Should We Be Concerned About Diversity at Marvel?

Artwork by Alex Ross
Artwork by Alex Ross

I'll start by straight up saying this is speculation. This is a piece about some information to consider to watch as news about, yes, yet ANOTHER Marvel Comics event continues unfold. Sometimes speculation is forever just that…sometimes, it's bang on the money.

A useful turn of phrase here, as maybe that's what this all comes down to: money.

Marvel have teased that this Summer will see another event from them (IvX, Monsters Unleashed, Secret Empire and now this, and this is all apparently just in the first half of 2017…how many events can we expect in the second half?), called Generations. They teased it with a gorgeous piece of artwork from Alex Ross.

We at Bleeding Cool have also been reporting on the numerous rumblings we have been hearing about Marvel seeing what DC have done with Rebirth and taking their own line down a more 'meat & potatoes' route. We've also talked about things we've heard from retailers, attendees at the Comics Pro event, suggesting that we will see the Marvel line returning to the classic iterations of it's characters.

There was also the discussion that we may see some of the current legacy characters who are starring in Marvel titles, such as Ms. Marvel, Thor, Wolverine, Sam Wilson etc. may get or return to their own identities. Discussed as Marvel's way of returning to the classic, mainly white male iterations of many of Marvel's big name characters without 'throwing the baby out with the bath water'.

It is here we should remember that the majority of these legacy characters are the big steps in Marvel's push for diversity in their line.

And while the idea of allowing these characters to have their own identities is admirable, and maybe even desirable, it is nonetheless something I take with a touch of concern.

Art by Bengal
Art by Bengal

After all, there is a good point to make. For many readers, the current Thor will always be (right or not) the LADY Thor. Sam Wilson is "just" the black Captain America. And by having the characters remain under these titles, it is hard to escape the idea, even for the hardcore fans of these current plots, that it won't last forever – the original will some day return.

So if Marvel gives these characters their own identities (or returns them to old ones), that fear and reductive thinking can be removed too. They are their own characters. And in some cases, maybe it makes sense. For example, personally, I have never really understood the idea of Laura Kinney becoming Wolverine. A) the last thing Logan would want is Laura becoming like him (as he never could see himself as a hero, and only ever saw his faults) and b) Laura came into her own under her own name and worked hard to become her own person and more than just a weapon. For her to give that up to wear someone else's mantle seems odd to me. It's been a fun series and ride, but just never an entirely comfortable fit for me.

So what's the concern here? Why worry? So far, it all sounds good. The originals come back, and a more recognisable Marvel Universe can be found in stores for the film fans looking to learn more or the long-time Marvel fans, AND the newer, diverse characters are getting their own place in the Marvel Universe, outside of the shadows of predecessors and originals.

The concern lies in if these characters will get the same focus from Marvel, and from fans, as they enjoy now.

Artwork by Ed McGuinness
Artwork by Ed McGuinness

After all, Thor, Sam Wilson as Captain America, Sam Alexander as Nova are enjoying the equal strength that comes from starring in books titled Thor, Captain America and Nova. That connection to the original can be a double edged sword, equally as good as it is bad.

If all of a sudden they become essentially unknown names, they will not get that same focus. Certainly, retailers are notoriously nervous of new titles and the like. It makes sense. Having a book like Wolverine is a guaranteed seller, no matter what is in it. But a book called, say, X-23?

End of the day, retailers have to pay the bills to keep their stores open in the first place. Naturally, they will gravitate to the titles they know and can count on. And if all these titles are returning to the white male original characters then the more diverse characters could see their sales at even a retail level become weaker…and there is danger in that, of course.

Similarly, this could be further impacted by what happens creatively in such a shake up. What is typically most likely to happen is we will see the books returning to original iteration characters etc, receive the bigger name creative teams, again to strengthen their desirability to retailers and in turn readers. The new title books would be more likely to see new creative talent (unless the character is very much a favourite or creation of a big name – for example, Thor, if she spins off into a new identity, may most likely still get Jason Aaron as a writer), which again is something traditionally retailers are wary of and buy fewer numbers of. As one retailer said to me,

For every Steve Orlando that breaks out there are ten writers that crater sales and the characters become afterthoughts.

It's not to say that new creators aren't good, far from it. And certainly, there is a need as ever for new creators to be found all the time. But when you put an unknown name on a new title (i.e. 'unknown') book? There will be a flinch from retailers, who need to be able to guarantee their sales to in turn guarantee the viability of their store and their livelihoods. And a flinch from readers too, as the books become more and more expensive. If they are dropping that kind of coin in store, they want to take something home they can be pretty sure they'll like.

Ultimately then, a return to 'meat and potatoes' approach in such a manner can be dangerous for the more diverse cast of characters Marvel currently has as part of the face of the Marvel Universe. If they get their own titles and sales impact in such a way – well, they'd be more likely to vanish then.

How can this be countered? There's a few ideas, it will be interesting to see if Marvel do any of them.

One method could be to put the big name creators on the 'new identity' books and have new writers handling the classic characters and big name titles. Yes, it's risky, but retailers are hardly going to remove Avengers from their orders because their unsure of the writer/artist. There are enough comics fans out there who will pick up Avengers no matter who is on the creative team. This method would in turn help new creators boost their name, and allow more readers and retailers to be aware of their talents.

What I would love to see one day, though it will probably never happen? A big part of what made DC's New 52 so radical, was they essentially wiped out their whole line and started again. It was a HUGE risk, and we could discuss for days what went well, what worked, what didn't – the best and worst parts of the New 52– but it arguably did exactly what it intended to in terms of sales and attracting new readers. What could Marvel do that could be just as radical? Well, how about not publishing any of the 'known' titles. No Avengers. No Wolverine. No Captain America. Instead the entire line is the new identities, the new titles. The Marvel Universe continues, the characters are the same, but a challenge to rethink what the Marvel Universe is going forward.

Art by Jamie McKelvie
Art by Jamie McKelvie

It would never happen. After all, part of Marvel's aims to attract new readers and new sales seems heavily tied to the characters and names that have appeared in other media. After all, try finding a T-Shirt with a character who HASN'T already appeared in a movie or TV show or other medium. Another reason to worry about the future of these legacy characters if this is the outcome of Generations, whatever exactly it is. How do you combat this? You build the profile of these characters using a powerful PR campaign. It's part of how Ms. Marvel was so successful for a brand new character, and to a lesser extent Miles Morales. When Ms. Marvel was about to launch, there were tons of articles, even outside of the usual comics sites about this incoming, new, Muslim-American character. It even made it to some TV news channels.

If Marvel intend to give these characters new identities and new titles, then a strong, robust and expansive PR initiative will really help to ensure that they can still start strong. And attract new readers, if they look outside of the common routes.

But as I say, this is all speculation. Maybe Generations isn't what we think. Maybe it won't be as complete a regression to the original namesake characters. Maybe Marvel already have big plans to make this work.

But then again, maybe it is. Just something to think about as we learn more.

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Joe GlassAbout Joe Glass

Joe Glass has been contributing to Bleeding Cool for about four years. He's been a roaming reporter at shows like SDCC and NYCC, and also has a keen LGBTQ focus, with his occasional LGBTQ focus articles, Tales from the Four Color Closet. He is also now Bleeding Cool's Senior Mutant Correspondent thanks to his obsession with Marvel's merry mutants. Joe is also a comics creator, writer of LGBTQ superhero team series, The Pride, the first issue of which was one of the Top 25 ComiXology Submit Titles of 2014. He is also a co-writer on Stiffs, a horror comedy series set in South Wales about call centre workers who hunt the undead by night. One happens to be a monkey. Just because.
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