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Marvel, you're in denial if you think the decline of your comics is because of 'diversity'

Ms Marvel is Marvel's highest selling digital title and Black Panther was the top selling comic book of the year in 2016. The only time 'diversity' doesn't work at Marvel is when white men are given control over it

Kelly Kanayama
Tuesday 04 April 2017 15:55 BST

For decades now, sales of comic books have been in decline. What could be the cause? The proliferation of other forms of mass media? The drastic shift in distribution models since the 1970s, first with the creation of comic book stores, then with online vendors, then again with direct-to-consumer crowdfunding platforms? The rising prices of monthly issues, which now average about $4 for 20 pages? According to Marvel's Senior Vice President of Sales David Gabriel, it's none of these. The real culprit, he said at Marvel's recent Retailer Summit, is “diversity”.

“Any character that is diverse,” he clarified, “people were turning their nose up against.” (By “diverse”, Gabriel presumably meant “not a heterosexual white man”, since in the strictest sense of the word no single character can be diverse.)

Certainly Marvel has at least given the impression of increasing diversity in its books recently: more heroes of colour, more superpowered women, more LGBTQ metahumans, more champions who don't adhere to non-Judeo-Christian religious codes. As a result, readers have enjoyed the adventures of superheroes such as Kamala Khan/Ms Marvel, a teenage Pakistani American Muslim girl; Black Panther, the superheroic ruler of the African nation of Wakanda; Miles Morales/Spider-Man, who is black and Latino; and, very recently, America Chavez, a queer Latina from an alternate dimension. In fact, soon after its debut, Ms Marvel became Marvel's highest selling digital title and a regular fixture on the New York Times' (former) comics bestseller list, while Black Panther was the top selling comic of the year in 2016.

Not coincidentally, these two comics are known for their “diverse” creative talent as well as their content. Ms Marvel is authored by G Willow Wilson, a Muslim woman living in America. Black Panther's author is none other than Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer whose work often delves into the complexities of contemporary black masculinity.

The firsthand knowledge, experiences, and worldviews that these creators bring to their characters leads to high quality stories which keep readers coming back, directly repudiating the “It should be about good stories, not diversity!” argument by demonstrating how each needs the other to wholly exist.

In many of Marvel's other comics, however, the “diversity” is superficial to the point of insult. On the page we see characters from different racial and national backgrounds, with different sexual orientations and gender identities, but behind the scenes the company's creative talent remains overwhelmingly white and male.

Hence we are subjected to, for instance, a black mother grieving over her young son's corpse with, “He was no angel”, the same phrase used to discredit the public's fear and anger regarding Michael Brown's murder. The stories of these so-called diverse characters do nothing to advance representation in comics if said stories are constructed within a demographically static bubble.

Not that female, BAME, and/or LGBTQ creators should be confined to producing comics about protagonists from their specific demographics. Currently Marvel has Becky Cloonan writing The Punisher, a comic centred on a white man with a lot of guns, and has continuously received positive reviews of her work.

The problem occurs when there is a disconnect between “diversity” on the page and diversity among that page's creators, which gives rise to comics that fail to realise the potential of their own characters and stories and thus get a chilly reception from readers. Then when these comics sell poorly, their deviation from the straight white male norm – not their quality – is blamed. What readers are rejecting is not diversity, but rather a failure of creativity and comprehension. If Gabriel and Marvel want to increase their comic sales, that's where they should start.

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