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Tag: opinion

Marvel's long history of canceling diverse books

Contributed by
Aug 7, 2018

Last year, Marvel Comics came under fire when representative David Gabriel was interviewed about poor sales and responded, “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.” While Marvel executives have said that the quote was taken out of context and made some attempt to clarify, fan response was still unsurprisingly immediate and vehement, particularly when followed with unsatisfactory responses from the company and later the announcement that Marvel would be canceling most of its so-called diverse books.

Sales analysts immediately got to work breaking down Marvel's problems, questioning the assertion that the failure of new books across the board could be blamed on diversity. For instance, making Captain America a Hydra agent sold terribly and had serious real-world ramifications when Nazis started showing up with Captain America shields at rallies. Were those people buying the comics? Probably not, yet they weren't subject to what many fans perceived as a call out by the company directed at its female, queer, and POC fans. We never got an actual description of what “diversity” meant to Marvel executives—just that they tried it for half a year, decided it didn't work, then released new solicits predominantly featuring straight white male characters as most of the “diverse” books vanished from shelves in March. In the months since the company has made improvements, there has been lingering resentment from many readers.

Since Marvel as we know it today began attempting to reach out to a wider audience, we've seen this pattern repeated: creative teams with varying levels of interest in the continuation of the books, low promotion, incredibly short runs, and pulling all books from the shelves while blaming fans for not buying. This has invariably served to further alienate a readership they had just barely begun to reach out to. In understanding fan backlash over the last several months, it's important to note also that this is not a new phenomenon in mainstream comics.

Patsy Walker made her first appearance in the second issue of Miss America in 1944. Introduced the same year, Miss America was specifically geared toward a female readership, often featuring recipes and fashion advice alongside what is considered to be more standard superhero antics. Modern fans likely know Patsy best as Trish Walker from the Jessica Jones series on Netflix, the first season of which was based on a 28-issue series called "Alias" by Brian Michael Bendis. Otherwise, she appears in the comics as Hellcat, most recently penned by Kate Leth.

Patsy Walker, at the time, was a humor comic, much in the style of Archie and the Riverdale crew. While it wasn't bringing much to the table in the way of creativity, it's ironic that a comic publisher that established an editorial mandate not to include women as major characters in the '70s initially published a long-running female-led book as one of its flagship titles, which had been born out of a mostly unrelated female-led series that likewise ran over 100 issues. Patsy Walker has fared better than nearly all her pre-bronze age counterparts at Marvel (with the exception of Namor and the Human Torch), having served on multiple superteams and starring in her own mini-series and ongoing.

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In the early '60s, in one of Marvel's first attempts at diversity, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee introduced the Black Panther. The character predates the creation of the Black Panther party, which allegedly caused discomfort for the publisher later and led to the character's temporary name change to Black Leopard. Black Panther was another comic that Marvel canceled due to poor sales, but in many cases, the writing was incredibly questionable. In his first appearance in Fantastic Four #52, the entire issue revolves around the casual racism of the Fantastic Four. Obviously, it's of its time in the worst way, but well into the '70s we had a Black Panther whose stories were written by white men, in which racism was used as a teaching tool for the white characters in the comic.

In 1973, Don McGregor began his epic Black Panther run in Jungle Action #5 with several artists—notably Billy Graham, one of the first black artists to work for Marvel, who did precious little comic work but whose panel layouts are legendary. However, sales on the book were low, and it was canceled. When Kirby was given the series upon his return to Marvel in the '70s, he took the assignment without enthusiasm, having insisted that he would strongly prefer to work on new characters rather than ones he'd helped create over a decade prior. The series ended with Issue 15 after a change in creative teams in Issue 12. Black Panther seemed to languish for years, with little interest from most creators. Christopher Priest, who joined Marvel's staff as the first black editor to work in mainstream comics in the late '70s, gave the character one of his best runs when he started a new Black Panther series in 1998 that ran over 60 issues, but again, when the series ended, there were more starts and stops with the character. Finally, Marvel chose to bring in established authors Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay. Gay penned Black Panther: World of Wakanda... only to see the series canceled after six issues. On the other hand, the Black Panther film was incredibly successful and has led to an increased interest in comics about the character. Bridging the gap between the film audience and the comics, however, has proved difficult.

