Marvel sales are taking a hit, and have been for awhile. In January of 2017, while Marvel holds the #1 spot with U.S.Avengers the rest of the top ten are 6 DC titles, one from Image and two more Marvel books. In the past Marvel always held the high ground among the big two, but those days appear to be over, and while the reasoning seems to escape Marvel, it’s no mystery to us. Poor writing, poor art, and rewriting or repackaging classic characters is at the forefront of complaints for most fans I talk to. But what does Marvel think? There’s a three-part piece on ICv2 that goes over Marvel’s state of business so to speak, and all of the myriad problems plaguing the industry. You can read them here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
To be fair, there are a few things that Marvel does get, and the outlets talking about this, like Bleeding Cool, didn’t really look at all of this so I want to make sure I do. One of the things touched on is that Marvel had lost sight of their core characters. I would call that a little inaccurate, but to the retailer’s concerns Axel Alonso answered, “We have not lost sight of our classic characters.”
No Axel, you didn’t lose sight of them, you just changed them so much that they were unrecognizable. That, or replaced them rather than giving us something new. We all know how that works though, as I’ve mentioned before. Take Wolverine for example. Logan ‘dies’, as much as anyone dies in comics. Marvel brings out the New Wolverine, which I thought was a great way to carry on the legacy, but rumor has it Logan is coming back. Does it strike anyone else as a little crappy from both sides? Here we finally have a Wolverine story where he actually dies, and we Logan fans (I’m a huge Logan fan) get something really impactful, and then a new female Wolverine comes out. The badass X-23, carrying on Logan’s legacy in a way that makes total sense. It does justice to the original, gives new fans something new, makes sense to old fans. It could have really been a great change for Marvel…but then again it’s Marvel so it was all really temporary.
Not so surprising, the retailers get it:
A retailer described his experience. “If the underlying quality of the material is good, it will do well,” he said. “You have obvious hits with Miles as Spider‑Man, you have it with G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel, because the underlying content was good.”
“I can also think of some other examples where something came up that pushed this boundary of things, where the content wasn’t good, and it never took off. I don’t think diversity is actually an issue, as long as the product is good.”
Another retailer described what he wanted to see from Marvel. “I don’t want you guys doing that stuff,” he said of political content. “I want you to entertain. That’s the job. One of my customers even said the other day (because he knew we were coming) he wants to get stories and doesn’t mind a message, but he doesn’t want to be beaten over the head with these things.”
There’s a common theme here. If it’s good, it will work. We don’t mind topical, and even political stories, but we don’t “want to be beaten over the head with these things.” Marvel used to be very good at handling social or political topics. They sold a story about the civil rights movement in 1963, and did it in such a clever way that people latched onto it. The top selling books of all time are X-Men, followed by X-Factor. Clearly they got new readers with this, otherwise we wouldn’t have X-Men still today. Where once the writers handled these topics with a rapier’s precision, now they flail around with a giant hammer.
One of the final retailer comments is pretty telling as well:
Yet another pointed out that the more diverse characters brought different people into his store. “One thing about the new books that go through my store, they don’t sell the numbers that I would like,” he said. “They do bring in a different demographic, and I’m happy to see that money in my store.”
Marvel had a simple enough formula for so long, and honestly that same formula is why Marvel films are beating the tar out of DC. Make good stories that are fun. As the market changes and world changes, Marvel has always changed, but it stuck to that simple formula. As people asked for more diversity, Marvel did it. I know I keep going back to them but in the 70’s Marvel completely revamped the X-Men with a new, international, and more diverse team, and it still sold! It didn’t kill Marvel, or the book. So what happened this time? In my opinion they didn’t listen. Old fans asked simply, keep our classic characters as they are, and write good stories. New fans asked for new and diverse characters, and to write good stories. What did they do? They took some old characters, repackaged them like table scraps, and threw them in as diverse characters, and all the while failed to deliver good stories. The market they are targeting isn’t yet large enough to sustain them completely, and the big “F You” to the old fans, through writing and marketing, insured that they would lose money there as well.
