One of my best friends came to me this morning upset about comments Marvel VP of sales David Gabriel made during the Marvel Retailer Summit. Interviewed by ICv2, Gabriel claimed that diversity was turning readers away and hurting the company’s sales. “They didn't want female characters out there,” he said. “That's what we heard, whether we believe that or not.”
This is a silly assertion for a number of reasons. Yes, fans of a certain stripe can always be counted on to cry foul about women and people of color taking the spotlight away from the sprawling pantheon of white male characters. But Marvel’s position in the marketplace has also been damaged by the rising cost of monthly issues, the shift toward events that don’t cater to new readers, and the loss of talent like Secret Wars writer Jonathan Hickman, who keep readers loyal and invested. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl isn’t the reason readers are walking away. Books are more expensive overall, and the ones that receive the best marketing aren’t exactly critical smashes. (You can read more about this over on io9.)
The bigger issue here, though, is what these comments (and how they were later clarified to mean essentially, “Calm down! We don’t actually have hard data that says people hate Spider-Gwen! Who would even hate that book?! Please don’t be mad!”) seem to say about how Marvel feels caught between the numbers and the zeitgeist. At the same summit, Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso reportedly said, “There’s been this massive discussion about inclusion and diversity… But Marvel is not about politics. We are about telling stories about the world.” That’s illuminating, because it provides a clear picture of intent. Marvel comics are absolutely about telling stories that reflect the world we live in. That doesn’t mean superheroes are going to start fighting against gerrymandering and voter-suppression tactics, but it does mean they’ll showcase black and brown men and women where the publisher deems it profitable.
And since this is a money-making enterprise that feeds not only editorial, but also a studio arm of a massive multinational corporation, that intent forces the company to think about not only catering to new and diverse audiences, but also fans who buy books, movie tickets, and streaming subscriptions. Providing choices across media that simultaneously honor the past and welcome in neophytes is a balancing act that’s built into this already intensely competitive business. A crossover event like Generations might never get the kind of mainstream attention that Netflix’s Luke Cage does, but the aim is the same: draw from yesterday while providing a platform for perspectives that don’t often get to take center stage today.
But creating a false distinction between politics and “stories about the world” is a mistake. American superhero comics were political from their earliest days, and Marvel’s are arguably more political than they’ve ever been. Captain America punching Hitler in 1940 is a bold, obvious statement. But exploring the specific experiences of Muslim Americans like Ms. Marvel’s Kamala Khan and queer Latinx Americans like America Chavez is no less political. Discussing how power and identity work in America is an inherently political act, even more so during an era when identity, and stories about it, have become so controversial and polarizing.
I think the focus needs to be on stories featuring characters who resonate, facing threats that are either fun, or strike at who they are as people. (Or whatever Rocket and Groot qualify as.) That’s hard to do — though not outright impossible — when the reining paradigm is “Events sell,” and new initiatives are designed to create headlines instead of strong narratives. It’s why Cap is a Nazi right now, for reasons too convoluted to go into here. (And yes, I know Marvel is distancing Hydra from its ties with Nazi Germany.)
Speaking to why Ms. Marvel found success, writer G. Willow Wilson found that it resonated with an untapped readership:
A h-u-g-e reason Ms Marvel has struck the chord it has is because it deals with the role of traditionalist faith in the context of social justice, and there was — apparently — an untapped audience of people from a wide variety of faith backgrounds who were eager for a story like this.
That title never set out to attract think pieces by polemicizing American society, or trailblazing a diversity initiative at Marvel. Rather, its focus on “authenticity and realism” is what turned Kamala Khan into the Peter Parker of her generation. She’s a regular person who worries about homework and her doting Pakistani parents, on top of being a former Avenger. She’s fully realized and relatable. It’s almost incidental that Kamala has become iconic at a time when Islamophobia has settled in the White House. Showing an ordinary girl growing up in circumstances that don’t mirror the experience of so-called average Americans is radical all on its own.
Whether Marvel brass wants to admit it or not, making diversity a priority over the last several years has made much of what it does political. This is the same company that made an entire event about profiling, literally called Civil War II. If sales are suffering, there are so many other things about Marvel’s approach that could use re-evaluation. Focus more on better stories and less on the next big crossover. Give writers more freedom to experiment. Stop killing beloved characters only to bring them back as zombies. (Sorry, Hulk.) But inclusion and politics are a big part of what Marvel is. We’ve come too far to even entertain the idea of turning back.