I’ve started writing this post four or five times. After I read Marvel’s Senior VP of Sales and Marketing David Gabriel’s comments about diversity hurting their sales last week, I wanted to say something. I write about my love/the importance of Legacy Characters on this site a lot. I also passionately defend their cultural, mythic, creative, and symbolic importance. But my impassioned challenges to the system seemed contrived (as I wasn’t super angry since the internet rightly chastised Gabriel pretty quickly) and my outlines for what really hurt Marvel’s sales seemed irrelevant (as those points had already been well made). So I finally decided to just simply speak about the personal importance of Marvel’s diversity to me, as a fan.
I had a seventeen year hiatus from buying comic books. At sixteen, my comic money shifted to gas money. Then, as I grew up (knowing how quickly comics suck you in (and how costly they can become)) I avoided buying any for a long time. However, in the fall of 2015 Jeff was telling me I needed to read the Star Wars comics Marvel was adding to the new Disney Canon. So I started…promising myself I’d only buy Star Wars titles. Well, I quickly grew bored with the Star Wars comics and then, at Christmas, Kalie got me some non-Star Wars comics. The door was fully opened again and I was back in. Hey, I’m an adult with a job right? Why not add “comic books” to the monthly budget alongside food, heat, water, mortgage, and the like?
So what title did Kalie get me? What was the one comic I’d been following closely in the news and absolutely had to read? It was Ms. Marvel of course!! I’d heard so much about how Marvel had this bold, brilliant, intelligent new comic staring a teenage Muslim girl whose parents had come to America from Pakistan. The comic was co-created and written by G. Willow Wilson, a Muslim woman herself, and integrated the reality of Islam, immigration, and cultural assimilation into its stories of superheroing. As both a lifelong fan of superheroes and a theology teacher who’s studied this stuff for fifteen years now, I was dying to read this. I actually read the trade paperback Kalie got me Christmas night and was (irrationally) kind of upset Barnes & Noble wasn’t opened at 11:30 so I could buy Volume Two. Kamala Khan was new. She was important. She was authentic. And I’d finally met her for myself!!! In fact, her existence had brought me very, very close to returning to comics even before Jeff urged me to cross the threshold of Books Galore (my lovely local comic shop) once more. Now I can’t imagine not reading her!
The second title I had to read? Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman’s The Mighty Thor. Thor was always my second favorite hero (after Spidey of course) as a kid. I couldn’t have been more intrigued when I heard a mysterious woman was now wielding Mjölnir! My excitement only mounted when I learned it was Jane Foster and, as soon as my trips to Books Galore included superhero comics, I was bringing home Jane’s adventures as Thor.
Of course, as someone who’s loved Spider-Man since before he could read, I needed to know about Miles Morales too. I’d been hearing about this brilliant new character since 2011. I was four years behind!!! I had to find out what I was missing out on. Who was this exciting new Spider-Man?!?
I could go on and on but the major thread connecting the comics I was picking up was they were different from what I read as a kid. It was the fact that the characters Marvel was creating were new and these new characters were socially important – intentionally embracing ethnic and gender diversity – that led me to break my seventeen year hiatus from buying superhero books. Why would I want to come back to comic collecting to just read recycled versions of the stories I already had stored in long and short boxes in my closets at home?
I guess that’s one of the many things that always surprise me when I read the same old tired, angry rants about Legacy Characters and “forced” or “contrived” diversity in comic books…and one of the things David Gabriel wasn’t getting. I mean, I’ve lived and breathed Spider-Man for a long time. But even I don’t care to see him just keep punching the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus again and again and again and again with little to no variation. I’ve seen that. Even as a kid, I loved when Ben Reilly came onto the Spidey scene, first as the Scarlet Spider and later as Spider-Man himself. This was something new! I was excited to see where his adventure would go! And I was really sad when the angry ranting of fans cut his story short. I was also disappointed when “The Final Chapter” story arc unfolded to reveal it wasn’t Peter and Mary Jane’s daughter May who was actually alive, hidden by the nefarious Norman Osborn, but his Aunt May. I was saddened for Peter and MJ but, even as a kid, I kind of resented Marvel setting up stories I’d already read. Aunt May’s like a thousand years old! Move on! How many times can Aunt May fret over her nephew? How many times can Peter worry about May’s health and finances? I’d much rather have seen Peter and Mary Jane raise a child and start a family. I think the story potential would’ve been far greater too. Heck, just look at Marvel’s new alternate reality series The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows! Peter and Mary Jane are fighting crime together alongside their daughter Annie! We could’ve had stories like those in the main title for years if Marvel was willing to change things up a little.
Anyway, I’m digressing. In embracing diversity Marvel is doing just that, they’re changing things up. But it’s not as simple as putting someone else in the suit. No, as I’ve written before, they are making a conscious effort to have a broader representation of women and minorities in their main titles. It’s not just a matter of a “new Spider-Man” or a “new Thor” or “new Iron Man” but rather new versions of those characters that speak to a broader range of people. We also see new characters taking center stage like Ms. Marvel, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, America Chavez, and (of course!) Squirrel Girl! This is very important and loooong overdue.
