Diversity in comics is a divisive issue. Let me first say that I have nothing but the utmost respect for the creative teams behind all of MARVEL’s comics. Amy Reeder, Brandon Montclare, G. Willow Wilson, Brian Michael Bendis, Sina Grace, the list goes on and on. These are only a sample of some of the greatest creative minds working in the comics industry, and I couldn’t be more proud that they work at my favorite publisher. MARVEL continues to be the only publisher where I read comics for pure enjoyment. Mind you, I am up to my ears in comics every day, so saying that I read MARVEL’s comics for fun should not be taken lightly.

That is precisely why I was so disheartened to read that the Vice President of Sales for MARVEL blames diversity in comics as a cause for its sagging sales. The complete lack of data involved that is necessary to come to that conclusion rendered me even more disheartened. In an interview on the website, ICV2, MARVEL’s VP of Sales stated things like: “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.”

LISTEN: Instead of dissing diversity in comics, how about celebrating it with our podcast on Marvel’s Muslim Female Characters!

Like any comics publisher, MARVEL’s sales have waxed and waned throughout the years for a myriad of reasons long before diversity in comics was the hot-button issue it is today. While there’s no doubt adding more diverse characters is more prevalent these days, the VP of Sales for a major comics publisher should be more careful with his words. He knows what he says will reverberate throughout the comics community and, indeed, it has.

Before I go further into breaking down these comments, I wonder if anyone stopped to think about the comics audience that is already diverse and how a statement like that likely makes them feel. Can you imagine the look on the face of a young Brooklyn kid with African and Caribbean ancestry as he reads that Miles Morales as Spider-Man is the cause of MARVEL failing to sell more books? Can you fathom how a twelve-year-old girl might feel when she discovers her favorite character, Jane Foster as Thor, is ruining the company she loves?

People reading comics come from all walks of life. Some are male, some female, some are of European ancestry, some are not. The base of MARVEL readers is, no doubt, a sampling of the society that catapulted MARVEL’s success which is precisely the reason behind the attempt to make MARVEL’s comics more diverse.

How About a Diversity in Comics Reality Check?

  • After Jane Foster took over the mantle of THOR sales for the comic went up.
  • MS. MARVEL which stars a Pakistani-American woman is consistently one of the best-selling comics each month.
  • Sales dropped not long after DISNEY bought MARVEL and the X-Men became less diverse. X-Men comics used to always be in the top ten of sales each month.
  • Luke Cage and Misty Knight exist.
  • The roll out of MARVEL’s every-other-year reboot has been a disaster. SECRET WARS didn’t even end before All-New All-Different Marvel began. #Confusing.
  • As earlier stated there is no empirical evidence diverse characters are causing a slump in sales. No studies have been published that corroborate any sort of similar sentiment. For all we know the slump in sales of MARVEL’s comics is caused by not enough diverse characters.

In an era where “alternative facts” thrive and reality is something that can be warped ala Scarlet Witch or Proteus, can we, at least, agree that no one on either side of this argument knows much of anything?

By now, members of the alt-Reich, my apologies, I meant alt-right, are fuming. “Captain America and Iron Man are white,” they’ll say. They are right, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark have European ancestry, but Sam Wilson and Riri Williams do not.

“Obviously, the slump in sales is related to increased diversity in comics!” they’ll claim. “What else has changed?” The answer is that nothing has changed.

Lesson Two: The History of MARVEL’s Diversity in Comics for Those Who Forgot

Back in the 1960’s, there was a little comic called X-MEN. Sales were awful, the book was canned. The end. At least, until Len Wein and Chris Claremont took over. Their first act? Make X-MEN comics more diverse. Storm, Thunderbird, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Sunfire, Wolverine and others were added to the team in 1975, and X-Men comics rose to the top of the sales charts. Not only were these international characters more diverse, they hailed from countries the United States of America previously had a conflict with or, in the case of Russian Colossus, had quite a bit of conflict with at the time. Where was the outcry then? Surely, people must’ve been angry Jean Grey, Iceman, Beast, and Angel were replaced? Remember how upset people were when Storm became the leader of the X-Men for more than twenty years? Of course you don’t, because that never happened.

