Marvel boss says diversity to blame for falling sales

The claim that comic-book fans don't like ‘diverse characters’ is hearsay dressed up as evidence

This week's prize for the best accidental evocation of Trumpian rhetoric goes to Marvel Comics' vice-president of sales. Speaking to ICv2, David Gabriel (for it is he) offered a veritable master-class in the art of retooling hearsay as evidence. Gabriel argues that the comic book giant's efforts to increase representation of women and minorities have damaged sales.

"What we heard was that people didn't want any more diversity," he said. "They didn't want female characters out there. That's what we heard, whether we believe that or not." There was more. "I don't know that that's really true," he flapped. "But that's what we saw in sales … 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."

It’s hard to know where to begin with this. But the “what we heard” and the “I don’t know that that’s true” could have been lifted unaltered from a Trump campaign speech. I don’t need to back up Claim X because I’m not necessarily suggesting Claim X is true. I’m merely arguing that some people – a lot of people, the greatest people, let me tell you – believe Claim X to be the case.

It’s also worth considering the phrase “any character that was diverse”. We use the word “diverse” to describe balanced representation of majority and minority demographics across a genre, medium or individual artwork. Asking any one character to be diverse really is unreasonable. But if Marvel manages to produce an Avenger who is black, white, Asian, gay, straight, male, female and just a little Swedish then good luck to them.


Never mind that. We know what Gabriel means. He is suggesting that comic-book readers don’t like black or female characters. He is arguing that they don’t like gay or bisexual characters. He has “heard” that such people like their heroes to be straight white men. Won’t somebody save us from the marginal encroachment of diversity to a hitherto vanilla mainstream?

To be fair, Gabriel did appear to realise that he’d taken the conversation in an unhelpful direction. “We have also been hearing from stores that welcome and champion our new characters and titles and want more,” he said. “So we’re getting both sides of the story and the only upcoming change we’re making is to ensure we don’t lose focus [on] our core heroes.” This man hears a lot. Doesn’t he?

He's now arguing that, whereas he approves of that lesbian superhero who works on a council anti-bullying programme, he feels that Marvel should focus its energy on endangered classics such as Spider-Man, Iron Man and Thor. Yes, Captain America: Civil War, with $1.2 billion in receipts, was the most successful cinema release of 2016. But there are corners of the Crab Nebula where it barely sold a ticket.

If you want to read comics that reflect social diversity then you are still better off seeking out independent titles. But Marvel has certainly widened its horizons in recent years. The current Ms Marvel is a Muslim girl called Kamala Khan. Riri Williams, a black engineering student, has nudged Iron Man aside to become Ironheart. The company’s flexible way with parallel universes has allowed a teenager of black and Hispanic descent to become Spider-Man.

None of this wobbles the super-pillars of the Marvel Mansion. In a few months, we will see yet another cinematic version of Spider-Man being introduced to yet another planet of compliant fans. This will be the third launch for Spidey since 2002. Lack of interest briefly killed the X-Men comic in the late 1960s. Despite the continuing, terrifying rise of diversity, those mutants are now healthier than ever. Logan is a hit on film. Legion is a critical smash on TV. Both are X-Men spinoffs.

Yet a cabal of young white men remains deeply threatened by even the slightest efforts to make films, comic books and video games reflect the makeup of contemporary society. At the risk of poking a digital hornet’s nest, one could reasonably argue that this was a driving force behind the ludicrous GamerGate campaign a few years back.

“Circle the wagons. Feminists are coming to scalp our frail wee egos,” they type. “Crouch behind the Reddit stockade, Social Justice Warriors are building another bonfire. All lives matter. When’s International Men’s Day?”

I can’t say for certain that any of this is happening. But it’s what I’m hearing. That’s what people are saying. Good people. The best people. Let me tell you.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist