So recently Marvel comics has made some interesting changes to their comics. They have been changing the alter egos of some of their flagship characters. Examples include a female Thor (later revealed to be Jane Foster), Iron Man Tony Stark replaced by Riri Williams (or was he?), Hulk Bruce Banner replaced by Amadeus Cho, Ms. Marvel is now Kamala Khan and Spider-Man is now Miles Morales. Throw on top of this Captain America has been a Hydra Agent this whole time! Wow and these aren’t even all the changes.
And now there are reports of Marvel’s sales have started slipping. Reaction to this news has been interesting and a mixed bag from Marvel blaming the readers for not wanting diversity or even female superheroes to John Romita Jr. blasting Marvel for making too many changes in the name of diversity and alienating their core audience. And the articles both blaming the diversity changes and defending them are numerous. So I decided to take a look into this topic.
I began writing this article wanting to present both sides of the argument. Asking: Is change for the sake of change ever good? Is it about fair representation? Or is it a pandering stunt to try and gain readers? But as I began doing research into sales number’s what I found is that the facts don’t back up all the arguments. There seems to be something else going on.
Before I dig into that, here are some points to keep in mind regarding this and other articles related to this topic: comic book characters change all the time. Sometimes the changes are permanent; most times they are not. Cap, Spidey, Batman, Green Lantern, Flash and even Superman have been replaced at one point or another, but comic book characters are properties and usually revert back to their original state, not only for the story, but for legal reasons as well.
Another important note is that comic book readership has been declining for decades – so much so that Marvel actual filed for bankruptcy at one point. The speculator market nearly killed the business in the ’90s and the nerd culture explosion is in danger of doing so again today.
The following numbers are taking directly from diamond’s website and show the total unit market share year-over-year and then month-over-month for the last 12 months. Unit Market Share means out of all the comics sold that year in total this is the percentage that Marvel and in comparison DC has sold. For instance, if people just stopped reading Marvel comics but kept buying the same numbers of DC comics you’d see a sharp drop in the Marvel percentage and a sharp increase in DC.
What the numbers show is that over the last 12 months there have been dips in their sales. in July – September last year DC actually took the #1 spot which they haven’t done in years, and this is when a lot of the talk about Marvel’s direction had started. Since then, Marvel’s numbers have slipped, then bounced back, and then they slipped again. Here are the figures:
Unit Market Share: Year-over-Year
Unit Market Share: Last 12 Months
Comparatively, here is the timeline for introductions of more “diverse” characters.
Kamala Khan became Ms Marvel in February of 2014
Female Thor was introduced in October 2014.
Amadeus Cho took over as the Hulk in Dec 2015
Secret Wars (an event arc that made a lot of these change “permanent”) was from May 2015 – January 2016
Riri Williams introduced via Iron Man comics in May 2016 (Note: she is a new superhero called Ironheart not a direct replacement for Iron Man)
In most of these examples Marvel’s numbers actually went UP after these characters were initially introduced. The stories generated interest and people went out and bought these books. So doesn’t that kind of kill the people hate diversity narrative? Yes old-school, long-time fans don’t like when the things they are fans of change. But those of us that have been around for awhile know in the end they will revert back.
So what could be really going on here? Well I think it’s a mixture of a few things. And things that Marvel and other media outlets might not be willing to talk about, but here is what I think is going on.
- People are suffering from Event Overload. Every summer since 2006 (The year of Marvel’s Civil War) both Marvel and DC have had a major crossover event in their books. Which meant if you wanted to follow the whole story you had to by issues of books you weren’t normally interested in. The readers are getting tired of this and frankly have stopped buying books because of it. These are just stunts to sell books and long time fans see through this. In many cases it also hurts the writing of characters when they are changed for the sake of needing them to do something specific in a crossover story.
- John Romita Jr. said something else that people haven’t addressed, but I think is important, “Marvel doesn’t hire high-priced artists anymore. They hire high-priced writers instead, and they figure they can just fill in the artist later.” I have heard this from other artists that have worked for Marvel as well. Marvel has been outsourcing a lot of their art to South America, Indonesia and other countries. I’m not saying the art is bad, it’s just they are going where the labor is cheap and they are having the writers do full script (which means they add panel descriptions) and the artists are just following the script. There is no real creative input from the artists. In my opinion this sometimes causes the stories to come off as flat. A really good artist knows how to make the art dramatic and dynamic. They aren’t getting that a lot anymore. Remember, the comic book boom in the late 80s early 90s had a lot to do with the Marvel artist at the time. The same artist that back then felt unappreciated and went on to form Image.
- It was too much change at once. I know that sounds like I’m blaming diversity, but rather I’m blaming the pacing and frequency of the changes. For an example of this kind of failure, check the New 52. That began to hurt DC so much they are now undoing it. No diversity, but a lot of change to every major character in one fell swoop. People were interested when it started and it had a few good stories in it (court of owls) but in the long run people felt blindsided and smacked over the head with the changes. Longing for the way things were, they stopped reading.
- The movies are actually hurting them. Marvel have several very successful blockbuster movies under their belts. The problem is they are all based on the most recognizable versions of each property. So you would hope that these movies would attract new readers, but when fans of the films head into the comic shop, and they see the characters in the books don’t match the ones on the silver screen, they get discouraged and stop reading or don’t even start. Maybe Marvel should have spent more time trying to align these universes instead of spreading them so far apart.
- And finally people just aren’t reading comics like they use to. With movies, cartoons, video games and more fans are getting their superhero fix in other mediums. Print has long been a dying medium and these books are starting to only appeal to the diehard collectors. But Marvel isn’t writing for them anymore. They are trying to attract a new younger audience, that quite frankly don’t have as much desire to read comics.
This is merely how I see it. Perhaps I’m wrong, and I do hope Marvel finds a way to right the ship and get people truly excited about them again. As a true believer nothing would make me happier, but we shall see what the future brings.
Don’t forget to check out our latest episode: http://superherospeak.com/wp/202-return-to-terminal/