Monday 3 April 2017

The Comics Ramble: Diversity vs. Nostalgia vs. Marketing

We saw the sales of any character that was diverse, any character that was new, our female characters, anything that was not a core Marvel character, people were turning their nose up against.”

The quote comes from David Gabriel, Senior VP of Sales, Print & Marketing at Marvel, speaking to ICv2 about a downturn in sales Marvel suffered through the end of 2016. He then goes on to contrast the strong sales of Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows, a nostalgia series about an alternate timeline where Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson are still married and have a daughter.

Now, Gabriel admits there are a lot of factors in why between October and December last year people might have been making personal economies, about how Marvel may have just been putting too much product on the market, and several other factors. Still, the message seems clear, especailly as he goes on to tout the return of classic characters to prominence in coming months as a response to this downturn.

So, we need to discuss a few things.

For one, there is a specific breed of fan to whom this is good news. This is the sort of person who calls any title featuring a lead who is now white, male, cis and straight as “SJW comics”, as “pandering”. To this sort there is no additional, outside context to these falling sales, its just the natural consequence of not exclusively catering to them and their projected power fantasies at all times. Unfortunately, in many cases, they are also probably right.

How did we end up with this reality though? This reality that diversity doesn't sell in a world where Moonlight and Hidden Figures have been so successful? Diversity doesn't sell when YA novels can't throw out empowered female leads fast enough? Diversity doesn't sell when LGBTQ audiences will champion to high heaven any series that gives them even moderately respectful representation? Diversity doesn't sell in a world where one of Netflix's flagship series is set in a women's prison and from day one featured a parade of female characters representating all sorts of minorities? How does diversity not sell?

Because there's no one to sell it to.

You see, the sad reality of the comic industry right now is that if DC and Marvel weren't owned by larger companies that make megabucks licensing their IP they would probably have fallen apart years ago. The reason that so many events, even major jumping on point relaunches like DC Rebirth, are based around continuity wrangling is because the only major audience left for these things is the same core audience who have been reading comics their entire lives. Comics are sold in comic shops, not in supermarkets or bookshops or the local newsagent and that is just as true here in the UK as it is in the US. You want comics on a monthly basis you either find a comic shop in some back alley well away from the high rents of places with actual foot traffic or you order online.

And how do comic companies market a new series? Crossovers! Event tie-ins! A marketing strategy that literally requires you already read comics and have enough affection for Character A to want to spend extra money on their two-issue guest role in the series of Character B.

Outside of that? Nothing. Comics are advertised in comics, it is an insular feedback loop.

So, of course nostalgia sells better than diversity, of course Renew Your Vows sells better when it has one of the company's most popular characters in a spin-off of an era whose death fanboys bitch and moan to this day. Hell, I'm with them on that! I love Renew Your Vows, I got into comics during the Clone Saga, I miss the idea of a mature Peter and MJ as a young family.

But I got into those comics because they were in a rack at Nicholsons', an odd shop that was sort of a halfway house between corner newsagents and miniature supermarket. It was on one corner of what was, then, the main square of Basingstoke town centre right next to the bus station. I passed it every day of school through secondary school and on Wednesday I would pass through and pick up a couple of comics from the little section between the football magazines and the activity books for kids: Uncanny X-Men, Wolverine, Generation X, Sensational Spider-Man, Fantastic Four. It wasn't much of a selection, in fact it was downright frustrating that of the four Spider-Man titles they only stocked three so I always missed a quarter of any major storyline.

It was accessible, though, to me and dozens and dozens of other kids coming to and from school.

It is a very simple truism of marketing that you can be amazing at something and you won't make a penny if no one sees you do it. If Marvel wants to reach audiences who are crying out for representation they can't trust that those audiences will just spontaneously decide to research comics on their own in the hopes of finding the lesser spotted Pakistani Muslim teenage girl superhero written by an actual practicing Muslim, they have to actually put some bloody money into telling the world that character exists.

And maybe, while we're at it, concentrate more on the experience of buying a single series than following the Marvel Universe? Events and crossovers are money sinks and we don't live in that economy anymore. You'll attract more casual fans if you aren't constantly teasing big events. We just got out of Civil War II then Monsters Unleashed, now you're building towards Secret Empire and Generations is going to run in the middle of Secret Empire.

We live in a world where the internet has basically destroyed any knowledge-based barrier to entry. The most convoluted character history is a Wikipedia article away and the only barriers left are the ones the comic industry seems happy to perpetuate: physical inaccessibility, lack of marketing and the financial burden of following a huge universe instead of a number of different series that share a setting.

Diversity doesn't sell... PAH! 

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