Could fan backlash against the current political climate at the Disney-owned publisher be partly to blame for Marvel Comics’ plummeting numbers?
Let’s just say that the next Marvel Civil War isn’t a comic book series or movie — it’s taking place right now on social media.
In an effort to better understand just why Disney’s comic publisher has been doing so horribly lately, we’ve been digging into the interactions between readers and creators… and it’s messy.
Really, really messy.
I don’t consider myself a “comic book journalist,” but I’ve been watching the situation unfold from the sidelines and will attempt to give the non-initiated a synopsis of what is leading toward, I believe, a breaking point for Marvel Comics… and possibly the American comic book industry as a whole.
Politics. And Comics.
It’s 2017, and politics take center stage on social media. Creators and fans are not immune to this, with vociferous creators and readers coming down sharply on either side of the aisle.
By and large, the most active comics creators on social media tend to be left-leaning. And an increasingly large portion of them seem to be on the far left of the political spectrum.
Now, this has had some positive effects on comics, as there’s been more concern for proper representation of minorities, women and LGBTQ on both the creative side and in the comics themselves. (Until fairly recent memory, the majority of comics creators were white men creating stories about super-powered white men.)
I think most can agree that diverse stories opens comics up to new audiences, and that’s a positive. And given the dire state of comic book sales these days, comics needs every reader it can get.
But despite these efforts, Marvel Comics still appears to be hemorrhaging readers much faster than it can acquire new ones.
The All-New, All Different Marvel
If you step into a comic book shop to pick up an issue of your favorite MCU hero… you might be surprised at what you find. In recent years, many of Marvel’s core characters have been replaced with more diverse versions of themselves including female versions of Thor and Wolverine as well as an Asian-American Hulk and a African-American female as Iron Man.
Some progressive fans have applauded Marvel for mixing it up, while many longtime readers were upset by the drastic changes to the Marvel Universe. Potential new readers introduced to the Marvel brand through the movies were likely confused by the absence of Thor and Tony Stark.
And, oh yeah, Captain America was outed as a super-villain last year. That did not go over well.
(In what appears to be a Hail Mary pass, Marvel is returning many classic characters in the Marvel Legacy event.)
Diversity. And Comics.
Earlier in the year, Marvel VP of Sales David Gabriel set off a firestorm on social media when he claimed that retailers didn’t want any more “diverse” books, as they couldn’t move them.
Of course, the left pounced on this as a chance to declare comics readers, retailers and certain Marvel staffers as misogynists, homophobes, racists and overall nogoodniks.
The right, however, used it as an opportunity to crow about how “political correctness” and “diversity hires” have hurt Marvel’s bottom line and is killing the comic book industry.
Basically, all of comics’ ills are the other team’s fault.
However, I think the truth is somewhere in between.
Of Milkshakes and Men
Comics fans are pretty passionate about their hobby. Once upon a year, comics readers used to be able to vent about books or artists with little fear of a personal response from creators. In fact, most creators were blissfully unaware of any shade being thrown their way unless it ran in the letters column of a book or they were harassed by a fan in person at a convention.
With the advent of social media, many comics creators are just a tweet away — meaning that they often take a lot of abuse from aggravated readers who didn’t like this or that about a comic book storyline.
A recent example of unprovoked hostility toward comics professionals was geared at some female Marvel staffers who were having a milkshake in remembrance of “Fabulous Flo” Steinberg.
— Heather Antos (@HeatherAntos) July 28, 2017
Of “Broflakes” and “Dinosaurs”
However, I’ve seen the abuse go both ways, with more and more comics professionals going on the offensive toward fandom — whether or not it’s actually warranted.
Given that so many comics professionals lean left (many far left) it’s not uncommon to see any readers who lean right or question some of comic’s more left-wing storylines to be tarred and feathered via social media. Critics are often hastily dismissed as trolls, misogynists, racists, homophobes, creeps and basement dwellers. Many creators’ (young, left-leaning) followers on social media are quick to pounce on whoever has been singled out by the offended creator.
And to be fair, sometimes overly-critical comic book fans are misogynists, racists and homophobes.
But sometimes… they’re not.
They just don’t like the direction the stories are going in, but seemingly aren’t allowed to voice a dissenting opinion without an angry mob of Tumblr followers taking them to task.
