For more than a generation now, superhero films have been a money-printing enterprise. Disney purchased Marvel Entertainment in 2009, which led to more characters portrayed on screen, dubbed the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Each offering has proven a success.
It has become a different story on the source material side of things, however, as Marvel Comics has been seeing heavy challenges in comic book circulation. Sales have been slumping for some time, and the storyline social engineering the comics giant has undertaken has finally been discussed as the cause. The comic company has regularly highlighted activist causes and inscribed politically vivid characters on the pages of Marvel’s books.
Over the past few years just some of the character shifts have brought about a female Thor, Ms. Marvel becoming a Pakistani Muslim, Captain America becoming an African-American, Spider-Man a black-Hispanic teen, and Iron Man is currently a black female college co-ed. Often these character retcons generated publicity and viral Internet coverage. After three years, however, the hype has given way to eroding sales. The result is shaping up to be similar to the recasting of an all-female “Ghostbusters.”
The Controversy Over Social Justice Influence on Sales
The comic giant’s hopes of building sales on a one-sided social agenda has not paid off. In an interview with iCV2.com last month, David Gabriel, Marvel’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, said the company’s identity politics push has hurt sales. He gave a statement that has met resistance from leftist writers and social justice soldiers.
‘What we heard [from retailers] was that people didn’t want any more diversity. They didn’t want female characters out there. That’s what we heard, whether we believe that or not. I don’t know that that’s really true, but that’s what we saw in sales. We saw the sales of 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 against,’ he continued. ‘That was difficult for us because we had a lot of fresh, new, exciting ideas that we were trying to get out and nothing new really worked.’
Many outlets rose up immediately to counter Gabriel in print. Comic Book Resource wrote a rebuttal titled, “No, Diversity Didn’t Kill Marvel’s Comic Sales.” At Gizmodo, Beth Elderkin wrote, “It shelves blame onto the readers and blatantly ignores a lot of other reasons Marvel Comics are doing terribly.”
The blowback was swift enough that Gabriel felt the need to reach back to the outlet to issue a follow-up statement: “Discussed candidly by some of the retailers at the summit, we heard that some were not happy with the false abandonment of the core Marvel heroes …And let me be clear, our new heroes are not going anywhere! We are proud and excited to keep introducing unique characters that reflect new voices and new experiences into the Marvel Universe and pair them with our iconic heroes.”
Marvel Fans Are Voting With Their Wallets
Lost in the furor is that Gabriel did not give a random blurb in a hit-and-run Q&A. He granted a sit-down interview, and supplied information, not an opinion piece, that conveyed sellers’ reports. What has certain interests upset are empirical reports from the retail front lines. The marketplace has been voting against this content with its wallets.
In that article at Comic Book Resource, Charles Paul Hoffman takes an exhaustive look to find reasons for the drop in circulation rates. He cites as one cause the culmination of the year-long “Secret Wars” crossover miniseries. Another possibility is that Marvel seemed to flood the zone with too many new series. Along with fresh storylines, this also introduced a wide array of new characters. While looking elsewhere, however, Hoffman actually ends up making the case for Gabriel:
More broadly, series with ‘diverse’ leads accounted for 40 of the 104 series launched or relaunched post-‘Secret Wars,’ approximately 38.5 percent. Of these 40 series, 15 (37.5 percent) have been canceled, slightly below the 40.4-percent cancellation rate since October 2015. This is not because ‘diverse’ series are being given a pass; the average sales at cancellation for all axed series was 14,342, while it was 13,648 for ‘diverse’ series….That said, it is true that ‘diverse’ series have sold slightly worse than those fronted by white male superheroes. While in February 2017, Marvel’s ongoing superhero books averages 24,853 copies sold, the average for ongoing ‘diverse’ titles was 22,086, a deficit of 2,767 copies (about 11 percent).
The best you could possibly say is a number of factors contributed to the drop. But the statistics from the “diversity” field reflect what Gabriel was hearing from retailers. Sure, certain books with the diversity characters have done well. But overall they have performed at a lower level, and at the expense of altering some long-established titles.
Even if the statistical argument can be made that the identity politics titles did not entirely bring down sales, we should consider the overriding attitude from the comics giant. Force-feeding a social agenda has not broadened Marvel’s fan base. The three-year experiment has instead brought a sharp loss in circulation.
One last statistical detail helps reinforce this idea. During this drop in book sales, cinematic showings of the classic versions of the characters have been delivering consistent box office success.