Books in review
Superheroes vs identity politics
This year, Marvel Comics played to the identitarian gallery – and alienated their readers.
In November, there was a change in the senior management team of Marvel Comics, marking the latest stage in a bitter fight between creators and fans of one of the world’s most famous brands. To those who had been observing the conflict, this new development was easy to see coming.
Marvel’s survival gamble
In their postwar heyday, comics were a limited range of low-cost items widely stocked in general stores and sold to casual readers; nowadays, comics are a broad range of slightly more expensive items stocked in few specialist stores (and online) and sold to dedicated followers, often for the collector market. Despite shrinkage, the comics market in North America is worth annually about $500million in individual comic-book sales, excluding online and book sales. Although sales in 2011 were healthy, executives in comic-book production were nervous about their readership. The typical superhero-comic purchaser was a 40-year-old white male – a demographically shrinking and ageing profile not being replenished by new young buyers. Economic recession (which started in 2008) hastened the closure of many bricks-and-mortar outlets. Digital versions were cheap to distribute but did not satisfy the strong collecting-reselling-trading culture of comic-book fandom.
Anticipating a consumer crisis – and undermined by poor business decisions (including sale of film rights to leading characters, such as the X-Men) – Marvel looked for solutions. Perhaps using demographic targeting could combat declining sales. By this time the latest form of identity politics had begun to exert influence over pop culture. Activists told Marvel editors that its characters should directly reflect readers’ identities in terms of gender, ethnicity, sexuality and even body-shape; only female and minority writers could authentically convey the experiences of these new characters; as there were few such creators in the industry, diversity hires could come from the young-adult fiction world. The existing array of white male superheroes needed to be diversified, preferably with the old characters being retired because they would otherwise present unhelpful competition for new characters. Progressive politics and social issues would pull in an untapped audience of millennials and Generation Z.
Although so-called social justice warriors (SJWs) in creative industries offer new alternatives, they also demand extensive changes to existing properties. The approach is primarily destructive rather than creative. To an SJW, the status quo is actively oppressive therefore it must be reformed, controlled or abolished in a no-holds-barred culture war. Beloved popular characters and fictional universes in all areas (from comic books and video games to literature and fine art) are targeted for immediate transformation. Marvel, aware or oblivious of exactly what activist creators had in mind, acted on the advice it received.
Activism driven by identity politics and the traditional superhero culture are not a good fit. When activists appeared in editorial and writing roles, long-term fans suspected that entrants were not motivated by a desire to tell stories but to tear down much-loved characters.
The superhero comic
Superhero comics have a high turnover of series and story arcs. Individual characters have, over decades, changed behaviour, abilities and even backstory. There are plentiful examples of retconning (making major changes that nullify established history) and alternate timelines which allow multiple stories with the same character to run in parallel. A superhero can be a role played by a character (Peter Parker as Spider-Man) and a superhero can have an alter ego (Superman as Clark Kent). A hero role can be adopted by different individuals, as in the case of the Iron Man role, which has been taken by Tony Stark and (as the Ironheart variant) by Riri Williams. Sidekicks and minor characters can take on iconic roles, occasionally becoming fan favourites.
Marvel, under the guidance of Axel Alonso, implemented a radical overhaul of existing properties and introduced new ones. Readers noticed dramatic changes to art: appearances of established characters altered, sometimes radically. Breast sizes diminished; androgynous body types began to proliferate; unisex clothing, haircuts and facial appearances became common. There was an explosion of gay, lesbian and bisexual characters. Ethnic-minority characters came to the fore. Female characters became assertively political. Social issues were the focus of more stories.
Superhero comics have always been political – up to a degree. Though broadly patriotic they have tackled thorny social issues and promoted an ethos of empathy and tolerance. Of the plethora of comic books and graphic novels (which cover a huge range of styles, subjects, tones and political outlooks), superhero comics are only a fraction. Like other comics, superhero comics address real issues but they also allow readers escapism and power fantasies; they operate by harnessing unreality to address reality. For male and female readers, superheroes have been paragons tempered by believability not necessarily realism, and are often aspirational role models or romantic fantasies. To have superheroes who are unappealing in terms of both appearance and behaviour undermines the superhero formula. Readers could not relate to characters and did not want to.
Diversity resistance or political creep?
Soon Marvel’s roster of heroes appeared almost unrecognisable to long-time readers: Iceman was gay; The Hulk was a Korean-American; (versions of) Spiderman and Captain America were black; Thor, Wolverine and Hawkeye were women; Iron Man was a teenaged black woman.
The paradox is that while films and television series are increasing popularity of classic Marvel characters, these icons do not appear in current comics. Youngsters who visit stores face a dearth of recognisable Marvel characters, a situation which discourages them from becoming comic-book readers. Marvel films and television series are effectively a lavish worldwide advertising campaign, yet – due to self-sabotage – Marvel Comics (a company separate from Marvel Films) seems incapable of benefitting.
The content of comics reflects the creators’ politics. Ardian Syaf, an Indonesian artist working for Marvel, slipped in references to a verse of the Koran that commands Muslims to shun friendship, protection and subservience to the Jew or Christian lest that Muslim be considered an infidel. Marvel fired the artist and apologised. While that was an inadvertent embarrassment, Marvel editors have approved overtly political positions. On one cover Bobbi Morse (Mockingbird) appeared wearing a T-shirt reading ‘Ask me about my Feminist agenda’. A comic centring on Black Lives Matter was written by a black writer who has advocated for reparations for slavery and who had no previous comic-book writing experience. The comic was cancelled due to poor sales.
