Does Marvel Have a Diversity Problem?

Recent comments by a Marvel executive suggested diversity is responsible for slumping sales. Over the weekend senior vice president of print, sales and marketing David Gabriel blamed female and non-Anglo characters for the dip.

“What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity,” Gabriel said. “They didn’t want female characters out there. That’s what we heard, whether we believe that or not.”

He has since backtracked, saying that new superheroes like Ms. Marvel, Squirrel Girl, Spider-Gwen and The Mighty Thor (a shieldmaiden) are here to stay. 

“We are proud and excited to keep introducing unique characters that reflect new voices and new experiences into the Marvel Universe and pair them with our iconic heroes,” Gabriel said in a statement.

What he didn’t mention is that major comic books are distributed solely by one company - Maryland-based Diamond Comic Distributors - to all stores in the U.S. regardless of demand or demographic. Every store, by and large, gets the exact same shipment of new titles unless the store owners special ordered other books. 

“It’s more a question of looking at a distribution system that is really antiquated,” said Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez, creator of Puerto Rican superhero La Boriquena and former Marvel illustrator. 

“The industry is determined by two main publishers - D.C. Comics and Marvel. It’s a very specific demographic buying these titles.”

In other words, the current system does not allow for more diverse offerings even in a genre that specializes in the strange and fantastic. 

Part of the problem is the industry’s legacy. Both Marvel and D.C. Comics date back more than 50 years and many of their most recognizable characters were first created in the 1930s. Superman, for instance, was the brainchild of two Jewish men whose parents immigrated to North America at the turn of the century. That character debuted in 1938 as an escape to the pending doom of war. 

With this kind of history, any deviation from the original character is seen as heresy. 

But that is exactly what Marvel has been doing to many of its most beloved characters. Consider Spider Man. Peter Parker died unexpectedly and was replaced by a woman, Spider-Gwen. Thor suddenly became a shieldmaiden in 2014. And in a truly weird and seemingly unexplainable twist, Captain America was outed as a Nazi last spring. 

“The fan base is very loyal to [the original] characters,” Miranda-Rodriguez said. “A better model would be to introduce new heroes instead of changing the ones everyone knows and loves.”

Miranda-Rodriguez did just that with his creation, La Boriquena. She is a Columbia University law student by day and a caped crusader by night. Rather than being scantily clad like most comic book women, she is covered head to toe in the Puerto Rican flag. In fact, she unlocks her secret power after visiting her ancestral homeland for the first time. 

When Miranda-Rodriguez set out to publish the new character, no one was interested. Despite having worked for the world’s biggest comic book company, Marvel was not eager to adopt La Boriquena as its own. So Miranda-Rodriguez used his own money to self-publish the first installment. 

Since then, he has cycled through several printings and distributes through his new company, Somos Arte. He also sells books in person at artist events and signings. 

“It was an old school hip hop approach of selling tapes out of trunk of car,” he said. “I realized my window was closing very quickly to get this book out.”

Philadelphia-native Ariell Johnson is also going at it alone. The East Coast’s first black female comic book store owner fell in love with X-Men’s storm when she was 11 years old. It was the first character that looked like Johnson. After discovering the superhero, Johnson spent countless windy days pretending to control the weather outside. 

“It was like seeing myself on TV,” she said of the 1990s animated show. 

From there, she devoured the usual titles but always felt something was missing: a voice that reflected her own. Most of the women she encountered were drawn and written for the male gaze. They were voluptuous and impossibly sexy. Fighting a villain with cleavage popping out seemed absurd. And characters of color were either stereotypes or eventual casualties. 

Representation is the cornerstone of Johnson’s store, Amalgam, located on Frankford Avenue in Kensington. There, diversity attracts customers. 

“We want to be a place for people who have felt underrepresented or not represented at all in comics,” she said. “People get excited when they come in and see queer characters, characters of color, women in their own storylines. People come in here looking for that.”

Some of her bestselling titles feature main characters who do not look like Wolverine and Batman. Faith features a plus-size heroine: Love is Love remembers those killed in the Orlando terrorist attack; and Black Panther is a not-so-subtle reference to the black power movement of the 1960s. 

Most of these titles sell out quickly at Amalgam, but others, like Motor Crush, faced early challenges. The Batgirl revamp had a tough debut in 2016 when it first hit the shelves. The problem was not a lack of interest, Johnson insisted, but a lack of faith from distributors.

“Preorders were low because retailers felt like they couldn’t sell a book that had a black woman lead,” she said. “When we heard that we increased our orders. I’m not sure we even have those left in stock.

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