Amusingly, longtime (and predominantly male) comics readers who’ve resisted the drastic changes to Marvel are often referred to on social media as “Dinosaurs.”
If they are indeed dinosaurs, then things are starting to look less like an extinction scenario and more like Jurassic Park as they are beginning to mobilize and fight back.
With Great Platform Comes Great Responsibility
While comics industry journalism leans heavily to the left, YouTube is still the Wild West of the internet. It’s here that many of Marvel’s detractors are gathering, free to voice unfiltered dissenting opinions without having to navigate the political minefields that Twitter and Tumblr have become.
One of the most prominent channels dedicated to the growing anti-Marvel sentiment is Diversity & Comics. User “Zack” spends most of his time reviewing new Marvel comics and commenting on what he feels is unprofessional public behavior of comic book professionals.
While Diversity & Comics’ comments are unfiltered (and admittedly blunt) in his criticism on the comics industry, from the videos I’ve watched he doesn’t seem to be quite the frothing, unhinged hate monger that some comics sites have painted him as being.
(Given his reputation, I expected him to be… taller.)
As a self-proclaimed military veteran, he’s currently embroiled in a sticky situation involving Hasbro’s G.I. Joe franchise. Formerly a Marvel property, G.I. Joe is currently published by IDW (who also publishes a number of Disney comics) and one of its writers has angered a number of G.I. Joe fans with tweets about 9/11 that many felt were unpatriotic.
(Coincidentally, IDW has recently blamed Marvel in a round about way for their own comics sales tanking.)
From what I can gather, the channel owner is also gainfully employed and the father of multi-racial children… so not a basement dweller. Not a racist. Just very, very opinionated.
While some comics pros have gone to great lengths to silence him (and he even alleges that certain Marvel editors have put their fans up to doxxing him and blocking every one of his followers) his popularity on YouTube has increased exponentially.
At nearly 40,000 subscribers in a few short months, his subscriber count is higher than what Marvel has in regular monthly readers for most of its books.
And just a cursory search of YouTube finds literally thousands of videos decrying Marvel Comics in particular for its extreme left-wing politics. And it’s not just the boys doing the bashing…
Clearly, something these YouTubers are saying is resonating with more and more disenfranchised comics readers, and Marvel Comics needs to start paying attention.
Because if they won’t, Disney will.
Speaking of which…
Marvel Comics Employees Don’t Act Like Disney Employees
I’m not sure what Marvel’s social media policies are like, but I can tell you that Disney pays very close attention to its employees’ social media presence and cringes at anything that would paint the company in a negative light.
Marvel Comics may have had their own in-house policies grandfathered in when Disney purchased the company in 2009. Freelancers are contractors and often not subject to the same policies in-house employees are, but the combative tone of some of its full-time people is definitely not in line with how Disney normally conducts business.
And Disney may be cool with it. Who knows?
I do know that it’s not helping Marvel’s case any and with comics sales in the gutter, they need desperately to hold on to as many readers as possible.
Twitter wars are not a productive use of company time.
So, have partisan politics hurt Marvel Comics sales?
I think it’s certainly been a factor in Marvel’s rapid sales decline.
People also don’t buy what they don’t like, and a good portion of Marvel’s conservative readers probably aren’t active on social media. Anytime you bring partisan politics into the mix, you’ve already alienated half of your potential customer base, regardless of whichever side of the aisle you’re playing to.
People read comics to escape… to be entertained. The country is divided enough without being hit upside the head with more politics in entertainment.
A bigger problem, of course, is just that comics sales are down overall for a number of reasons — endless reboots, increased competition from other media, high cover prices and a wonky distribution system that relies on a decreasing number of specialty stores to name a few.
However, Marvel Comics’ sales are slipping much faster than competitor DC Comics, and politics could be to blame.
In the meantime, I’ll make mine Marvel Studios. At least Disney still knows how to play to a general audience.
Frankly, Disney seems to know what makes Marvel mighty better than Marvel Comics itself does.
[Full disclaimer: I was an avid reader of Marvel Comics in the ’80s and ’90s, have done some spotty freelance work in comics myself — mostly on Disney books — and spend an inordinate amount of time on comics new sites for a guy who’s supposed to be reporting on Disney. And if you absolutely must know of my own political affiliation, I’d call myself a left-leaning moderate. I’m an independent voter, so I get a LOT of phone calls from both parties during election season.]