Marvel sets off comic book diversity dispute

Marvellous: (Left to right) A female Thor, a black Captain America and a Muslim Ms. Marvel.

A Marvel executive has appeared to blame the company’s falling sales on its increasingly diverse characters. His comments have triggered a debate about what superheroes should look like…

It has been a bad few months for Marvel Comics. Having seen its sales slump since October, the publisher convened a meeting with retailers two weeks ago to find out why.

Two of the gathered store managers suggested that readers are put off by the company’s newly diverse roster of characters. In a subsequent interview, Marvel executive David Gabriel repeated those claims, ignoring the majority of retailers who had praised the new characters. “What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity,” he told ICv2 magazine.

The internet went mad. Journalists accused Marvel of “blaming” diversity and listed other factors that could be harming sales. Gabriel swiftly clarified his comments. “We have also been hearing from stores that welcome and champion our new characters,” he said, reassuring fans that “our new heroes are not going anywhere!” But the damage was done.

In recent years Marvel has expanded its range of characters, after facing criticism that too many of them were white, male and straight. Familiar superheroes have been reinvented: a female Thor, a Muslim Ms. Marvel, a gay Iceman.

Others have been revived. Last year the company hired bestselling African-American author Ta-Nehisi Coates to write a new series for Black Panther, the king of a fictional African nation. Many of these series have been commercial hits.

There are similar trends over at DC Comics, Marvel’s main rival, which aimed to promote diversity with its “DC You” campaign in 2015. Superhero movies lag behind the books in this respect, but things are changing there too: each company is set to release their first female-starring film.

Comics have always been intertwined with politics. Back in 1940 Captain America punched Adolf Hitler in the face. Presidents Nixon and Reagan have made appearances as baddies. The “Civil War” series looked at civil liberties in the age of the Patriot Act. And, lest we forget, Superman is an undocumented immigrant.

But Marvel, faced with a PR crisis, is trying to play this aspect of comics down. “Marvel is not about politics,” said the editor-in-chief, Axel Alonso. “We are about telling stories about the world.”

Super-people

Alonso is right, say some. It is not the 1940s anymore — people deserve more than crude political messages. If comics can subtly introduce a more varied cast, then great. But if they are hijacked to push a “diversity” agenda, readers will feel patronized.

Think again, reply others. Superhero comics are all about justice, morality, finding the good in people of all backgrounds. They are a perfect fit for this agenda. After all, you can’t tell “stories about the world” unless you reflect that world as it is — in all its diversity.

You Decide

  1. What makes for a good superhero?
  2. In terms of representing diversity, how do comics compare with other art forms?

Activities

  1. Marvel has asked you to come up with “a new kind of superhero”. Design a character who fits that description.
  2. Write or draw a synopsis or storyboard for a comic starring your character.

Some People Say...

“There is a right and a wrong in the universe, and that distinction is not hard to make.”

— Superman

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Marvel’s sales have fallen. Between October 2016 and February 2017, its market share dropped by 4.8 percentage points compared with the previous year, according to The New York Times.
What do we not know?
Why that is. We also know less about digital comic sales, the data for which is harder to come by. However, figures released by digital retailer Comixology in 2015 suggested that female characters sell better in this format than in print.
What do people believe?
Some readers may well be reacting against new characters, though it is worth stressing that only two retailers at the meeting gave this as a reason. Other theories include rising comic book prices, the defection of high-profile artists to other publishers, and a “Marvel fatigue” caused by an excess of mini-series.

Word Watch

Retailers
In the comics industry retailers wield a lot of influence. See Vox’s explainer in Become An Expert.
Praised
One store manager said: “I don’t think diversity is actually an issue, as long as the product is good.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates
Author of Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, 2015), a nonfiction account of his experience of growing up black in the USA.
Black Panther
The character made his first appearance in 1966.
Female-starring film
DC is releasing Wonder Woman in 2017; Marvel’s Captain Marvel will follow in 2019.
Adolf Hitler
At the time the USA was not yet at war with Hitler’s Germany, and this image proved controversial. See Comic Book Resources’ article in Become An Expert.
Patriot Act
Passed by the administration of George Bush junior after 9/11, this law expands government power in a range of areas, notably surveillance. Supporters say it helped prevent terrorist attacks; opponents argue that it violates citizens’ right to privacy.
Undocumented immigrant
Superman hails from the planet Krypton. When the planet is facing destruction, his father sends him to Earth.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.