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In 1972, Lee decided it was about time Marvel tried to reach out to a female readership after a near-decade of telling stories that often demeaned female characters—for instance, Jean Grey, who was sexually harassed by her teammates and even lusted after by her mentor Xavier, and Sue Storm, whose relationship with Reed Richards has often been parodied in popular culture as being particularly condescending and sometimes bordering on emotionally abusive. Editor Roy Thomas suggested that it would be best if women wrote the proposed new series and brought in three women with no prior comics experience. One of these women was Thomas' wife Jean, who was offered the book The Claws of the Cat and wasn't even comfortable with its overall premise, asking her husband, “Why do we have to call it The Cat? Is it a catfight?”

Since feminism was thriving in the real world, attempts to push comics featuring scantily clad jungle adventures and cat-women came across as dated and, not surprisingly, didn't fare well. In an interview, Lee attributed the inclusion of the title Night Nurse to publisher Martin Goodman's belief that nurses were sexy. In Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, we got extra insight as to what the women behind these comics dealt with, as author Sean Howe relayed: “Alas, the message of empowerment was lost on Wally Wood, whom Stan Lee hired to ink the cover of The Cat #1. Wood sent back Marie Severin’s pencil art with the heroine’s clothes completely removed, and Severin — who’d had more than her fill of boys’ club shenanigans over the years — had to white out the Cat’s nipples and pubic hair.”

Thomas, who took over as editor-in-chief after Lee left, was one of the first to blame bad sales on diversity rather than any other number of factors. He's quoted in Sean Howe's book as saying, “You could get blacks to buy comics about whites, but it was hard to get whites to buy comics in which the main character was black. And it was even harder to get boys to buy comics about women.” Thus, it was established that there would be no further attempts to reach out to a female readership.

Thomas' female creations were often equally perplexing to those of Lee. In the Avengers, Thomas introduced Valkyrie, a misandrist, and a villain, in order to make a point that while feminists are correct that sexism is a thing, protesting it in any way will lead to chaos and the eventual murder of all men. In hindsight, you can love Valkyrie, but only if you willfully ignore the intended message—which is, essentially, that feminists go too far.

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On the other hand, in Thor: Ragnarok, released in 2017, Valkyrie returned as played by Tessa Thompson, not only in a major role, but eschewing stereotypes of what we typically see from female superheroes by being a hard-drinking mercenary with a heart of gold, unlocking a painful past to become a hero once more. This occurred after decades of Valkyrie appearing in comics, often only in a small role, and after years of fans decrying lack of female representation in superhero films, but it did show us what even a slightly more diverse Marvel Universe could look like.

While Marvel has introduced many of the best female characters of all time, the company has not always treated them well. Marvel has launched multiple series for She-Hulk, but these often miss the mark with fans. The first She-Hulk series was more about the two men who fall in love with Jennifer Walters than it was about Walters herself. The second, written primarily by John Byrne, was full of demeaning jokes and the over-sexualization of the character, going so far as to dedicate several pages of an issue to her jumping rope naked—just one particularly gratuitous example of how the series was not even slightly concerned with attracting a female readership. Microaggressions toward women were laced throughout the series, with She-Hulk declaring more than once that women didn't read comics. In these stunningly blatant panels, we see Marvel's position on its female readership spoken via one of the company's most intrinsically feminist creations.