Len Wein's GIANT-SIZE X-MEN #1 touted the use of international characters, celebrating diversity in comics.
Len Wein’s GIANT-SIZE X-MEN #1 touted the use of international characters in 1975. Image courtesy of MARVEL ENTERTAINMENT.

Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod’s NEW MUTANTS was never a chart-topper, but it is considered a classic by X-Men fans and comics historians alike. The team consisted of Dani Moonstar, a Navajo woman, leading a team containing Brazilian Roberto Da Costa (Sunspot) and Vietnamese Xian Coy Mahn (Karma). If I listen hard enough, I can almost hear the conservatives scream in protest. OK, I’m lying. I can’t. Why can’t I? Oh, because that never happened either.

NEW MUTANTS, created by Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod, was a great example of diversity in comics.
NEW MUTANTS, created by Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod, was a great example of diversity in comics back in 1982. Image courtesy of MARVEL ENTERTAINMENT.

More recently, villains Loki, Mr. Sinister, and others changed sex from male to female at different points in their history. People were outraged. What’s that? No one cared? Oh, yeah I forgot. No one cared!

In ULTIMATE MARVEL, Nick Fury was a Black man. Oh, the outrage! Just kidding. No one cared.

Remember when MARVEL made an open attempt to increase Black readership for its comics by pairing Storm with Black Panther? It didn’t work. I don’t have the data, but I’d wager it didn’t work because of how contrived and inorganic the events surrounding that pairing was. If diversity in comics was as politicized an issue then as it was now, people would blame the pairing alone on MARVEL’s lack of a top 10 comic in the sales charts last month. While it’s important to purposefully and forcefully push the dial towards making comics more diverse, that push must be accompanied by two things: a passion for change and organic storytelling that is not rushed. Black Panther and Storm’s relationship, while heavily advertised, lacked passion. MARVEL even admitted it was a publicity stunt to reach out to Black readers. That same lack of passion also gave way to a lack of inspiration that ended up leaving readers feeling the courtship of Ororo and T’Challa was rushed. Sometimes simply reaching out isn’t enough; I commend MARVEL for reaching out its hand to a wider audience, but it should have been done with a greater sense of purpose.

Why Are People So Concerned with Diversity in Comics Now?

The only reason people even notice an increase in minority characters isn’t because they care. It’s because the issue has become politicized. Diverse representation in MARVEL’s characters is nothing new. Comics have been on the forefront of liberalism and diversity promotion since Superman’s appearance back in ACTION COMICS in the 1930’s when he was a clear metaphor for the pre-World War II Jewish-American immigrant experience. The politicization of giving a flying $%&* about diversity in comics, specifically MARVEL, makes headlines for sites, like ComicsVerse, you’re reading right now. Not in our case, but this type of controversy makes money by driving more traffic to certain websites. It does so by doing exactly what CNN did during the 2016 President Election, by giving a platform to bigotry and equalizing that opposing argument to new diverse characters in MARVEL, which have both been a staple of MARVEL’s comics and most comics for decades.

It’s important to note that it isn’t true that people who want to see Tony Star back as Iron Man, for instance, are somehow racist or bigots. In 2015, I was hospitalized. In the emergency room, across from me was a man I would soon become friends with, who happened to be of African descent, reading a DEADPOOL trade. We talked about so many things that day, I can’t remember them all. However, I do remember him not liking the idea of a Black Johnny Storm in the film version of FANTASTIC FOUR. That hardly makes him an Uncle Tom, specifically because of the reasons he was against it. He was afraid the story would change too drastically and move too far away from the comics he loved. Some people of European descent share the same sentiment, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There is, however, something drastically wrong with blaming diversity in comics as the sole cause of slumping sales for MARVEL, especially when that war banner is waved by Breitbart lovers.