I know a lot of fans that felt like they were being pushed out, even when they didn’t hold whatever stereotypical ‘bad ideology’ was being leveled on them. Everyone I know that dropped Marvel did it for a reason other than ‘too much diversity’. But, a common theme seems to be this feeling that we just aren’t wanted. You can’t just say you don’t like the new Thor, because then it means you’re sexist. If you say you don’t like the new Iron Man, well you’re sexist and racist. People get tired of that, and it’s much easier not to spend money than to feel like your opinion is just going to be turned back on you and used as a weapon. Comic books aren’t cheap, and while it’s hard to break the fanboy/fangirl mentality and stop collecting a beloved title it becomes easier as those prices go up.
Another big topic that the retailers hit on at the end of Part 1 and beginning of Part 2 is reboots and event fatigue. This isn’t the first time I’ve dropped Marvel. I used to collect in High School, and into my early 20’s. I bought X-Titles almost exclusively, but as money grew tight, I started a family, and had a kid, I just couldn’t afford to keep up. It seemed like every week there was a cross-over event, or multi-title story arc. I got back into collecting obviously and for awhile it wasn’t bad. I could afford more books, and could pick up the odd cross-over here and there. Then came Secret Wars and all the books leading up to and after it. Rebooting of titles, rehashing of characters, retconning story. It became exhausting.
Then along came Captain Hydra. For me that was the straw that broke this camel’s back, and I don’t even read the title. It seemed like every new event had to be bigger, more extreme, and more off the wall than the last. Couple that with the reaction of Marvel writers and artists to the push back on it. I personally have been blocked on social media by more than one writer or artist for simply asking why, or saying I didn’t care for something. Anyone that follows me on Twitter knows I’m not abusive, or harassing, but when you have staff blocking (or worse, insulting) fans that have been around for decades that will have an impact as well.
Finally, one bit in the last part from David Gabriel is what really got me. I want to present all of the quote in full, with the update so bear with me.
Now the million-dollar question. Why did those tastes change?
I don’t know if that’s a question for me. I think that’s a better question for retailers who are seeing all publishers. What we heard 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. 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.
[Note: Marvel’s David Gabriel reached out to correct the statement above: “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, contrary to what some said about characters “not working,” the sticking factor and popularity for a majority of these new titles and characters like Squirrel Girl, Ms. Marvel, The Mighty Thor, Spider-Gwen, Miles Morales, and Moon Girl, continue to prove that our fans and retailers ARE excited about these new 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.
“We have also been hearing from stores that welcome and champion our new characters and titles and want more! They’ve invigorated their own customer base and helped them grow their stores because of it. So we’re getting both sides of the story and the only upcoming change we’re making is to ensure we don’t lose focus of our core heroes.”]
It was the old things coming back in that time period, three books in particular, Spider-Man Renew Your Vows, that had Spider-Man and Mary Jane married, that worked. The Venom book worked and the Thanos book worked. You can take what you want out of who might be enjoying those three books, but it is definitely a specific type of comic book reader, comic book collector that really liked those three series.
I can’t begin to say this enough, Marvel. It is not about the diversity! Again, your highest selling titles are X-Men and X-Factor, two books that have been more diverse than Fantastic Four, Avengers, or Spider-Man put together. It’s not so simple to just say people don’t want diversity. The problem you face is to bring diversity to Marvel you didn’t create anything new, you just ‘repainted’ some old characters. You took away something your older fans loved, and didn’t really give new fans anything new. It’s almost like you took an older brother’s beloved bike, that he was still riding, painted it pink and gave it to his younger sister. Why didn’t you just buy her a new bike, and get her whatever color she asked for? At the end of the day neither one of them are happy, and you’re blaming them for it.
So Marvel…it’s probably too late for me, but I’d sure be sad to see you go. I’m just one fan, but I’ve been around for awhile, and I talk to a lot of fans that have been around for years. Look around at what the rest of the market is doing, and start listening to your fans. You want to know what I read after dropping all my Marvel titles? Well my favorite two are Lady Killer and Tokyo Ghost, both female leads. My monthly pickup is probably as diverse as my Marvel run used to be, but most of what I bought were X-Titles. I, and others like me, didn’t leave you because your books are too diverse, it’s because the stories weren’t good, and they just weren’t fun anymore. Get back to that and you might just get back on top.