sales trends.

So if some comic shops retailers and customers reject characters like Ms. Marvel, Squirrel Girl, and Black Panther, comic book shops aren't the whole story.

"I don't see much evidence of a sales slump at all," Millers says. "In fact, the comics industry has seen its best stretch it's seen in many decades over these last five years — we've seen five consecutive years of growth in the comics shop market."

Miller is a hard data guy, who's only too happy to track how something concrete, like cover price changes or late-shipping books, affect sales. But when it comes to something as subjective and squishy as "diversity," he thinks trying to document a measurable sales impact is a fool's errand.

"I have always discouraged people from looking too closely at the [month-to-month] numbers," he says. "The comic shop market only represents a certain portion of what's out there. The sales on a particular title or titles are not the whole picture at all."

And Fantom's Ly stresses that different comics shop have different buying habits to reflect their different communities. Last year, when Marvel's Black Panther #1 came out, it was a sales phenomenon at Fantom, which ordered 300 copies and sold out in hours. But she heard from stores in the Midwest that ordered far fewer, and never sold them.

Even the term "sales slump" demands context. If you're comparing the past few months to the last couple years, when Marvel got the publishing rights to Star Wars titles again (which was itself responsible for a $35 million sales bump) and Black Panther, written by Ta-Neshisi Coates with art by Brian Stelfreeze, became the phenomenon it did, anything would look like a slump.

"I don't think it's really possible"

Coates tells me he'd heard about the controversy over Gabriel's remarks, and doesn't think it was fair.

"All [Gabriel] was saying was that he'd heard from retailers who heard from people who said they didn't want diversity," he says. "That might sound shocking to the outside world, but I've spent enough time in the world of comic book nerddom to know that it did happen. That's a separate question from whether it's responsible for any sort of sales slump."

For Coates, what matters is how much comics readership is changing. "When I go out to talk about my book Between the World and Me, or something I wrote for The Atlantic, and I mention Black Panther, there are cheers," he says. "The Black Panther movie is probably the most anticipated movie of 2018. There's a black Spider-Man, a female Thor, a black Captain America, and when I was a kid, you did not have this diverse group of heroes in the public consciousness."

Don't worry about what executives say, he says. Look to what they put on the stands.

"Just this week Marvel published a comic starring a hero who's a lesbian Latina," he says, referring to America #2, starring America Chavez. "That was inconceivable 20, 30 years ago. And [Marvel] is not in the business of charity ... they must actually make a calculation that there's probably people who'd buy that."

As for what comes next, Coates, at least, is confident that, given the shifting demographics of the readership, comics only move forward. "That's the key question," he says. "Iis there going to be a rollback of diversity? At this point, I don't think it's really possible."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

For most of their history, superheroes were white guys. That's changing. Alongside Superman and Captain America, there are more and more superheroes who are women or people of color or both. But this week, a Marvel Comics executive seemed to suggest that this diversity might be behind a downturn in sales, and that got a lot of people talking. NPR's Glen Weldon reports.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Normally, the talk in a comic shop runs to who could kick whose butt. But this week, the butt in question belonged to Marvel Comics.

ERIN LISETTE: Guys, maybe this was OK in the '30s, '40s, maybe even '50s. But come on.

WELDON: That's customer Erin Lissette at Fantom Comics in Washington, D.C.

LISETTE: There are these kids with brown skin and different textured hair and all these different features reading these books, and they never see themselves represented as the good guy, and that sucks.

WELDON: Lisette was concerned when Marvel's vice president of sales told the website ICv2 that he was hearing from some comic shop owners that, quote, "people didn't want any more diversity" and that it was affecting sales. That may be true at some comic shops but not here at Fantom. Assistant manager Leah Ly says readers and retailers who reject diversity aren't the whole story.

LEAH LY: There's such a vocal minority at this point because they've had everything to themselves for so long, and now they kind of have to share it and they don't want to.

WELDON: So is there any real evidence that diversity is depressing sales?

JOHN JACKSON MILLER: I don't really see that there has been much of a slump at all.

WELDON: Not according to John Jackson Miller. He's an author of books and comic books who maintains comichron.com, a website that exhaustively tracks comic sales.

MILLER: The comics industry has seen its best stretch in many decades here over the last five or six years.

WELDON: That's because people are buying comics in more ways than ever. Comic shops, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, independent bookstores and, just in the last few years, digital downloads reach different readers and have different sales trends. Miller is a hard data guy who's happy to walk you through how something concrete like changes in price affect comics sales. But when it comes to something subjective and squishy like diversity well...

MILLER: I have always discouraged people from looking too closely at the numbers because the comic shop market only represents a certain portion of what is out there in general.

WELDON: And anyway, how do you define a slump? A year ago, Marvel released "Black Panther" No. 1 written by Ta-Nehisi Coates with art by Brian Stelfreeze. It was hugely successful, one of the year's top-selling comics. After that, anything might look like a slump. And for Ta-Nehisi Coates himself, what matters is not what executives say but what they put on the stands. Coates points to a new book out this week starring America Chavez, a lesbian Latina hero published by Marvel.

TA-NEHISI COATES: That was inconceivable (laughter), you know, 20 or 30 years ago. And so I don't think these folks are in the business of doing charity. So there must be some calculation that there's a base of people who, you know, will probably buy that.

WELDON: Given the changing demographics in comics readership, Coates doesn't think Marvel or any other comics publisher could go back to the old days of pale males in capes, even if they wanted to.

COATES: I haven't seen any evidence of that actually happening, which to me is the core issue. Are they going to abandon diversity or not? And I don't really see much evidence or much incentive, to be honest with you, to actually do that.

WELDON: Marvel wouldn't talk to us for this story, but they did later clarify to ICv2 that their commitment to their increasingly diverse roster of heroes remains firm. Glen Weldon, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE'S "ACTION HERO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.