Marvel Comics had a busy weekend. On Friday, the publisher’s editor-in-chief, Axel Alonso, stirred up controversy by suggesting that comic writers have more impact on sales than the artists who draw and colour them. The question of artists v writers is a rather nonsense one; writers are excellent, but a comic without an artist is just prose, while many, if not most, of the world’s favourite comics were made with no writer involvement whatsoever.
But Marvel wasn’t finished there. That same day, David Gabriel, Marvel’s senior vice-president of sales, print, and marketing, pointed at the company’s attempts to increase on-page diversity as a cause for a recent decline in sales. Gabriel later backtracked slightly, suggesting that the real issue is their need to focus on “core heroes” rather than abandoning them, but the damage was already done. After all, why stop at alienating your employees when you can alienate current and future customers too?
Full disclosure: the notion that too much diversity is the cause for a drop in sales is amusing to me in particular, a reader who has been boycotting the company for its seemingly superficial commitments to inclusivity and general disrespect for marginalised people. The grounds of my boycott relate to Marvel’s halfhearted attempts at inclusivity both on the page and behind it. I intend to return to the company’s products when they can simultaneously support three black writers on their payroll and three series featuring queer leads in their comics. It’s been 21 months now. Suffice it to say I’m glad I didn’t hold my breath.
But putting aside Marvel’s poor track record on marginalised issues – the ultimate dismissal of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ advice specific to anti-black optics in storytelling, for example – suggesting inclusivity is at the root of weak outcomes reveals Marvel’s inability to reflect upon not only mistakes, but also its priorities.
Let’s look at how the discussion was framed: “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,” says Gabriel – without a qualifier or interrogation of which readers and why. I can promise you that it’s not women going into comic-book shops, sick of female characters. I can similarly promise you that people of colour are not entering comic-book shops, turning their noses up at faces that look like theirs. By even making remarks like these, Marvel is seemingly conceding that its target audience, its “core” audience – and their “core” characters – are white and male.
At this point in the argument, there is usually some sort of pushback in the form of “Marvel is a business” or, in the words of Captain America’s current writer, Nick Spencer: “Until there’s public funding of comics, they are going to be subject to the demands of capitalism.” But with all this hand-waving about capitalism and business – which are conveniently denying the possibility of ethical business practice – there is never much interrogation of actual business decisions and how they relate to what happens when you try to sell comics about, for example, black women to white men – and, apparently, only white men.
That is to say, Marvel is a business, but it’s a business that attempts to sell comics to a demographic that has demonstrated a categorical, historical (and ultimately violent) disinterest in anything that is not built explicitly for them, rather than seeking to expand by making concerted efforts to entice other people into the fold. Marvel is certainly subject to the demands of capitalism, but it sets its attempts at inclusivity up for failure when it continues to push white men as its “real audience” and makes them the metric for success.
In fact, Marvel seems to outright misunderstand capitalism when it largely limits its marketing efforts to comic-book shops – spaces that have historically been unwelcoming to marginalised people, and all but insist that new readers purchase its comics in a uniquely archaic fashion. Frankly, if someone has to ask where or how to buy a multimillion-dollar corporation’s product, that corporation has failed. It still largely presents white male heroes to the public via its cinematic universe, then makes public comments that outright concede that its main interest is selling comics to white men. To then make marginalised people and issues the scapegoat for Marvel’s poor marketing decisions – as though the entire structure of their choices hadn’t sealed their fate before it started – are quite something.
For all this interest in capitalism and business, let me make something perfectly clear: if you do not make attempts to build an audience or if you do not respect the fact that your history with an audience has been particularly poor or if you make it difficult for an audience to buy your products, this audience will not buy your products. If you do all three, it will not be inclusivity that tanked your sales, but instead your flat-out poor business decisions.
And this is without even addressing the other issues already mentioned by would-be readers – the lack of innovation, the high prices and event fatigue, the aforementioned serial disrespect for marginalised concerns.
Beyond the inherent racism, sexism, classism of pointing at marginalised representation as a source for one’s own failures, Gabriel’s commentary only verifies that it’s not inclusivity but Marvel Comics itself that causes women and people of colour to continue to balk at their products. And it is Marvel’s own rhetoric and business dealings that have given it a particular skill for attracting white male readers who absolutely do “turn up their noses” at female heroes, heroes of colour, or both. And it is Marvel Comics whose sales will continue to tank so long as it continues to act in half-measures and refuse to self-reflect.