Another Stan Lee creation, She-Hulk was invented more or less because he was afraid that DC would be able to trademark a female version of the Hulk if Marvel didn't. With that as a premise, it's surprising the character has lasted and endured. While she still hasn't received her due as one of Marvel's most interesting characters, the 2012 FF series saw her in a more prominent role as one of the most intelligent and dependable characters of the Marvel Universe, with the Thing requesting her specifically to take his place on the team while he's away on a mission. In 2014, She-Hulk was given another ongoing series written by Charles Soule, and that run saw her open her own law firm. The series was great, and it re-established her as a self-motivated go-getter while focusing in on her friendship with fellow superhero Hellcat. However, it lasted only a year.

Another wrench in the system for tracking comic sales reliably is that comics have long depended on a complicated ordering system reliant on pre-sales, which neglects to take into account that many modern fans often purchase comics in trade or via platforms like Comixology and Marvel Unlimited. Major comic publishers have been slow to account for the changing market, often citing a lack of pre-sales as a valid reason to cancel a book, despite the fact that it only partially indicates overall readership. The response that if fans want books to stick around, they'll just buy them three months in advance, saw the most airplay when, recently, writer Chelsea Cain was on the series Mockingbird, which was critically acclaimed yet canceled by its eighth issue. When Mockingbird appeared on the cover of Issue 8 sporting a T-shirt that read “Ask me about my feminist agenda,” the response from an anti-feminist segment of fandom was swift. Marvel responded to this backlash against Cain by turning it into a marketing plea, telling fans to go out and buy the trades—the implication being that it would save the series. But the series had already been canceled, and no amount of purchases from fans at that point would have done anything to keep the series running. Cain was meanwhile harassed to the point of leaving the company, and she isn't likely to return anytime soon. While it is unlikely that anyone at Marvel intended this to be the end result, it is still what happened, and reflects a deeper problem with how female creators have been treated over the years.

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Mockingbird suffered the same fate as many other books do, in which the series initially sells very well, and then, thanks to a complete lack of promotion or tie-ins for subsequent issues, its numbers drop, resulting in the cancellation of the book. A similar pattern occurred with Spider-Girl, then A-Force, which saw a strong beginning, then a steep drop-off in readership. These properties haven't been abandoned by Marvel, and they all have strong fanbases. In every case, you see interviews with Marvel executives urging readers to write in and get involved with the pre-order system to sell their books, but often these pleas come after the series has already been canceled. In the case of Spider-Girl, attempts from fans saved the book multiple times, and it ended up lasting 100 issues with shorter runs to follow. But you can compare these drops in readership across the board at Marvel. It's standard for their first issues to sell very well, followed by severe drop-offs in readership. However, these sales issues also occur with characters like Namor, the Hulk, and Iron Man, and, as such, can hardly be blamed on diversity.

Then there's the fact that Marvel had multiple books nominated for this year's GLAAD awards only to see them canceled by the time the awards were held. When discussing queer characters in Marvel's history and the queer fandom of Marvel in general, it's crucial to consider that there were no recorded attempts to include queer characters in Marvel until the '80s with such comics as Claremont's X-Men, and even those attempts were quelled by an editorial mandate that specified there could be no gay characters at Marvel. Characters like Destiny, Rachel Summers, Mystique, and Northstar were kept closeted, their relationships displayed only via what subtext happened to get by the EIC. In the case of most of the characters, that EIC was Jim Shooter, but Shooter can't specifically be blamed for an edict issued by the Comics Code.

When Northstar was finally outed in 1992, two decades after his introduction, he immediately vanished from the team book he had been a part of, and when we saw him again in his own mini-series there was no mention of him having come out of the closet. It took several more years for the character to get a boyfriend, another storyline in which Marvel took full credit for its commitment to diversity, then almost immediately wrote said character out of the series. By the time Iceman got his own series after being outed in Brian Michael Bendis' X-Men run, it was after decades of missteps with queer characters in the X-Men franchise, including the straight-washing of Mystique and Destiny and frequent queerbaiting of its readership with Kitty Pryde, who was often hinted as bisexual only to have that element of her character completely written out of existence.

