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Marvel Comics VP issues, retracts statement blaming sales slump on diverse books

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Or, why comics twitter was so lit all weekend

Champions #3
Humberto Ramos/Marvel Comics

This past Friday, genre culture outlet ICv2 published an interview with David Gabriel, in which the vice president of sales of Marvel Comics blamed an October-November sales slump on “changing tastes.” In his opinion, those changing tastes came from readers who were tired of “more diversity” and “female characters.”

“What we heard was that people didn't want any more diversity,” Gabriel told ICv2. “They didn't want female characters out there. That's what we heard, whether we believe that or not ... 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. 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.”

Gabriel also indicated that the October-November sales slump had caused Marvel to rethink aspects of its publishing strategy, saying “After looking at everything that was going on, we knew that we had to make some changes and we couldn't do anything the next month. We had to wait six months before things could start taking place. That's sort of what we're getting to now.”

And so in a weekend that might otherwise have been dominated by a broad slate of upcoming comic announcement news from WonderCon, Gabriel’s statement was instead the headline. Many in the comics industry were embroiled in a discussion of how tone deaf his words were, whether or not they accurately reflected actual comics sales, and whether or not they were a death knell for female superheroes and superheroes of color starring in their own books.

It didn’t help that on the same day that ICv2’s piece ran, Fortune released a piece on Marvel’s editor-in-chief Axel Alonso, which stressed and lauded the success the company had found by promoting a diverse line of characters. Specifically, Fortune said that “the rush to diversify characters has more to do with business than politics, in Alonso’s telling.”

A day later, Gabriel gave ICv2 a considerably different statement, which appears to further complicate his argument. In it, he says that the “sticking factor” of titles like Squirrel Girl, Ms. Marvel and The Mighty Thor were continuing to prove that Marvel’s audience is “excited about these new heroes.”

“And let me be clear,” Gabriel’s correction read, “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.”

He adds that in his conversations with retailers, they have asked for more of Marvel’s new characters, as well as the core heroes, despite the fact that the meat of his previous statement was that “people were turning their nose up against” them.

Certainly, Gabriel candidly sharing his initial statement on the same day of Fortune’s article looks bad. It’s also not a great look to be vaguely alluding to changes in Marvel’s lineup based on the observation that books with diverse leads are doing poorly because the audience doesn’t want them. This is especially true when such a statement would would seem to affect the livelihoods of multiple Marvel creative teams. 2016 marked the first time DC Comics consistently outsold Marvel in years; it was the first time that Marvel hadn’t held the majority of the market share in the American comics industry in half a decade. It makes sense that the company would be taking a serious look at sales.

But is what Gabriel is saying about the sales of Marvel’s younger crop of female characters and characters of color even correct?

It’s difficult to get a new piece of intellectual property off the ground in any medium, whether it’s a new franchise, character or story. But the difficulty of such an endeavor is exacerbated in American comics by the ouroboros that the industry calls its primary distribution method, which makes the behavior of casual readers invisible and ultimately immaterial to publishers.

Proactive market research is unheard of in the industry — when DC Comics partnered with Nielsen in 2011 to do a readership survey, it was something of a first. Past comic book sales, on the other hand, are freely available to the public in expansive detail, thanks to the Diamond Comic Distributors’ monopoly on comic printing and shipping in the US, Canada and the UK. And using those sales figures, folks around the industry and comics media were quick to point out that Gabriel’s statements implied a narrow view of things.

Colin, a prolific Twitter user in the comics community, points out that Venom, a long-standing “core” character that Gabriel specifically cited as performing well, is actually solidly in the middle of the pack relative to its peers. With its 38,337 copies sold in February, Venom would have had to nearly double its sales to be in February’s top 10 best-selling single issues. A trio of classic comedic/violent vigilante characters — all male — that Marvel attempted to spin out of the immense popularity of 2016’s Deadpool barely broke 17,500 issues sold in combination this February.

For some perspective, that combined sales figure would still have been less than that of the February issue of Scooby Apocalypse, DC Comics’ high-tech Scooby-Doo reboot where the titular dog talks through an emoji-projecting collar, which is somewhere around number 122 of the nearly 400 comics sold that month. Marvel had only two comics in the top 10 in February: Both are from its Star Wars line.

Ms. Marvel Vol. 1, #1
Sara Pichelli and Justin Ponsor/Marvel Comics

Despite Gabriel’s retraction, and whether or not his description of Marvel’s sales was even accurate, his words have already inflamed a new chapter in the long and ongoing discussion in the American comics community. Even in a media landscape where its stories are increasingly mainstreamed into blockbuster films and its characters are increasingly visible — the American comic industry is embroiled in a struggle to find the best way to grow its audience. Whether the industry should be reaching for a larger portion of its traditional demographic of young men, or attempting to attract portions of other ones is often a topic of debate.

By the end of this weekend, G. Willow Wilson, the writer and creator of Kamala Khan, took to her own Tumblr to respond to those who were writing “a smug thunk-piece about the ‘failure’ of ‘diversity’ in comics” with her book’s cover at the top of it. Wilson’s Ms. Marvel stars the titular Kamala, a teenage, female, Pakistani-American, Muslim superhero, and it has been one of Marvel’s most unexpected hits of the past few years.

“There was no “diversity initiative” anywhere,” Wilson said of Ms. Marvel in her post. “Getting that thing made at all was a struggle. It was a given that any character without AT LEAST a 20-year history would tank. Everybody, myself included, assumed this series was going to work out the same way.”

Batgirl #35
Cameron Stewart/DC Comics

The key to the success of a book isn’t the skin color or gender of its lead, Wilson explained. Books become hits partially because of factors that could not have been foreseen — like unexpectedly having the right story for the right time — and partially because of authenticity of characters and a strong sense of place. And the unexpected success of books like Ms. Marvel, Squirrel Girl and DC Comics’ youth-focused Batgirl revamp — all of which have those core characteristics — are really about a fundamental shift in comics towards the much more accessible book market.

Back when the New York Times was still compiling a weekly graphic novel bestseller list, this was frequently laid out in black and white: books that sold middling numbers in monthly issues were juggernauts in collected edition. Monthly sales are no longer the end-all and be-all of a book’s draw — at least, not for some books, like Ms. Marvel, which consistently made it to the list, if not topped it.

“On a practical level, this is not really a story about ‘diversity’ at all,” Wilson said. “It’s a story about the rise of YA comics. If you look at it that way, the things that sell and don’t sell (AND THE MARKETS THEY SELL IN VS THE MARKETS THEY DON’T SELL IN) start to make a different kind of sense.”

Figuring out why sales slump or rise, why a book succeeds or fails — and where precisely that line of renewed or cancelled is — is a complicated thing. This weekend, Marvel Comics ultimately made it seem like its grasp on those vital complications was less than firm.