So why did Marvel pull the plug on Black Panther & The Crew after just two issues?

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May 19, 2017, 9:22 AM EDT (Updated)

How long should a comic book aimed at reaching a more socially aware audience be given latitude before it’s canceled? According to Marvel Comics, just two. Marvel is canceling one of two monthly titles that Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, Black Panther & The Crew. After two issues have underperformed in sales, the title has been abruptly put on notice. Marvel had seen enough and was not satisfied by the early numbers to stick with a title while it finds its audience. Coates told Verge that issue #6 will be the series’ finale, wrapping up the storyline that was introduced in the debut issue, which came out in this past March. 

Coates co-writes the series with Yona Harvey, and together they crafted a story starring Black Panther, Storm, Misty Knight and Luke Cage investigating the murder of a civil rights activist who died while in police custody, Ezra Keith. Relevant to America’s current societal problems facing inherent racism, Coates and Harvey’s story also dives into the main four heroes and tries to look deeper at their varied experiences as black people in the Marvel Universe.

The monthly estimated comics shipped to North American Comic Shops, according to Diamond Comic Distributors, shows that Black Panther & The Crew debuted at 57 out 390 releases, moving 35,604 copies. That outsold Spider-Man (34,013), Doctor Strange (33,246) and even the Avengers (31,461) for that month. At the time of this report, the numbers for May have not yet been reported to know just how far the drop was between the first and second issues of the book. It must have been big to pull the plug so early. I don't know about any of you, but I can't judge a story based on two issues of a six-issue story, but that's just me.

Marvel has been trimming back, canceling some of its titles, citing poor sales as the main reason. This latest announcement comes off the heels of statements made at the beginning of April, by Marvel’s Senior Vice President of Sales, Print & Marketing David Gabriel, who blamed the slowing market for Marvel titles that center around diversity and female characters.

A common complaint of Marvel’s strategy to diversify their line of comics by longtime readers is that they don’t like their Marvel mainstays to be changed, whether it’s Jane Foster as Lady Thor, Riri Williams as Ironheart or Sam Wilson as Captain America. Superhero comics have always reflected current times and society, and whether or not parts of the population want to accept it, race and diversity is a very real problem and it's on the minds of those who make comics, TV and film. Yet The World of Wakanda and Black Panther & The Crew were titles that were spinoffs, that expanded the scope of Black Panther and the roles that black superheroes play in the Marvel Universe. They weren’t replacing Black Panther as much as they were supplementing him. So why the lack of sales?

It’s not safe to assume one definitive problem with Black Panther’s two spinoffs, but they have been certainly supported less than Secret Empire, which got extra exposure on Free Comic Book Day and all the publicity over whether or not Captain America should be portrayed as an agent of Hydra. It’s Marvel’s latest event story, so there’s a reason why it finished as the top-selling book of April.

Black Panther spinoffs were probably never going to penetrate the old guard of comic readers who rail against diversity. They’ve never supported Black Panther, whether it was the critically acclaimed Marvel Knights run written by Christopher Priest or the Reggie Hudlin era that followed. As solid as both of these runs were, they were vastly under-appreciated by the mainstream and unknown to many in and out of comics world.

Let's not overlook how well Coates and Brian Stelfreeze’s run in the main Black Panther comic has sold, but the character has seen its highest profile with a feature film on the way and after being introduced in Captain America: Civil War. Scoring Coates at the rise of his popularity was a big get for Marvel, and Black Panther soon had unprecedented two spinoff titles being published simultaneously: Black Panther: World of Wakanda and Black Panther & The Crew within its first year of the relaunch. It's never been proven that Black Panther can support one spinoff, much less two. Black Panther & The Crew was first launched in 2003 but it too was cancelled soon after it's launch, lasting just seven issues.  

But is there really a problem with comic readers not liking or not connecting the content? Or was it too much too soon? Perhaps it's a different issue. Was there enough effort given to the spinoffs as there was to Black Panther? I’d argue that the audience who would be most interested, probably wasn’t even aware of such comics. If you weren't actively reading Black Panther, did you really know that they were spinning two ongoing series? By putting the focus solely on the sales, it’s easy to make a case for cancellation but there's a bigger story as to why it did not do better.

