Before New York Comic Con, Marvel Comics holds a writers retreat where traditionally, Marvel exclusive-signed writers and editorial staff sit around the place pitching ideas, developing concepts, finding some common ground — then dividing and conquering. In such an environment, stories like Civil War sprung into existence. It's a way for creators to bash up against other creators and the pragmatism of the commercial publishing realities to find inspiration for the company's trajectory.
I've received a number of reports from those at this year's meeting, or from other pros who have talked to those at the meeting — some contradictory, and possibly suffering from a game of telephone. This is an attempt to make some sense of the conversation at the publisher between editorial and creator, in reaction to media and social media. This is not about discussions over upcoming projects — that may need another post. This is what it means to be a high-profile comic book writer working for Marvel Comics today.
I understand there was a lot of conversation about how one conducts oneself on social media, how to deal with critics, and whether to be accessible online at all. But, to be fair, that is nothing new.
However, the night before the summit, one creator called on other creators to speak out against harassment against one other. This became a topic of discussion not at the meeting, but in the off times and later hours. Nearly everyone was in agreement that such a statement would be a bad idea and draw attention to essentially a non-issue, as seems to have been proven by a lack of outrage expressed by fans at New York Comic Con. There was a small handful of creators who thought such a response was appropriate, but not passionately.
But make no mistake: this year, Marvel has suffered. There is a belief amongst Marvel executives that while changing characters is necessary to keep the brands fresh and exciting, too much happened too soon in too many books. The editorial response is that changes to Marvel characters were never top down; they were mostly generated from the creators as to where they want to take each comic. And such was the zeitgeist that a number of those changes involved changing the lead character, often casting a new lead of a different gender or demographic, where the majority of Marvel books were white, male, and straight. In fact, they still are — just slightly less so.
And so we had Jane Foster Thor, Amadeus Cho Hulk, Sam Wilson Captain America, Riri Williams Iron Man, Miles Morales Spider-Man, Laura Wolverine, Nadia Wasp — and while few would have had much of a problem with individual changes, collectively it alienated too many long-term fans. This was not, as some fans believe, the result of editorial direction given by Editor-In-Chief Axel Alonso or Senior Vice President of Publishing Tom Brevoort, but mostly emerged organically from the creators on the books. "Steam engine" time as some people put it. So it was more of a cosmic alignment than any grand plan.
However, those supposed to be overseeing all editorial creative content somehow did not see this effect of all this coming at once. And with storylines needing to be finished rather than abandoned, they were suddenly caught in a situation, the peak of which was the Marvel Retailer Summit earlier this year. The Marvel Retailer Meeting at New York Comic Con was, too, to some extent.
Of course, this was always the way. But maybe over the decades, Marvel fans had become used to, even appreciated, stagnation in their comic book stories. And then suddenly had to deal with big changes to all their favourite characters all at once. The frog needed to have been boiled slower — over a longer period rather than to have been left in tepid water for so long and simply thrown into the bubbling melting pot — to keep everyone on side.
The belief is that what fans are really reacting to is too much change all at once in all their books. Change can be scary to some, but scary can be entertaining and done strategically it works, but all at once can shock the system. The knee-jerk reaction then becomes to look for reasons and the change in race and gender for lead characters could be seized upon to justify why they were feeling the way they did.
It was pointed out DC Comics suffered from this very same thing back in the late '90s and early 2000s, when Superman got a mullet, died and was replaced by pretenders, then went electric blue. Batman had his back broken and was replaced by Azrael. Hal Jordan became a genocidal psychopath and was replaced by Kyle Rayner. So many of the core characters were no longer the core characters. In DC's case, it happened over a longer period of time, with less demographic changes, but it also coincided with falling sales in the years to come. Marvel's greater changes to more characters over a shorter period of time have just exacerbated that feeling.
And the reaction to this reaction, from creators and editorial, has often been antagonistic, which has entrenched rather than won over opinion. Social media has now given far more fans direct access to far more creators. There is also the feeling expressed is that this is influencing creators far more than it should. Creators were reminded that for the most part, they don't know who they are really talking to, and there is evidence that some people use multiple identities.
And that there is a difference between online reaction and customer reaction — the books that are heavily supported by social media often fail in print, while those mocked and condemned by the same often succeed. Creators were also reminded that sales have dropped industrywide, they are still higher than they were, say, seven years ago. And if Marvel's sales are down from their height right now, that's because everyone's sales are down from that height — even DC Comics.
The advice most accepted was that the more creators fight online with those who are angry with them, the more attention gets given to the aggressor. Editorial and management have been trying to convey to creators that fighting against people who remain contrarian no matter what, whatever the political affiliation or sympathy, was a waste of time. They may find themselves baited into saying something they would regret. Tweets can be deleted — screencaps less so.
I am told that, after considerable debate, some of the more vociferous voices may have taken this to heart, maybe toning it down. The proof, of course, will be in the posting.
Now, how about bringing back Death's Head… Ralph Steadman?