Issues in Comics: A retailer’s perspective on “diversity” in the news

Following recent comments from Marvel’s VP of Sales David Gabriel, the discussion of diversity in mainstream comics has become the hot topic of the day, with coverage from some major media outlets. Orbital was approached for potential inclusion in a televised discussion by the BBC, but they ended up going with a pop culture journalist.

Reflecting on it, this was actually a little bit frustrating, precisely because these rather prominent discussions have thus far been almost totally lacking in the retailer’s perspective. Gabriel himself actually suggested that retailers might be able to account for what Marvel claims to be seeing with their sales slump. So while it’s absolutely essential that critics and journalists mount a case for ‘diversity’ as an essential and non-negotiable component in modern comics publishing, there’s another dimension to these debates. From a retailer’s perspective, the focus on the question of ‘diversity’ is ultimately a distraction from some wider structural issues that genuinely need acknowledgement and address at Marvel.

This could easily stretch out into a long-form essay, but to keep it as focused as possible, here’s a four-point response.

 

i) Responsibility

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Marvel’s comments about diversity, readership and sales were frankly irresponsible. They problematise ‘diversity’, to harmful effect. In a world where Mockingbird writer Chelsea Cain is harassed and abused online because the character wore a feminist slogan on her t-shirt (…and where her publisher has precious little to offer in the way of support, and some of her own colleagues tell her that she’s wrong to blame ‘comics’) – in such a world, Marvel raising the question of the relative success, or viability of ‘diverse’ comics as a point of discussion is reckless. Promoting such talk also doesn’t help us move forward past the idea of a default. When ‘diversity’ is derided as tokenistic, that generally tends to come from a position where the assumed ‘normal’ isn’t being challenged. It’s not just that ‘comics are for everybody’, as Jordie Bellaire would put it. Superhero comics should also be for everybody. It’s a falsehood that there isn’t room for everybody.

One over-riding aspect of Marvel’s logic as presented in Gabriel’s words is the very key notion of Marvel as a business. ‘That’s just business’, and so it goes. Marvel wields massive influence and power, and as such holds cultural stock. Given their global reach, Marvel needs to make active decisions on the basis of values. Being owned by the Mighty Mouse (aka Disney), they should be considering supporting books even in the case that they don’t sell as well as Amazing Spider-Man in monthly single issues and making conscious and conscientious choices about their publishing line. “With great power…”

By considering their line solely in business terms, they overlook their power as one of the major mainstream comics publishers, and do a dis-service to comics as an art-form of serious cultural value.

 

ii) ‘Diverse’ books and sales

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Books which feature ‘minority’ and female characters in lead roles, and which are created by female and minority comic book writers, artists, inkers, colourists, letterers, and editors – these books do sell, especially as trades (the collated collections also sold in conventional bookstores). Ms. Marvel writer G. Willow Wilson has rightly emphasised that YA books tend to be consumed differently. So while Moongirl and Devil Dinosaur isn’t on a massive number of pull lists for us, the trades do well and make a great recommendation for younger readers looking for something in the Marvel sandbox to which they can really connect. A young black girl with a brilliant scientific mind is a wonderful lead to see. And, even where these books don’t match the long-standing core titles for sales, their popularity more than translates to some substantial coin for Marvel and their parent, Disney. I hear there’s a Captain Marvel movie in the works?

Finally, a diverse publishing line is good for comics as an industry and good for retailers. By offering a wider number of contact points, and entry points, these books actually bring in new readers. We have pull lists comprised solely of female-led books like The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Ms. Marvel, and The Mighty Thor. That’s a great thing. It’s so easy to feel that comics isn’t for you pretty quickly if you’re not able to find books that feel like they’re for you. Even if we can all agree the craft is unequivocally brilliant, the traditional canon of classics like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns doesn’t necessarily speak to everyone.

 

iii) Distraction

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Discussing ‘diversity’ as an issue as we’re seeing right now is a distraction, even a deflection from some really serious problems with Marvel’s publishing model and initiatives. This is an absolutely vast topic and each probably warrants its own individual article, but, from a retailer’s perspective, here are the most crucial issues at work, each with an example or two:

Pricing: Marvel’s prices are rough on consumers and retailers alike. Prices on trade collections are often higher than the competition’s. Black Panther vol. 1, containing #1-4 with a re-print of Fantastic Four #52 thrown in, is $16.99 where Gotham Academy vol. 1, #1-6, is $14.99. More importantly for the discussion at hand though, as qualitative production values fall (paper stock, and so on) Marvel’s single issue prices are becoming increasingly prohibitive. Almost every new #1 to launch (or re-launch) a series in 2016 was a $4.99 book, and as the clearest recurring affront, since beginning in November 2015, the current main Deadpool title (Deadpool) has had no fewer than three regular monthly issues come out with a cover price of $9.99 (#7, #13, #21).