It is to those people, the bigots, the racists, the angry Euro-folk that I say this: you’ve already lost this battle. Hell, you’ve lost the war, and you lost it a long time ago. Like the United States of America where European-descended peoples will no longer be a majority by 2050, our transgender brothers and sisters will not go back to being forced to use bathrooms they don’t feel comfortable using. Lesbian and gay couples will never legally have their marriages invalidated by the state. The effects of globalization, of the global economy the United States helped to create is never going away. Herr Trump is nothing more than a modern Bloody Mary Tudor, and his counter-Reformation of globalism and immigration is nothing more than a slight hindrance. Be careful, when you stick out your hand in order to stop the flow of Niagra Falls, the full force of the waterfall is only going to break your arm off. It isn’t going to stop for you. You can’t stop human nature or migrations of people that have been typical of the human race since Ancient Egypt’s Middle Kingdom. You can yell and scream about it. You can blame others for it, but it isn’t going to stop, and it shouldn’t. It’s what we do, and it is ultimately good for us as people. Are there not enough comics with “white” superheroes for you to enjoy? Do you even care that 46.67% of comics readers are women? The world is changing, and people who you consider “different” want to eat from the same pie you’ve been hogging for a while. Won’t you consider calming down and sharing a small piece?

So What is the Likely Cause of a Slump in MARVEL’s Comic Book Sales Then, Mr. Smarty Lefty Pants?

While I’m not speaking on account of any great data mining myself, the fact that the VP of Sales at Marvel said diversity in comics is the cause of MARVEL’s lack of great sales gives me permission to say what I believe is the cause — mediocre storytelling.

Mediocre storytelling brings me back to the first point made in this article. The creative teams behind MARVEL are not to blame. How do I know? Ever read their work for other publishers? Warren Ellis, Amy Reeder, Brandon Montclare, Sina Grace, and others produced nothing short of groundbreaking work for smaller publishers and independent publishers alike! In terms of art, does MARVEL push the envelope as much as other publishers do? Of course not, and with billion dollar properties, I don’t blame the editors for doing so. That being said, there are smaller books that leave more room for greater experimentation. Those opportunities should be seized. To an extent it’s already happening, the art in comics like SQUIRREL GIRL or PATSY WALKER aka HELLCAT depart from art typically seen in superhero comics. Yes, the cancellation of PATSY WALKER aka HELLCAT was a bummer, but the comic will live on.

While not an example of diversity in comics, PATSY WALKER AKA HELLCAT contains some great art!
PATSY WALKER aka HELLCAT contains some great art! Cover courtesy of MARVEL ENTERTAINMENT.

So who is to blame for mediocre storytelling if it isn’t the writers, editors, artists, or the rest of the creative teams? It’s corporate America. I have no doubt these talented creative teams have their own ideas, but design and storytelling by committee are never going to produce the next WATCHMEN or DARK KNIGHT RETURNS or UNCANNY X-FORCE. My advice? Let these amazing auteurs do what they do best, the reason they got the job to begin with: let them create! Unbind them from their creative shackles and let them make a few mistakes. When X-Men comics slumped in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, MARVEL hired Grant Morrison to write a 36 issue arc, and it was so incredible that the consequences from those story arcs continue to play out in major X-Men story arcs today.

The answer to MARVEL’s false news “diversity problem” is that there is no problem with diversity in comics. Create incredible, heartwarming, personal, and emotional stories, and it won’t matter if the new Doctor Doom is a green intersexed gender non-binary Skrull with white hair. Give we, the people, what we crave. Strike that, give us what we need: strong storytelling, multilayered three-dimensional characters, and some feels.

UPDATE: I have been criticized by oversimplifying the solution to sagging comics sales. I understand it is more different than simply “making better comics.” Allow me to make my point a bit clearer.

  • I am in no way suggesting creative teams cannot write better stories.
  • I am in no way blaming creative teams for a lack of good monthly sales.
  • I am suggesting creative teams are limited in terms of what they can create due to mandates that prohibit them from pushing the comics medium.
  • I believe an executive working at a company many people listen to has an obligation to look at all factors of a sales slump before blaming a campaign to make the comics medium more diverse.
  • I am pointing out that diversity in comics is now a politicized issue and wasn’t an issue in the past.
  • I am saying that recklessly blaming a sales slump on too much diversity provides a platform for racism
  • sexism
  • and xenophobia to latch onto.
  • I am saying there is a long of history of diversity in comics.
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