Who could have guessed that "diverse" characters would tank Marvel's sales?

While I don’t buy comic books anymore (meaning since the 70s) and don’t really go in for the superhero genre movies, I catch enough of the pop culture headlines to stay current on the breaking news. I found it more than a little odd (to say the least) when I heard that Thor was going to be a woman and Iron Man was being downgraded to teenager status, but didn’t think too much about it. Still, it sounded like a risky idea from a business perspective and that apparently turned out to be the case. The Guardian reports that sales for Marvel comics have tanked and their feedback is indicating that “diversity” isn’t a panacea for all things.

Marvel’s vice president of sales has blamed declining comic-book sales on the studio’s efforts to increase diversity and female characters, saying that readers “were turning their noses up” at diversity and “didn’t want female characters out there”.

Over recent years, Marvel has made efforts to include more diverse and more female characters, introducing new iterations of fan favourites including a female Thor; Riri Williams, a black teenager who took over the Iron Man storyline as Ironheart; Miles Morales, a biracial Spider-Man and Kamala Khan, a Muslim teenage girl who is the current Ms Marvel.

But speaking at the Marvel retailer summit about the studio’s falling comic sales since October, David Gabriel told ICv2 that retailers had told him that fans were sticking to old favourites. “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.”

I hope they have better marketing people on the job than the one quoted in this article because it sounds like they’re taking away precisely the wrong message here. It clearly looks like someone is trying to turn this into some sort of social justice warrior battle when the far more likely explanation is that it comes down to simple brand management and marketing. Making a statement such as, “people didn’t want any more diversity… didn’t want female characters” simply sounds ignorant. What people actually don’t want is you messing around with a known, established brand which your customers grew up with, along with their parents and even grandparents. In some cases you’re messing with legendary figures which predate Christianity.

Here’s a clue for the folks at Marvel. Thor was a dude. He was a big, massively muscular dude. And yes… while I’m sure I’ll be crucified for saying it, he was a white dude with blonde hair. Because he was Nordic. That’s not a racist thing… it’s just the genetics of the folks who dreamed him up. Making him into a girl isn’t suddenly going to change history.

Even the brands which are newer by millennia have been around for a couple of generations. Iron Man isn’t a teenager. He’s an adult. And yet again, he was white. Sorry about that. So was Peter Parker.

That’s your brand. It’s been your brand forever. And when you suddenly reconfigure it totally you’re going to turn off your fans. So does that mean you shouldn’t have more female heroes, more black (or bi-racial) characters or Muslims, transgender hamsters or whatever else you care to try? Of course not. But make new characters. It took a long time to build those old brands and it will take time to build these, but you’re marketing largely to a younger generation who tend to be a lot more accepting of all of this. You don’t need to make Wonder Woman a lesbian if there was never any aspect of that in her character. You can have a whole new female hero who’s gay. Give it a try. Launch some new comic book lines and keep at it long enough for them to build a following.

But reconfiguring your standards like this was bound to be a flop. People love Three Musketeers bars. They also love peanut butter. But they show up at the store one day and the Three Musketeers are suddenly full of peanut butter your sales are going to tank. We’re not racist against peanuts. We just know what we like and that’s what we spend our money on.

Back to the drawing board, boys and girls. Literally in this case.

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