(ANTIMEDIA Op-ed) — Less than two weeks ago, when Marvel Comics released the list of titles it would be offering for March of next year, a glaring reality — at least for one pocket of the internet — immediately came into focus. That’s because a handful of series that had caused quite a bit of controversy were conspicuously absent from Marvel’s list.
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If you’re not reading comic books these days, you’re not alone. Sales are down across the board, with some speculating about the possible collapse of the industry itself. But Marvel has been hit particularly hard, and the case could be made that much of the company’s woes can be attributed to a series of failed business strategies.
On that note, back to Marvel’s March solicitations. Absent titles — implying canceled titles — included Iceman, Hawkeye, America, Generation X, and The Unbelievable Gwenpool, among others. Most of the artists behind these canceled titles later confirmed the news on social media.
Again, if you’re not into comics, then on the surface of all this you’re probably assuming that as a business, Marvel must be ending these titles because they aren’t selling. And you’d be correct in that assumption. As the sales figures clearly show, very few people had an interest in reading these books.
But the poor sales are only one facet of the story behind the cancellations. The truly interesting part lies in what these ultimately doomed titles represented — Marvel’s push toward cultural diversity in both the artists it hires and the characters those artists produce.
The controversy that inevitably ensued can perhaps be best encapsulated by the hashtag it spawned. The phrase speaks to why Marvel’s March solicitations list, with its missing titles, was such a big deal.
To a small but highly vocal group of comic book fans on social media, the cancellation of those series foreshadowed the end of a period at Marvel in which they say social justice warriors were ruining the company.
ROTATING THE CAST
The best way to examine Marvel’s approach to focusing on diversity — the approach has been a major bone of contention for most, if not all, of the drivers behind the online backlash — is to look at the failed series themselves. It’s clear that the creative thinking behind all of them fits directly into a pattern at Marvel that began as far back as 2011.
That year, the man behind the mask of the classic iteration of Spider-Man, Peter Parker, was killed off in the comics. Stepping into the role of everyone’s favorite wallcrawler was teenager Miles Morales, who is of African American and Latino descent.
In 2014, after the almighty Thor was deemed unworthy to wield his hammer, the mantle of Thor was transferred to Jane Foster, a character most recognizable by actress Natalie Portman’s portrayal in the first two Thor films.
The following year, the big green rage monster fans have been watching smash things to bits for decades, the Incredible Hulk, got similar treatment. His position in the Marvel Comics lineup was given to Amadeus Cho, a 19-year-old Korean-American genius.
Also in 2015, Marvel let it be known that classic X-Men hero Iceman, born Bobby Drake, was gay. This led to the character getting his own series, one that heavily explored the hero coming to terms with his homosexuality.
This brings us back to Marvel’s cancellations, including Iceman. Marvel’s creative handling of the character of Bobby Drake drew a hefty portion of the criticism once things really began to heat up in the middle of 2017.
As stated, fans’ core issue was rooted in Marvel’s decision to implement all of this diversity, regardless of however noble the company’s strategists felt their intentions were. To write the Iceman series, for instance, Marvel hired a gay man.
For the likewise canceled America title, which featured the company’s first gay female character of Hispanic descent in the form of America Chavez — though the character isn’t actually Hispanic, but an other-dimensional being who happens to have brown skin — Marvel hired its first gay female Hispanic writer.
The company brought in a female scribe to pen issues centering on Kate Bishop, the young woman who replaced Clint Barton as Hawkeye. It did the same for the character Gwenpool, an amalgam of Gwen Stacy — Peter Parker’s old flame — and Deadpool. Both these characters’ solo series were among the recent cancellations.
To some fans, it almost seemed that Marvel was sending the message that only artists of corresponding backgrounds to the characters they were working on could properly craft the books. This was in addition to the fact that classic characters fans had loved for decades had seemingly disappeared and been replaced with new iterations the company was forcing readers to accept.