After long-time X-Man Iceman came out recently as gay, there was an increased interest in his character. Often on the sidelines of the team, Marvel began to push him more as a lead, eventually launching a series penned by Sina Grace. Although often criticized for being too lightweight and missing the mark on its characterization of its supporting cast, the series was still written by an out creator. Although the book was a part of the cancelations of March 2018, the series is being re-launched in August.

The America series based on fan-favorite America Chavez employed first-time comic writer Gabby Rivera to tell her story, which was praised as a groundbreaking move. America Chavez is Latina, and an out lesbian, and in contrast to what we usually see where the identity politics of a character are swept under the rug, these facts about her have always been front and center. Fans were understandably upset when the series was canceled, and then Marvel's subsequent solicitations failed to feature Chavez. However, in the time since the series ended, America has begun showing up more regularly in other Marvel Universe series.

When discussing diversity at Marvel, one has to consider the success stories as well. Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson featured a young Muslim girl with no character history in the Marvel universe and became one of the most pivotal books Marvel has published in the last decade. Kelly Sue DeConnick launched Captain Marvel mostly utilizing out-of-pocket money to promote the series, and her run took a character that was often on the sidelines, placing her square into the public eye in a move that is now leading to the creation of the first female-led Marvel superhero film. Unlikely successes in the form of once-forgotten characters like Hellcat and Squirrel Girl have pushed sales, and new books like Exiles by Saladin Ahmed, as well as creators like Ta-Nehisi Coates on Captain America, show a marked interest at Marvel in improving the diversity of both their creative teams and their releases, despite a very rocky start to 2018.

The slump in mainstream comic sales can be blamed on many things — the complicated and often unexplained pre-ordering system, the fact that most stories are just being turned into movies eventually anyway, over-saturation of titles in an increasingly uncomfortable financial landscape, and the inaccessibility of comic stores in general. The fact that “diverse” audiences might be a bit apprehensive to support major comic companies can likewise be blamed on the fact that mainstream publishers spent decades actively alienating them and making public statements that diverse audiences have no interest in comics. As a lifelong comics fan, I know all too well that it can become incredibly tedious to have major publishers fail to take their audiences into account while still expecting you to drop a hundred bucks a month to keep up with relentless company crossover events.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, Marvel's audience and the world in which it exists has changed significantly. While the comics industry as a whole is experiencing growing pains that can often be frustrating for fans, one only has to take a look back to where we started sometimes to see how far we've come. There's also the long history of companies failing to prioritize great swaths of fandom. When fans responded angrily to so many diverse books being canceled in March, the anger was based in a very real history of disappointments. When, in the real world, so many of our basic human rights are under attack or being dragged backward, each moment can seem like a battle, including seemingly simple entertainment choices. It falls upon the companies to mediate that battle so that a great many different readers from all different kinds of backgrounds can come together and enjoy a story. Groups that are devoutly against diversity have harassed many writers and fans for even daring to have an interest in diverse characters and characterization, so any gesture made by a major company that appeases those groups can come across as a personal attack to those of us that are just trying to love and support these characters. It is often said that Marvel is a business and that they exist to make money. While that is true, hopefully, there can be some account taken for the way focusing solely on a bottom line has overall hurt relationships with possible fans, and kept entire sects of people from wanting to walk into a comic shop.

Marvel, like most companies, is no monolith. It's comprised of many dozens of people, and all of those people are individuals with their own ideas on what makes a good comic. Going forward, it is this fan's hope only that as a whole, the comics audience is viewed as diverse and full of different interests and ideas, rather than just being the default presumed audience of decades past.

UPDATE: Chelsea Cain is in fact returning to Marvel! Yay! She'll be writing the Vision series. Many books have been added to Marvel's roster, including books featuring Shuri from Black Panther by Nnedi Okorafor and Leonardo Rivera and a Ghost-Spider ongoing written by Seanan McQuire and Rosi Campe.

CORRECTION: Iceman goes on sale in September 2018, not August.