As a white, heterosexual man I’ve had the opportunity to see myself directly reflected in everything I’ve loved growing up – He-Man, the Ghostbusters, Star Wars, and allllllll the comic books I read. As a child, I didn’t have to struggle with why my heroes didn’t look like me. While we can (and do!) connect with characters regardless of their race, gender, or sexual orientation, it’s still important to be able to see yourself and your life and struggles reflected in the heroes you look up to. Yes, there were women (most often depicted as objects) and minority characters (maybe one per team…I’m looking at you Bishop) in the comics I read as a kid. But their inclusion often smacked of tokenism, That’s not the case anymore nor should it be. And I’m happy that the ever-growing majority of those of us who understand this are being vocal about it.
Thankfully the internet and cultural response to Gabriel’s comments made me a lot happier than the comments themselves made me angry. People clearly get what I feel too. They see it themselves. And that angry segment of fans (scared because they see characters who challenge their narrow world view and their time as the most important part of the market coming to a close) are as sad and laughable as the characters in Will Ferrell’s brilliant 2004 satire Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy:
“Diversity means that times are changing.” Amen! Marvel deserves praise for understanding and embracing that. Yes, of course there are some angry, close-minded people who hate the fact that “their characters” look different. I’d wager in part that hatred comes from the fact that seeing a fifteen-year-old black girl in Iron Man’s armor or a seventeen-year-old half black/half Latino boy wearing Spider-Man’s webs reminds them their world view is a hateful anachronism. They feel cheated, betrayed by what they love. But, at the end of the day, does their angry opinion really matter? Should we ignore the reality of the world around us to please old white men who just want to consume the same stories of white superheroes they’ve read for decades? Of course not! If that was the mindset guiding the product Marvel was producing, I’d never have returned to the world of comic collecting and neither would the growing number of new readers out there, readers who, perhaps, Marvel isn’t doing the best job of reaching out to.
If comic companies want to stay relevant (and increase their profits!) they need to look ahead. In an interview with ScyFyWire’s Mike Avila, David F. Walker (author of Power Man & Iron Fist as well as the soon-to-come Luke Cage) accurately outlined, “If anyone is blaming diversity and women for the decline in sales, not only is that incredibly shortsighted, it’s incredibly wrong. And, the thing is, the comics industry as a whole is going to continue to shrink if publishers, the distribution system, and the retailers don’t figure out a way to grow the audience. Because the audience is out there!…We don’t need to cater to me anymore. We don’t need to cater to you anymore. But we do need to cater to kids. I learned how to read with comics. Illiteracy is an epidemic in America right now. Why? Because comic books aren’t available at 7/11 and the gas station and places like that and they’re not affordable. But that’s how I learned how to read and we’re forgetting that. We’re trying to market to legacy fans who are…like, we’re getting to that point, I’m getting mail from the AARP right now. I’m not gonna be around much longer. Why would you keep trying to sell to me as opposed to my kids?”
Walker is right. For all the old angry fans out there, there are many more potential new fans – fans who see and are part of the future – who want heroes that accurately represent themselves, the world around them, and the future they want to see. I’m one of them! Marvel piqued my interest (and kept me as a customer) by trying to more accurately depict our world and challenging the systemic sins of sexism and racism with the characters headlining many of their books. If it was the same old, same old I’d never have felt pulled back to Books Galore and I certainly wouldn’t be willing to pay $3.99 a title! If anything, Jeff’s Star Wars urging and Kalie’s Christmas presents were the excuse I was looking for to dive back into the new world Marvel has been creating and I haven’t looked back!
David Gabriel doesn’t need me to tell him he’s wrong. The people have done a pretty good job of making that point already and, hearing the message, he quickly retracted/revised his statement. What I do feel the need to say, and to say with gratitude, is when I look at Marvel’s very intentional, very pointed move to diversify I don’t just see something that’s socially, mythically, theologically, creatively, and symbolically important. Rather, I see what brought me back to a world I loved so very, very much…and what’s allowed me to fall in love with that world all over again. So thank you Marvel. Keep it up! And I’ll proudly continue to make mine Marvel.
[Remember up above when I said a bunch of people had already written about why Marvel’s sales were dropping and it wasn’t because of diversity? Well here are a few of those articles! This is an excellent post on what’s really hurting Marvel’s sales by a new blog I’ve recently found, issue 47. It’s written by a newbie to the comic scene who speaks eloquently and intelligently about what he’s found since entering the genre. Then George Gene Gustines’ piece in The New York Times clarified, “But only two of the representatives remarked that comics with nonwhite lead characters did not sell well for them, he said. A majority noted that those titles were bringing in new readers.” Glen Weldon had a wonderful piece on NPR outlining how women (aged 17-33) are the fastest growing group of comic readers and exploring the reality of the “sales slump.” And, if you’d like a bit more diversity yourself, here’s a great list of some of Marvel’s best lady-led titles if you’re looking to add some more fantastic female protagonists to your monthly reading!]