Variant covers: Alternative variant covers are a complicated business, to say the very least. ‘Ratio variants’ work like a positive incentive. For every 25 copies of (for example) X-Men Gold #1 we order, we can order 1 copy of the variant cover. Okay. Marvel also do a tiered variant scheme, however, where variants are unlocked according to previous order quantities. So, in order for us to be eligible to order the Skottie Young variant to America #1, we need to order 250% of whatever we ordered for… Ultimates 2 #2. Which means! If we ordered 20 copies of Ultimates 2 #2, we had to order 50 copies of America #1 just to be able to order the Skottie Young cover. It feels like a penalty.

Events, crossovers, tie-ins and reboot saturation: Example – Secret Wars put the majority of Marvel’s regular monthly books on hiatus for some nine months (May 2015 – January 2016), longer if we count the obligatory lead-in arcs (‘Last Days’) which disrupted a large number of titles before the event itself launched. Many books returned with new #1 issues thereafter, many did not return, and a bunch of new series launched, too. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl saw two #1 issues inside one calendar year. Re-launches are confusing to new readers, but to be very concrete, Secret Wars pushed away both long-time and newer readers, because it put their books on hold, and for far too long. So, sales dropped across the board when the regular publishing line returned, and that absolutely included the ‘diverse’ books. How can a reader’s interest and attention be maintained for a serialised monthly periodical when there’s such a substantial pause in publication?

Lack of transparency: Sometimes books are launched specifically as a limited mini-series, where the number of issues the series will run to is specified at the outset. Worst X-Man Ever was announced as a five-issue series when it began, and it ran to five [excellent] issues. Great. The deliberate and explicit season model works well. Longer-form ongoing series are also good. Frustratingly often, however, a book is launched simply with a #1 without any further contextual information as to whether the book will be ongoing, or a limited run. This gives Marvel space to cancel or extend books according to sales. There’s a logic to that, but it makes navigating the shelves and making informed decisions really difficult for readers. And it sucks not to be able to offer our customers more clarity. And also on the theme of transparency, Marvel often move the goalposts, launching a book with a ‘superstar’ artist and having them tag out after a short run of issues, revealing the switch only in the pages of Previews, the solicitations magazine.

 

iv) “Did you really try your hardest, Jim?”

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There’s a gentle implication in what Gabriel said that Marvel have tried with these ‘diverse’ books, and that the market has pushed back. But, has Marvel really exhausted the possibilities of a meaningfully diverse publication line? Not at all, because their marketing hasn’t always evolved to help make these books resonate. It shouldn’t fall to Kate Leth’s Twitter to make Patsy Walker stand out as a brilliantly funny, positive, queer book – Marvel should be proudly spotlighting that too. The Hip-Hop variants are another key example. To have turned out a line of alternative covers for every single book, derived from Hip-Hop culture, when the comics have traditionally featured precious few black characters and stories, and even fewer black voices generating those stories – it doesn’t resonate well at all.

So, most profoundly, no – the possibilities of more diverse superhero comics have absolutely not been exhausted, because Marvel don’t employ nearly enough women, non-binary folks, queer folks, disabled people, or people of colour in key creative spaces even to hint at such a claim. It’s not just about diversity of representation, it’s also about diversity of voice. ‘Authenticity’ and ‘lived experience’ aren’t just buzz terms, they have a great deal to do with how audiences today connect with art and entertainment media. This circles back to values and the idea of correcting the idea of a ‘default’. Let’s see what happens when those occupying the topmost positions at the publisher are passionate about consistently diversifying the voices which comprise the publishing line.

 

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CBA, here’s the short version: Marvel’s comments about diversity, readership and sales were frankly irresponsible. They problematise ‘diversity’, to harmful effect. Books which feature minority characters in lead roles, and which are created by minority comic book writers, artists, inkers, colourists, letterers, and editors – these books do sell, especially as trades (the collated collections also sold in conventional bookstores). And even where their sales don’t match, say Amazing Spider-Man, their popularity more than translates to some substantial coin for Marvel and their parent, Disney. I hear there’s a Captain Marvel movie in the works? Discussing ‘diversity’ as an issue as it’s going down right now is a distraction, even a deflection from some really serious problems with Marvel’s publishing model. If people have dropped off of Ms. Marvel, maybe it’s because no Ms. Marvel comics were published for almost a full calendar year while Marvel was doing its latest blockbuster event at the time, Secret Wars. Lastly! The notion that Marvel really have tried ‘diversity’ simply doesn’t hold. They’re not employing nearly enough women, non-binary folks, queer folks, disabled folks, or people of colour to make such a claim.

 

Although definitely lengthier than intended, this piece is most assuredly not exhaustive. Each of the areas of contention flagged here warrant further discussion, hopefully in healthy and transparent dialogues that include a range of perspectives.

Adam Karenina Sherif