Books in review
America Chavez is an alien who identifies as a Latina lesbian Feminist. She is written by Gabby Rivera, a Latina lesbian who (again) had no experience of comic-book writing before being given her own series. One of the most high-profile examples of progressive politics at Marvel is Kamala Khan. Kamala Khan is a Pakistani-American who takes on the role of Ms Marvel to fight injustice while adhering to Islamic beliefs. Ms Marvel is the creation of G Willow Wilson, an American Muslim convert. The comic was met with a mixed response and falling sales.
Phantom sales and fan backlash
First issues of new stories (or ‘volumes’) sell well due to reader curiosity and the speculative investment by collectors. Subsequent issues generally sell less well. Marvel exploited the first-issue bump through frequent relaunches and used cross-over issues using iconic characters to boost unpopular ones. Despite that, new Marvel titles were generally poorly received. The deluge of new titles and frequent relaunches generated reader fatigue. Readers became wary about investing time and money in new stories. Changes to existing characters and identity politics drove away loyal readers. The anticipated new audience of young socially aware identitarians, who were supposed to have swelled the readership base, did not materialise. Sales of many Marvel titles dropped while those of rival DC did so less. While top titles in 2017 sold as much as 300,000 units to retailers in North America, even wide promotion and some favourable publicity could not prevent sales of Ms Marvel (Marvel’s flagship progressive title) dropping from 80,000 to 15,000. (Insiders state that 10,000 sales is the break-even point.) Forty of Marvel’s 104 new titles had been cancelled by April 2017.
Comic-book sales figures can be misleading. The sale-or-return model is not standard in comic-book distribution. Instead, stockists buy copies at discount and retail to customers. Sales figures are of numbers of copies shipped to retailers not those sold to customers, so copies bought by retailers but which remain unsold are still counted as ‘sold’. Publishers sometimes send to stockists extra free copies of ordered titles. These extra copies are recorded as sales even though they are unrequested, not paid for and often go unsold. This adjustment artificially inflates sales figures, serving to disguise unpopular titles which are pushed for reasons of status, promotion and internal politics.
Marvel insists online sales prove the popularity of new characters but it refuses to release figures.
Creators versus fans
Fans appreciate comics as art and develop emotional investments in stories; social activists treat culture primarily as a tool for socio-political change. Iconic roles and franchises are targeted for capture and transformation. When major changes are imposed, fan backlash is inevitable.
Fans accused Marvel’s entrant writers of virtue-signalling their identity politics by promoting surface diversity but creating shallow personalities. They accused Marvel of hiring on the basis of diversity not ability, as many new writers were fiction authors with little aptitude for comic-book writing. A number of grammatical errors and continuity glitches indicated new editors were making basic errors. It was claimed that writers drained fun and heterosexual romance out of the comics. In videos, blogs and forum posts, fans explained that they felt patronised and requested strong stories, nuanced moral dilemmas and believable interactions between consistent characters. They objected to major changes to existing characters and expressed willingness to accept new diverse characters if they were well-written.
In March, David Gabriel (vice president of sales at Marvel) said ‘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.’ The most politically committed Marvel editors, writers and artists responded negatively to criticism. Kelly Sue DeConnick (creator of the androgynous Captain Marvel) responded ‘if you don’t like my book, don’t buy it’. Readers seem happy to oblige her. Her Bitch Planet ‘sold’ only 8,401 copies to stores in October. In an age of Twitter and instant public reaction, Marvel’s decision to employ individuals who pride themselves on their social-media activism has backfired painfully. Some writers spend more time on Twitter criticising President Trump than promoting comics.
Accusations of bigotry by Gabriel and others at Marvel cut fans particularly deeply. Comic-book fans – self-described geeks and nerds – have traditionally felt sympathetic towards stories of struggling underdogs and fighting prejudice. Fans pride themselves on being open-minded and socially liberal. Marvel was blaming industry decline on fans who had sustained it through recession and dwindling audiences; not only that, they were being smeared as racists and sexists. Superheroes have been racially diverse for a long time and there have been prominent female characters for decades. In 1966 Stan Lee invented Black Panther, a flagship character; back in 1982, the first female Captain Marvel was a black woman. DC Comics has had non-white heroes who have been consistently popular and long-lived because readers liked the stories and related to the characters. This, plus previous success of minority-identity Marvel characters, suggested readers’ resistance was not due to diversity but to political grandstanding.
The suspicion was that new editors and writers had no understanding or passion for comics as a medium. They had no emotional investment in seeing Marvel prosper; they only saw it as a platform to push their social agendas and to secure positions in film and television.
It is a recurring pattern that when fans of a cultural product complain about that product being distorted by new entrants who are social activists, those social activists misrepresent fan objections and announce that the cultural product deserves destruction because its fans are irredeemable. This can be seen in the case of GamerGate. When senior industry figures in the video-games press met resistance to their political agenda from fans, they made co-ordinated declarations that ‘gamers are over’.
Angry that their objections had been misrepresented, fans savaged Marvel. But the real turning point seems to have been New York Comic Con in October, when numerous retailers publicly berated Marvel representatives about how they had trouble selling (and explaining) new comics to customers.
It prompted Marvel management finally to take action. In early December it was announced Axel Alonso (who oversaw many of the controversial changes) will soon leave the position of editor-in-chief, to be replaced by vice president of international marketing, CB Cebulski, who is seen as a more traditional comics fan.
Cebulski’s pragmatic and less political approach to management at Marvel Comics is already in evidence. America (featuring lesbian Latina-identifying America Chavez), Gwenpool (featuring a female Deadpool) and the gay incarnation of Iceman have all been cancelled, putatively due to poor sales and negative fan reaction. More changes can be expected in the New Year. As one online commenter stated ‘Merry Christmas, war is over’.
Alexander Adams is an artist and writer. His website is alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com.