When Coates and Stelfreeze’s Black Panther #1 debuted at the top of the charts in April of 2016, that issue sold 253,259 copies, assisted by multiple variant covers as all major Marvel releases often do. An additional 33,496 copies of #1 were sold in the following three months in subsequent printings. The same thing happened with issue #2, as it sold 77,654 its initial month and sold an additional 24,712 copies over the following two months. Now, attrition is part of every title and a creative team’s ability to hold it off as long as possible is the name of the game.

Black Panther remained in the top 40 book through issue #7, and a top 60 book through issue #12 and it continues to hold its quantities in the mid-30,000s, which should keep it safe as long as it doesn’t dip below 25,000 at least until the movie comes out. The first trade paperback, collecting the first storyline has sold over 13,000 copies in its first year and the subsequent trades have seen solid numbers too. It's nominated for a Hugo Award too. Black Panther is legit.

On numbers alone, and for the sake of arguing, let's say that there are 30,000-35,000 current monthly readers of Black Panther. Is it really a surprise that Black Panther & The Crew didn't sell more than 35,000 copies? Or why World of Wakanda sold well initially but now even less given how hard it is to get an original comic in the mainstream Big Two off the ground?

Now, World of Wakanda is written by Roxane Gay and Yona Harvey, with artists Alisha E. Martinez and Afua Richardson. The story featured lovers Ayo and Aneka and their lives after leaving Dora Milaje, Black Panther’s female security troop. The aim with this title was to give a broader spectrum of Wakanda and the world in which Black Panther and his supporting cast thrives in. World of Wakanda was a top 50 book for the first two months but saw a steep decline with issue #3, falling out of the top 100 and selling at the beginning of Marvel’s critical threshold with 25,248. Comic shop retailers typically order heavy on the first two issues and then readjust according to the demand. Since then, it continues to see sharp declines, dipping below 15,000 copies with issue #6 and now it’s in limbo, never officially cancelled, but no news of another story in solicitation. Where is the support?

When I say lack of support, what I mean is, did Marvel have the right strategy to get the main Black Panther title and its spinoffs into the hands that would be most inspired to read it? I don’t know the answer, but when there are only 30,000 - 50,000 copies of the first issue available, my guess is no. Were they priced so that those needing to be socially awoken could have it in their hands? At $3.99 and $4.99 a pop, probably not. But before we go down the rabbit hole of cost, can we really expect kids or even young adults in low-to-middle income communities to suddenly start visiting a comic shop regularly to finish the story? Not likely, at least in abundance. 

These are the more relevant questions when you see such low numbers through the months. Let’s say that the readers who have typically frequented comic shops are not interested in these stories, which is fine. Honestly, these stories speak to a much wider audience than those entering the average comic book shop, and whether or not they pick it up really isn't the problem when there are potentially millions of readers who aren't even aware the comics exist.

But perhaps World of Wakanda and The Crew needed a different strategy to go to market. Maybe those titles needed to come out as a low-cost original graphic novel and priced and positioned as a Scholastic book release so that it could be sold to school book fairs at a reasonable cost. If the content is strong on a social level, like IDW’s autobiographical March graphic novels, which tell Congressman John Lewis’ plights during the Civil Rights movement, it needs to break out of the comic shop prison that has never been the only way to sell comics. Just ask Raina Telgemeier (Ghosts) or even Art Spiegelman (Maus) how well their books have done outside the comic book shop. 

Comics such as these push the medium’s boundaries out further. So I would never say that a Black Lives Matter story doesn’t belong in the Marvel lineup. As a POC, I know that I want to read it. I applaud it and many other titles that cover similar themes at smaller publishers, but I drink the kool aid of all comics and all publishers. I'm simply open to good stories. These are titles that aim for a new audience too and maybe Marvel needed to reconsider who and how they wanted to reach with them, and factor in the limitations of the comic shop. Maybe then, these comics actually get into the hands of kids and young adults who currently don't read comics and are equally concerned about initiating a true social change and shift in dialogue to move the system in the right direction, before they pull the plug.

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