Do Marvel have a diversity problem?

Marvel vice-president David Gabriel recently said that Marvel Comics are suffering a sales slump due to the fact they now publish a diverse line of comics featuring people of all sexes, races and ages. As this Vox piece says, the truth is somewhat more complex but that was lost in the outrage from all sides when this story broke into the mainstream from the comics ghetto.

What do we mean by ‘diversity’ though? Well, this is the Marvel Universe in the 1970’s into the 1980’s.

Here’s a poster of the Avengers in the 90’s.

To put it bluntly the Marvel Universe is a white one.  Sure there’s the odd green skinned hero and blue mutant but black characters, or anyone non-white, are thin on the ground. In short it doesn’t reflect the world of today and that’s a problem if you want to pitch to as wide an audience as Marvel did in the 60’s.

The Marvel Universe today is better. There’s Ms Marvel, Moon Girl and a load of other characters that expands what the Marvel superhero universe is and many of these characters are in decent to good books, but for people like Gabriel the sales figures are what’s important and they don’t add up.Which brings me to the point that this isn’t an issue for comics as a medium, but the superhero genre which may have had over the last decade undreamed of exposure, but that’s never translated to sales.

This Cracked article touches on some of the reasons why this is the case. Some of it will be painful reading as the point that Marvel can say ”we have an <insert minority here> character! Why are you moaning!?’ is going to resonate. For years Marvel did this with the Black Panther before they actually started creating other black characters but even then that was mainly to cash in on the 1970’s Blaxploitation craze.For me though the issue is accessibility. There’s no point coming up with say, a Muslim Ms Marvel if you’re rebooting the series with a new number one every other year, and your entire superhero universe has a massive crossover event once a year. People may have more disposable income in 2017 but people have limits.

If you want to have read all of 2016’s Civil War II with all the crossovers then with titles priced at $2.99 to $3.99 (or for the UK, somewhere between £2.00 and £3.50) then you’re paying hundreds to keep up with an event where to be blunt, most of the series is shite. You may pick up a few issues but finances and tedium dictate that you bin the rest so you leave only the hardcore fans to carry on. Which is another point as if Marvel pander only to the core fan (as DC Comics are doing) then they’ll never grow and develop to take advantage of the fact their films are making billions having been seen by hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

So the hard facts are that Marvel are the creators of their own problems. Yes, it’s a tough market but making it harder for readers doesn’t help so it isn’t a case that Marvel has a diversity problem which causes them sales, it has a problem with making easily accessible comics for all ages. Until it gets to grips with that and at the same time it stops pandering to a decreasing, ageing core then it won’t be picking up the readers it could, and indeed, should.

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What I thought of Fantastic Four #51

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Comxology upload a number of classic comics every week and today I noticed they had one of the finest, if not, the finest Marvel Comic of the 1960’s.This Man, This Monster, is Jack Kirby and Stan Lee at the peak of their creative powers, and even if that in 205 we still don’t know who did what in terms to the creation of these stories, we are sure Kirby did the art and Lee did the script. Both are perfectly tinted with Shakespearean melodrama from the opening classic splash page.

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It’s a brilliant opening that Kirby puts so much into that inker Joe Sinnott manages to delicately compliment Kirby’s pencils and you’re hooked from the start. It really doesn’t matter if you know what’s happened before in the Fantastic Four, but you get right away that The Thing is a character suffering, and the reader is forced to share his pain.

In the first few panels Lee and Kirby tell us that The Thing has been dumped by his girlfriend Alicia (after the events of the first Galactus story) and he’s wandering the streets of New York feeling miserable and sorry for himself until he comes across a kindly, but mysterious stranger. The stranger drugs The Thing in order to swap bodies as the Marvel Universe is full of bitter genius’s carrying a grudge, in this case against Reed Richards of the FF.

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The interesting thing here is this stranger wants The Thing’s fame and power, the very things Ben Grimm wants no more of as he longs for a normal life with his girlfriend.Of course the stranger hasn’t got long to enjoy his power before the real Ben Grimm faces him down in from of Reed and Sue Storm.

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In four pages we’ve had The Thing moping, mysterious strangers stealing powers, threats of another Galactus level threat, and the confrontation between Ben and the Fake. That’s an amazing amount of plot to throw in just four pages but Kirby and Lee make it work and don’t overdo things, whereas today this would be enough for about four issues, not four pages.

After a confrontation Ben and Sue back the Fake, as Ben goes stomping off, but Reed puts his life on the line that he’s made the right decision while being a dick to Sue at the same time.

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Reed has knocked together a machine that can access sub-space and he needs The Thing to be his anchor to the real world, but just as we’re introduced to this idea, Lee and Kirby have an intermission featuring Johnny Storm and Wyatt Wingfoot that doesn’t serve the main plot at all but reminds us that Johnny Storm is part of this title but this is boring as Lee seems to hint in this panel.

