Marvel comics are blaming the colour of a superhero's skin for poor sales

Comment: Despite the success of such comics as The 99, which was created by a Kuwaiti and is rooted in Islamic belief, it is the writing that determines if a story flops
(Getty Images)
By Sam Jabri-Pickett
Mon 08 May 2017 12:49 PM

Marvel's comics aren’t selling, but diversity isn’t to blame.

Despite the increase in profits for Marvel Entertainment that have come as a result of their billion-dollar films and toy sales, the company’s comic books – the source of their ideas – have experienced a major drop in sales over the past year. While the elderly, conservative leadership of the company blames the increased diversity of the stories and the characters, the reality is far more mundane; Marvel’s writers just aren’t very good.

While the talents of such writers as Marc Guggenheim and Ta-Nehisi Coates cannot be discounted, what is difficult to ignore at Marvel is the failings of the drawn out and lacklustre stories in the pages of specific series, namely The Ultimates 2 and the revived Star Wars titles. With the ups and downs as well as an over-reliance on the talents of Brian Michael Bendis, a poor response by comic-readers became inevitable.

Marvel and their arch-conservative leader Ike Perlmutter -- who is an Israeli-American and was named one of the 20 or so "club-goers" that advise US President Donald Trump outside of the White House -- believe diversity is to blame for the drop in sales, but that is simply not the case. Before anything else, the assumed liberalism of those who read comics needs to be put aside. According to ign.com’s comic reviews, some of the most successful and highly rated titles in comics today are Marvel titles that were birthed with increased diversity in mind – including Invincible Iron Man, America and Hawkeye, which focus on women and persons of colour as opposed to Marvel’s traditional white, male characters, such as Spider-Man, Iron Man, Daredevil, Wolverine and Deadpool.

In the GCC, one of the most successful locally relevant titles is The 99, which was created by Dr Naif Al-Mutawa, who is Kuwaiti and is also a New York licensed clinical psychologist and clinical hypnotherapist. The 99 was written with a predominantly Middle Eastern or Islamic readership in mind, even though Western comics are extremely popular in the MENA. The series became so popular, in fact, that at its height, the series crossed over with the Justice League of America in a six-issue, inter-company arc to surprising success despite America’s stereotypical views on Islam and the Arab world. (A recent YouGov survey published on arabianbusiness.com found that there is a significant gap in America's knowledge about the Arab world. It showed that 80 percent of Americans were unable to point out the region on a map. The Arab Image in the US poll, conducted in March, found that 65 percent of the 2,057 respondents admitted to knowing little about the Arab World, with 30 percent having no interest in achieving an understanding of the region.)

Contrary to what Marvel leadership believes, readers want diversity in their comic books. So when Marvel pulled diversity titles due to a lack of profits, it simply made no sense. If they bothered to look at their sales figures, they would know that diversifying their content is a way to increase profits.

Reality, however, seems to have escaped Marvel's leadership, as this drop in sales was quickly followed by cancelling Spider-Gwen and Ms Marvel, two series that had become critically and financially successful, but were helmed by a female Spider-Man-esque hero and a Pakistani-American, respectively.

David Gabriel, Marvel's senior vice president of sales, print and marketing, has said “the numbers don't lie”, when announcing that the company was discontinuing these comics. While individually the more diverse comics were critically successful, Marvel blamed the overall drop in sales as being rooted in the increase in diversity. Essentially, sales went down across the board of Marvel books, and the leadership blamed the drop on diversity, not the poor storytelling.

The people who are to blame are the Marvel fans who want comics that star only white, male characters. The truth is that the writing on these titles just isn’t very good. Civil War II didn’t deliver. Old Man Logan is unfolding predictably. Turning Captain America into a secret Hydra sleeper agent was lazy. Will the good guys win? Inevitably. Will Steve be okay in the end? Yes. Will Logan find peace and/or happiness before it is once again snatched away from him? Obviously. While these stories and many others published by Marvel are enjoyable in the moment, they only cement what most readers already believe about Marvel comics: there aren’t any real stakes, and nothing will change, at least not in the grand scheme of things.

While Marvel's main competition, DC Comics, is not exempt from such issues, DC has at least had the wherewithal to address in the overarching story of their comic universe that continuity has become messed up and fraught with contradictions.

This conservatism from Marvel is far from surprising. In recent years, the refusal on Marvel’s part to create a superhero film starring a woman or person of colour hinted at their lack of faith in diversity. While the attempt at increased diversity (and then the pulling of diversity-oriented titles) has been clumsy because the publisher has shown on numerous occasions that while they do not outright blame diversity, they are unwilling to address the reality; that their writing has decreased in quality. As a result, Marvel has exposed itself as being far more conservative and narrow-minded than anyone would have originally thought.

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