And it was the forcing part that rubbed so many Marvel fans the wrong way. They had no other options and either had to swallow what was being fed to them or move on. And judging by the sales figures, that’s exactly what many of them have done. Other fans, however, have gone another route entirely.
READERS GROW WEARY
At the end of March, in an interview with pop culture site ICv2, Marvel Comic’s Vice President of Sales, David Gabriel, was asked why sales were tanking. He responded:
“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.”
Several in the mainstream media took notice of the comments. Articles emerged from outlets like the Guardian, The Independent, and NBC, which went with the headline “Does Marvel Have a Diversity Problem?”
David Gabriel issued a clarification statement where he acknowledged readers’ displeasure at the company’s seeming abandonment of “core Marvel heroes” but promised he and others at the helm hadn’t lost focus of the old guard. The damage, however, had been done.
The seeds for the backlash may have been planted as far back as 2011, but the comments from Marvel’s VP of Sales appear to have been the last straw for many fans. For instance, consider that the YouTube channel, Diversity & Comics, which grew to be the rallying point for the push against “SJW Marvel,” was created just over a week after Gabriel’s interview with ICv2 at the end of March.
Diversity & Comics, along with a group of other channels — some of which were already in the fight — began pumping out negative reviews of Marvel books. Those reviews pointed out what they saw as a progressive agenda at the company. In an age where fans can speak directly to the producers of content, it didn’t take long for things to grow even more contentious than they already were.
The online brawl that took place over the intervening months involved things we are growing more and more accustomed to hearing about in stories like these: accusations of harassment, accounts being shut down, people leaving Twitter in protest, one person targeting another’s Patreon account, and so on.
Indeed, the diversity issue at Marvel became so visible that the company’s Chief Creative Officer, Joe Quesada, eventually felt obliged to address fans himself.
IT IS WHAT IT IS
Following the release of Marvel’s March solicitations list, Quesada spent a couple of days on Twitter responding to fans’ reactions to the canceled books. One commenter who appreciated Marvel’s diversity strategy said they were leaving the company for good over the ended series. To that, Quesada replied:
“Sorry you feel that way but like it or not Marvel is a business. We keep titles going for as long as we can but there are times, regardless of who the character is that we need to shut it down. Unfortunately we can’t make every fan happy with these decisions.”
Responding to another commenter, one questioning the criteria Quesada uses to deem a series successful, the Marvel CCO again reminded fans that “we’re not in the business of canceling books that have a strong readership.”
When another fan pointed to poor marketing as the culprit behind the abysmal sales and was surprised after Quesada said he wasn’t aware of the company strategies, Quesada answered:
“Why would I know, I was no longer Editor In Chief at the time.”
That’s true. Quesada left his position as Marvel Comics’ editor-in-chief in 201i to take on the role of CCO at Marvel Entertainment, a parent organization. Quesada’s job was given to former Executive Editor Axel Alonso, who remained the head of Marvel Comics until November of this year.
2011 is the same year Miles Morales became Spider-Man. All the character changes that took place over the years that followed, as well as who got hired to write and draw the books, happened under the leadership of Axel Alonso. That’s why some view “SJW Marvel” as the Alonso era of Marvel Comics.
If this era has indeed come to a close, the YouTubers who refused to remain silent couldn’t be happier. Indeed, they appear now to have a sliver of hope that the December cancellations signal that new editor-in-chief C.B. Cebulski will right the Marvel ship.
Whatever the fate of Marvel Comics may be, however, this whole situation has perhaps most importantly shed light on the cultural and ideological divide that exists within our society. It is, in fact, a reflection of this divide, one contained within a corner of the vast internet, sure, but one that continues to grow nonetheless.
At its core, the real gripe from fans here seems to be tied to approach — in the heavy-handed manner Marvel went about implementing its strategy and in the fact that readers were simply left with no choice. As many angry Marvel fans have vocalized over these past months, diversity is one thing. But forced diversity is something else entirely.