The House That Jack Built, in Trouble Again

We’re all mad again, and we’re all mad at Marvel. By “we” I mean comics readers, or at least a certain demographic of comics readers, and we’re mad because, and I’m quoting io9’s headline here, Marvel VP David Gabriel “blames women and diversity” for a decline in comics sales.

That sounds like a spectacularly boneheaded thing for a Marvel VP to say. But io9 insists he did it deliberately and maliciously, that he “decided to ignore all the problems and criticism in order to place the blame on diversity.” How cunning and evil!

Look, I understand why people wouldn’t want to read the full Gabriel interview: it’s boring, and it’s specifically boring because it’s directed towards industry professionals on an industry professional website about an industry professional summit. It’s all inside baseball. But it’s important, because it’s easy to read io9, or any number of other angry articles making the rounds, and assume that Gabriel was saying something like, “Yeah sales are down, must be those darn diverse characters” (I’m quoting again, this time from Nerdist); it’s pretty clear that Gabriel actually meant something more like, “Although Marvel remains committed to diverse representation in its titles, retailers have told us that our initiatives in this arena have, unfortunately, not been as popular with fans as we’ve hoped.” It’s pabulum-bland and inoffensive, and Gabriel just slipped up for a moment, probably because he wasn’t talking to a general audience, and failed to phrase it in a way that would be harder to take it out of context. And then we all got mad.


Meanwhile, DC is diverse af.

Far from “decid[ing] to ignore” other reasons for the sales slump, Gabriel lists several other reasons—the economy, Marvel’s title glut, Diamond’s return policies, possibly DC—and io9 decided to mention only one in order to pretend that Gabriel ignored others. (The interview takes the unprecedented step of inserting additional material by Gabriel in an attempt to make his off-the-cuff comment more precise.)

One thing I do not know is whether Gabriel’s assessment is accurate. If I had to guess why comic sales are slow, diversity would not have been my first guess, but I’m not Marvel’s VP of Sales and I didn’t go to a retailer conference. I have not been analyzing the bottom line or fielding phone calls from retailers. Also not Marvel’s VP of Sales: everyone mad at Marvel right now. But somehow, despite having presumably less information than David Gabriel at their fingertips, people are sure they know how to turn around Marvel’s sales slump:

The Guardian: More diversity. Nerdist: More diversity. Daily Dot: More diversity.

I don’t want to defend Marvel too strenuously here. They’ve shot themselves in the foot enough times in the past that we probably shouldn’t accept all their marketing assessments on face value. And surely we all have ideas about how companies could do business better, and I don’t want to castigate anyone for trotting out our pet theories at the least provocation—

(speaking of which, I should mention that most things said online are half an attempt to self-righteously hurt someone (“David Gabriel violated the complicated shibboleths concerning diversity! let’s drag him!”) and half an attempt to signal one’s demographic (“I assure you I support diversity in comics! I’m one of you! Down with fedoras!”) and this kerfluffle is no different)

—but we have to notice how easy it is to say these things. It’s not our money on the line!

Marvel: We’ve studied the problem, and we are taking steps to stop hemorrhaging money.
Us: We insist you keep hemorrhaging money and change your steps to match my snap judgments and prejudices.

The Guardian dismisses this as “hand-waving about capitalism” while io9, in a moment of flat-earthery, says “Gabriel’s point is bullshit, because it shelves blame onto the readers.” And this is, indeed, the problem. The “blame” may not rest on the readers, but the responsibility does, and if you lose sight of this for one second, all your comments will be nonsense. The purchaser of the comics does not necessarily bear a moral responsibility (as the word “blame” may imply), but the purchaser indisputably holds the power. If you buy “diverse” comics, they’ll make more diverse comics. If you don’t buy diverse comics, they won’t. You can say that the diverse comics are too poorly written or drawn to hold your interest; you can point out (as some of these articles do) that the comics direct market is weird and inefficient; you can even boycott the industry until it becomes more diverse; but if you buy “diverse” comics, they’ll make more diverse comics and if you don’t buy diverse comics, they won’t. Marvel wants your money, not your explanations; not your postures.

If enough people buy well-written diverse comics from other publishers, Marvel will notice; if people stop buying Marvel comics, Marvel will notice; but if people sulk on Twitter without changing their buying habits, Marvel will yawn.

When we dismiss the market by calling it “hand-waving about capitalism” (I call that “hand-waving about hand-waving about capitalism”) we perpetuate the fallacy that other people should be devoting their lives to constructing markets and corporations that flatter our whims. Remember when you were angry that there were too few Guardians of the Galaxy Gamora toys? If you didn’t buy the Gamora toys that were available, then your anger was in vain. Actually, if only you bought Gamora toys, then your anger was also in vain. Regardless, all the companies who did what you wanted went bankrupt and all the companies who did not do what you wanted thrived and now natural selection has ensured that you will never be happy.

We all sort of know this; we know it enough that when we read some bore lecturing us about it we roll our eyes. But we conveniently forget because the desire to have a pleasing world all around us with no responsibility for it is too strong.

I worked at a comic store when Amazing Fantasy #1 came out—it featured the first Latina superhero to headline a major title. The store was choked with new customers, looking to buy up three or four copies to bag and board. They were ecstatic; they told me that this was an important milestone in diversity; they didn’t come back for #2.

Maybe #1 wasn’t good enough to lure them back; but most of these people didn’t read the first issue, and would never know. They hadn’t read a comic in decades, and weren’t about to start now. The siren call of a #1 and a Latina superhero led them spiral-eyed to the cash register, and then they left forever. Marvel lured a few back by canceling Amazing Fantasy and launching Arana #1, but after that the well was dry. They never again saw the inside of a comic store; and predictably Arana was canceled, too.

These customers did not want to read a comic about a Latina superhero; they wanted to live in a world in which a Latina superhero had a comic; and they failed to do the very thing that would have made their desire a reality.

Axel Alonso, EIC of Marvel, tells a story about his Korean nephew, who sounds like he’s about six, being excited by the idea of a Korean Hulk (as is current in Marvel continuity); but, and this is key, Marvel’s Hulk comics are not aimed at a six-year old; no one would buy them for a six-year old. Alonso has fallen into the same trap, acting as though it’s important to create comics for people who cannot buy them, as though comic production was a symbolic act, a shadowplay put on by volunteers and paid for by applause. But he, unlike us, can only act that way for so long.

Alonso wants to make diverse comics, but he also wants to keep making comics, and if he makes diverse comics and loses money, he will lose his job. Although Marvel, for the first time in their history, is now bankrolled by pockets deep enough to keep making diverse comics and losing money indefinitely, it’s unlikely that Disney will choose to play that game.

So if you’re buying “diverse” comics and are vexed that your contribution is being neglected by Marvel’s calculations—you’re doing your part! If you have crunched the numbers (as, to be fair, some of the angry articles claim to have done) and have alternate theories about Marvel’s decline you can set forth persuasively—you’re doing your job!

But if you heard the word “diversity” and in a Pavlovian fit you’ve started  wishing that Marvel would base its business decisions on your pipe dreams, then your anger is silly and you’ve wasted your life. Unless your whole goal was to hurt people and signal, in which case, I guess you’re doing your job, too.

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