Marvel Comics is suffering an historic sales slump — and it’s looking to an initiative called “Legacy” to get back on top.
It’s hard to believe, given that Marvel dominates the box office and is ubiquitous on TV. But print sales have fallen off the Bifrost, and that has not only Marvel but rival DC Comics worried, not to mention all of America’s comics retailers. When Marvel stubs its toe, the whole industry yells “Ouch!”
How did this happen? As they say, it’s complicated.
You might remember some controversial remarks by Marvel’s Vice President of Sales David Gabriel, who explained poor sales in March to ICv2.com by saying, “What we heard was that people didn't want any more diversity. They didn't want female characters out there. … 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.”
There’s no doubt an element of truth is in there. A casual pass over the message boards at various comics websites will find hateful comments about “SJWs” by people who are incensed by any superhero comic book not aimed squarely at a white, male audience.
But more importantly, there’s also an absolute in serial fiction that fans don’t really like change — they want, as Stan Lee used to say, the illusion of change. If a major publisher replaces a major character with someone else behind the mask, you can bet your last repulsor ray that the original will return.
And when these temporary replacements occur, there’s a very good chance a woman or person of color will be the replacer, while the replacee will almost always be a white male. That’s because most major characters are white males, since most were created in the 1940s (DC Comics) or 1960s (Marvel), when white males dominated most entertainment media.
So when Marvel replaced Captain America, Iron Man and Thor in recent years with Sam “Falcon” Wilson, RiRi “Ironheart” Williams and Jane “Mighty Thor” Foster, it was a given that Steve Rogers, Tony Stark and the original Thunder God would return someday. That’s the illusion of change: Things happen, and then they un-happen. And in the meantime, we get a lot of (hopefully) cool stories.
That the Big Three of the Avengers were replaced by, respectively, a black man, a black girl and a white woman is almost beside the point. We know this to be true by judging from the last time Captain America, Iron Man and Thor were replaced.
Yes, this is literally a rerun. In the late 1980s, the originals were taken off the board, and replaced by, respectively, John “USAgent” Walker, James “War Machine” Rhodes and Eric “Thunderstrike” Masterson. In that case, three white men were replaced by two white men and a black one (Rhodey). But they didn’t last, either — and nobody really expected them to.
Meanwhile, sales don’t bear out the “diversity” charge. Sure, “America” (starring a lesbian Latina) isn’t doing well, but neither is “Guardians of the Galaxy,” led by a white guy. Marvel’s best-selling books aren’t exclusively white, nor are they primarily diverse — “Amazing Spider-Man” and the X-Men books are among Marvel’s better sellers on a monthly basis, but “Unbeatable Squirrel Girl” does well in collections, and “Ms. Marvel” (starring a Muslim, Pakistani-American girl) stays alive due to digital sales.
Most people attribute Marvel’s big sales slump to other factors — mainly, Marvel’s awful marketing practices. For years, Marvel has been launching new first issues of all its titles, complete with gimmicks like variant covers, then canceling the titles a year or so in and doing it all over again. Some characters would literally have two or three first issues in a calendar year. This is terribly expensive for retailers, and after a while, even the fans begin to feel jerked around.
Content-wise, Marvel has leaned on massive, line-wide “event” stories that require fans to buy books they don’t want to get the complete story. Ongoing books can’t ever work up a head of steam, as they’re always being taken over by the “events” — and then launching over with new first issues, and often new creative teams.
Sadly, event-driven stories are unlikely to stop because — well, that’s about all that really sells well for Marvel, even though poor sales of the recent “Secret Empire” event indicate they’ve reached the point of diminishing returns. Of course, some of those lost sales were to people who were revolted by the storyline, which had Captain America re-imagined as a fascist.
But here’s the good news: All of the major changes of the last few years are heading for a reboot. We know this because of “Marvel Legacy” No. 1, a 58-page, $6.00 book that came out Sept. 27.
And it’s really pretty interesting. “Legacy” introduces us to the “Prehistoric Avengers” — a group that fought a Celestial a million years ago. (Celestials are a gigantic, space-faring race that tends to wipe out civilizations it deems unworthy.) This group — consisting of Odin (before Thor was born), the Phoenix Force (long before Jean Grey), the first Ghost Rider (on a flaming mammoth), and a few other concepts that are effectively immortal — defeated the Celestial, and buried it in what would become South Africa.
Leap to the present, and guess what’s getting dug up in South Africa? I imagine it’s pretty grumpy.
Oh, and we learn something’s monkeying with the timeline. A “new” Avenger named Voyager has been added to the team’s history, and nobody seems the wiser.
And did I mention Valeria Richards? The pre-adolescent, genius daughter of Reed and Sue Richards (Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman) has been missing and presumed dead since the 2015 “Secret Wars” event, along with her parents and brother, Franklin. But she narrates “Legacy,” teasing a return of the Fantastic Four just as the remaining pair, the Human Torch and the Thing, team up in an ongoing series titled “Marvel Two-In-One.”
Meanwhile, “Legacy” checks in on most of Marvel’s major characters. And as you’d guess, the status quo and the original characters made famous by the movies are in the process of returning — even Wolverine, who’s been dead for three years. But we’ll also have the new kids, and with luck, the best of both worlds.
Will that be enough to get readers excited about Marvel Comics again? “Legacy” is a sharp-looking package with some interesting ideas, but fans have already registered fatigue with constant events and re-inventions. Worse, “Legacy” will affect every book in the Marvel line, returning some long-running characters to “legacy” numbering (“Avengers” will re-launch at No. 672, for example), but quite a few others will start over with new first issues.
Can Marvel go to that well again?
That comes down to execution. Marvel has to decide if its true legacy is imagination and adventure … or events and sales gimmicks. A whole industry is hoping for the former.
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