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The Fake sees that Reed isn’t a gloryhound but is able and will to lay down his life to discover things that may save humanity. As Reed enters the machine it’s Kirby’s chance to cut loose before getting back to the main plot.

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Reed is trapped in this negative zone and it’s only the line The Thing has a hold of that protects him from certain death!

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But The Fake realises that he can’t let Reed die, so finds a river of heroism in himself, but the line breaks but can The Fake rescue Reed? Can Ben find romance again now he’s in human form? Will Sue ever stop whimpering by Reed’s side and can Reed stop being a dick to her? Buy the comic to find out (and for £1.49 it’s a bargain) but for all of the fact that large parts of the comic seems dated (it is very much of it’s time) the comic is a fantastic example of superheroes are something larger, better and more noble than most people, but that really inside all of us we can all be a selfless hero.

This Man, This Monster is the template for every single superhero story that follows where a character seeks redemption of some kind. This is the best single issue of Lee and Kirby’s still impressive Fantastic Four run that featured some impressive issues that to this day still provide much of the bedrock that the modern Marvel Universe is built on.Lee is performing at his height but it’s Kirby’s experimentation with his art not to mention the way he’s got every panel bursting with energy.Yes there’s things that read through a 21st century eye is dubious but that’s treating a work of art (and this is such a thing) disrespectfully. This really is something that after reading it makes you feel sad, moved and noble, and you don’t get that sort of sheer energetic positivity from many superhero comics anymore.

Happy Birthday Jack Kirby

It’s Jack Kirby’s 96th birthday today.

I’m not going to go into how Marvel and now Disney have shafted Kirby and his family out of his rights, his credits and his place in cultural history (let alone comics history), and you would be amazed if you don’t know who Kirby is just how much of modern culture owes to the man. That’s not for today. There’s better articles about the man and his life out there.

This is a celebration of his brilliance on what would be his 96th birthday, but before I go on I’ll make a confession; I didn’t like Kirby for long periods of my life. The first time I remember of seeing anything by Kirby that I remember was the reprinted strips in Mighty World of Marvel #1.

That made me go to my brothers collections of comics to look at those American imports which were a pain to get back in the early 70’s in the UK. When I read those I discovered just how brilliant Kirby was, but I prefered his work in black and white (which the British Marvel reprints were) to the gaudy colour versions of the originals.

It was Kirby’s portrayal of the Thing that I adored as a kid, and I still do.

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That page is simply one of the greatest splash pages of any superhero comic printed at any time. It’s an astonishingly powerful page that tells you a story without Stan Lee’s flowery doggerel getting in the way.

Then there’s Galactus, Kirby’s version of God.

And of course there was the inspiration for Darth Vader, Doctor Doom.

I don’t think Kirby put a foot wrong at Marvel. His work ranges from good to flawless, and let me say that Kirby’s ‘good’ at this point was superior to 95% of other artists of the time.

I remember vaguely as a kid when Kirby left Marvel this was a huge thing, but I was too young to appreciate this, but I do remember reading New Gods as a kid and not liking it at all. That changed in the 80’s when I was old enough to get what Kirby was doing in creating this vastly epic story of good versus evil, and villainy versus heroism.

The issue that summed up Kirby’s working class hero winning against all odds philosophy in New Gods #8.

It’s a spectacular issue and probably my single favourite Jack Kirby comic I’ve ever read. The copy I used to have fell apart because I read it so much from around 18 to around 30 whenever I needed a boost. Then I stupidly sold it. I bloody wish I hadn’t. New Gods was, and is magnificent.

After Kirby left DC in the 70’s he returned to Marvel to do work which was perhaps some of his best, even if it didn’t make people leap up in a frenzy. His adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey is amazing.

His other Marvel work of the time is odd, but there’s a part of my heart which is forever Devil Dinosaur.

Then in the 80’s I fell out of love with Kirby’s work. It wasn’t the best work he did. It wasn’t as bad as I thought though, nor did it deserve the contempt many fans threw at it at the time as frankly Kirby had done enough to carve his name in history but I was stupid and learned my lesson. Kirby was and is a genius. There is nobody in mainstream superhero comics who has ever been like him nor will there ever be, which isn’t saying there’s a lot of poor creators out there as there isn’t but it’s saying that Kirby is so far ahead of everyone that he deserves a massive celebration of his work and life.

Do take time to look at his granddaughter Jillian’s Kirby4Heroes Facebook page. It’s an amazing look at the man and his family that anyone who’s ever read a Kirby comic should look at and support.

So happy birthday Jack. You deserve all the praise in the world.

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