How Marvel can bring in new female readers

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Apr 3, 2017, 5:30 PM EDT

If you follow comics, you may have seen an interview with David Gabriel, SVP of Sales and Marketing at Marvel, floating around. More likely, you've seen the backlash from the article focusing in on Gabriel's quotes about a readership uninterested in the slew of female superheroes the company has introduced in recent years.

There's more going on here than just a pull back from diversity, though. Marvel's titles aren't selling well, period. It's not just that the female-led and diverse titles that are supposed to appeal to new readers aren't bringing in women readers. That is a part of the equation, but as Gabriel says in the interview, there's a lot more going on.

Look, comics is a tough business. These companies operate at the margins. While it'd be great if we lived in a world where profits didn't matter, that's just not the case. If a current strategy isn't working, it's hard to fault Marvel for going back to the drawing board and evaluating everything they've been doing over the past few years, including producing comics aimed at women.

Except the problem is that women are reading comics. In fact, women have been the fastest-growing readership in comics for years. They're just not reading Marvel's comics. (A caveat: Many women have been reading Marvel comics for decades and still are. I'm specifically talking non-comics readers here.) So I'm here, as a person who's spent the last three years of my professional life trying to bring new readers into comics, to give Marvel some tips on how to reach new female readers.

Pull back the number of female-led titles

It may sound strange that I'm advocating fewer titles that are female-led, but hear me out. A few years ago, after Ms. Marvel, featuring teenage superhero Kamala Khan, was a breakout hit for Marvel, they began to put out more comics aimed at a wider audience. Specifically, they began to cater to female readers, glutting the market with solo comics featuring women superheroes (Mockingbird, Spider-Gwen, Angela Queen of Hel), to the point where even those of us who cover the industry for a living couldn't keep up.

That trend has continued, and one by one, these books have been axed. The fact is, the current female readership (and male readership interested in these titles) of comics can't support dozens of female-led titles at one time, especially when Marvel's not doing a lot in terms of reaching out to new readers. Instead, Marvel should focus on a few titles it really believes in and give them the support that they've given Ms. Marvel. Put money behind them. Let them find time to grow, both creatively and in terms of audience. And, crucially, make each and every one an entry point into the Marvel universe, without the baggage of decades of shared universe history dragging them down.


Market to women

This may sound like a no-brainer, but Marvel doesn't really do much marketing or publicity specifically to women. Think back to the success of Guardians of the Galaxy, especially among women. Why didn't Marvel Studios attach a short trailer to the movie advertising Gamora #1 (which, incidentally, it took two years after the movie for the series to actually launch)? Capitalize on the momentum and the audience of the movies. Women love these movies. They're interested in the comics.

Marvel also is notorious for only partnering and giving access to sites that give it positive coverage. Instead of only giving review copies of female-led titles to websites with a heavily male-majority audience (part of the reason America #1, starring queer Latina America Chavez initially had not great reviews), reach out to sites that have large female readerships. If you're publishing comics aimed at women, then market to women.

Stop doing events and renumberings

Since 2015, Marvel has been constantly in "event" mode. Comics events are storylines that bring together the entire universe to fight a common threat/cataclysm. For newer readers, casual readers, or really just readers who don't read every comic in a company's line (which would be cost prohibitive), they are insanely frustrating. They yank creative control away from the team who's writing and drawing the books, mandating a storyline that often doesn't fit in with a comic's tone or aesthetic. Current stories have to be dropped to cater to the company-wide event.

Events are a big part of what makes Marvel comics so intimidating for new readers; you constantly feel like you're missing something. However, they also (temporarily) boost sales figures because a minority of devoted readers will add books to their preorders (or pull lists), bumping overall sales figures. As the event finishes up, Marvel can then renumber and relaunch series — because people, assuming that #1 issues are an entry point into a character, series, or universe, will buy more of them. Eventually these sales plummet, because it's just a disrespectful gimmick, and then Marvel plots and executes on another event. This has been going on for years, a constant cycle of events, relaunches and renumberings.

As an example: the series Silk, featuring Cindy Moon (a favorite among female fans) has had two different #1 issues on the same story, same run, same creative team because of an event. Incidentally, that series is being cancelled in May. And I have to ask myself, how many people picked up the second #1 issue, had no idea what was going on because the actual series started in the first #1 issue, and put it down in frustration? Comics should not have this high a barrier to entry.

Make sure the diversity is authentic

Let's end the trend of creative teams full of white men writing women. I'm absolutely not opposed to men writing female characters, but inserting some authenticity into creative teams does a lot of good. Part of the reason Ms. Marvel is so great is because Kamala feels authentic — a Muslim woman writes her and an Indian Muslim women edits the book (and co-created the character).

Marvel's done an incredible job with Ta-Nehisi Coates and his empire of Black Panther titles. While we can (and should) fault Marvel for not hiring more writers and artists of color, this was a great move on their part. Coates brings in a huge new audience, and the writers and artists he's partnering with do as well. What would be great if Marvel could hire more diverse creators at all levels — PoC creators shouldn't have to be at Coates' level to be hired by the company.

Take into account how your readers read

Comics operates on a system called the direct market, dating back to the 1970s. These focus on issues, which are the single, 20-25 page, floppy issues that most series comics are published in, and you can only buy them at comics stores. They are available digitally, but digital sales and print trades (collected paperback issues) are an afterthought in this system. The fact is, Marvel makes the most money off of single print issues, so that's what they often focus on when making decisions about series' future. The fate of a series is often decided based on the preorders and sales of #1 and #2 print issues.

The problem with this is women and newer readers read overwhelmingly in trades and digitally. Think about it: If you wanted to read a comic, and you'd never read one before, you'd either order online or walk into a bookstore. Sure, comics shops are a possibility, but most people aren't lucky enough to live near one, and many of them have reputations as hostile towards women. Trades are entry points into comics. Yet Marvel has cancelled many series aimed at women and newer readers before they even get to trade. A great example of this is Mockingbird by Chelsea Cain and Kate Niemcyk — a feminist comic that was perfect for new readers, it was cancelled before the first trade released. Don't try to force readers to read how you want them to; instead, cater to how they read.

The really frustrating aspect of this is that Marvel does take trade sales into account for some titles. A great example is the all-ages fan favoriteThe Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, which does really well in trades, but sells poorly in issues. If they expand this strategy to more titles aimed specifically at women and newer audiences (and market specifically to those audiences), it could really pay off.

Put your money into the exploding graphic novel market

Standalone graphic novels are doing incredibly well right now, and specifically, graphic novels sold through bookstores (rather than comic book shops—though these are growing as well). While the issues/trades format works for some titles, Marvel should try playing around with how it releases comics. For all-ages comics and comics aimed at women, try taking advantage of this incredible demand by putting out more standalone graphic novels.

They've done this with The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, releasing The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe last year — but again, there was very little marketing or publicity for this title. Readers can't buy your books if they don't know that they exist.

The fact is that women are buying comics. Women are even buying Marvel comics. But Marvel hasn't been able to reach out to the audience of newer readers interested in reading comics, which mostly consists of women. It's not surprising that a core group of white male lifelong comics readers wouldn't show a lot of interest in a new spotlight on female superheroes (though I know many readers who fit this description who love these new titles). But it's time for Marvel to try some new strategies to reach out to these audiences who are already reading comics — just not Marvel's comics.

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