Diversity in Comics …

So, comic book sales aren’t going all that well. And so the question has arisen of whether that decline is being caused or helped by diversity, or if diversity is the way to solve that decline. Alex Brown at Tor.com is arguing that diversity is not, in fact, the problem. She’s responding specifically to comments from David Gabriel:

Later, Gabriel gave another interview that, in part, rehashed that hoary old proverb that diversity doesn’t sell: “What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity. They didn’t want female characters out there. That’s what we heard, whether we believe that or not. I don’t know that that’s really true, but that’s what we saw in sales. 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.”

As I’ve already said, Brown thinks he’s wrong. I’ll get into her arguments later, but I think it will best frame the discussion if I give my opinion first:

Diversity doesn’t sell.

Now, when I say that, I don’t mean that a diverse cast of characters won’t sell, or that a female or black main character won’t sell, or anything like that. For the most part, if the characters and book are well-written and get noticed by readers/consumers, they’ll sell. What I mean by that is that using a claim of “This is diverse!” will not, in and of itself, drive sales, at least beyond the short-term, especially in a field that hasn’t actually been diverse. The problem is that, from the start, you are going to have some fans that are deeply resistant to anything that might be considered as diverse or deviate from the norm. Maybe those fans are indeed racist and/or sexist, or maybe they just see it as too deep an intrusion of politics into their media. These people, as soon as they hear “It’s diverse!” as a selling point, are automatically going to avoid consuming that product. Now, the argument is that those fans will be balanced out by more “diverse” fans who would buy it for the diversity, but the problem is that if that’s not a form of media that they would normally buy they aren’t likely to stay with it or even pick it up in the first place because, well, they likely don’t really like that media in the first place, and not everyone — yes, not even all nerds or geeks — like every type of “nerdy” media. So the hope to balance those who hear the word “diverse” and spit with those who hear the word “diverse” and have their ears perk up probably isn’t going to happen.

But even if it would, trying to sell on the basis of diversity has an impact on “middle-of-the-road” consumers like myself. I’m probably as middle-of-the-road as you can get here, and when the main selling point of a work is “Look how wonderfully diverse it is!” my immediate reaction is “… Really? That’s the best you can say about it?” How about talking about how great the story is? Or the characterization? But simply saying “It’s diverse!” leads me to think that that diversity is the main point of the work, and not the story or characters or whatever. And I get very skeptical about a work when the best people can say about it is that it has a diverse cast. That skepticism will get me to avoid spending my money on it, and instead to buy things that are “safer”, where I know — presumably — what I’m going to get. So trying to sell it on diversity is going to push away people who don’t care whether it is diverse or not, but are worried that diversity is the only thing it has going for it.

So, while I say that a work being diverse isn’t going to hurt its sales, promoting a work for its diversity will. Now let’s look at Brown’s view on diversity and how it isn’t the problem:

Disregarding the sugarcoated PR update Marvel made praising diverse fan favorites, Gabriel’s comments are so patently false that, without even thinking about it, I could name a dozen current titles across mediums that instantly disprove his reasoning. With its $150 million and counting in domestic earnings, Get Out is now the highest grossing original screenplay by a debut writer/director in history; meanwhile, The Great Wall, Ghost in the Shell, Gods of Egypt, and nearly every other recent whitewashed Hollywood blockbuster has tanked.

But are these really good examples? Get Out is a fairly unique take on horror, and benefited from that. Ghost in the Shell is the best known name out of the other examples, and was likely going to be a hard sell given that it is based on anime, which a lot of mainstream audiences have never heard of (as an example I, who is more tuned in to these things than the average person, had heard of the anime, but never watched it). She’s trying to do the comparison based on a movie that had some racial implications vs some movies that she calls “whitewashed”, but doesn’t compare the impact of genres and quality and what impact that might have on their sales. So it’s hard to say that it’s just “patently false” when her examples aren’t ones that would, well, prove the statement.

So let’s look at comics specifically. Maybe those examples will be better:

Even sticking strictly to comics, Black Panther #1 was Marvel’s highest selling solo comic of 2016. Before Civil War II, Marvel held seven of the top ten bestselling titles, three of which (Gwenpool, Black Panther, and Poe Dameron) were “diverse.” Take that, diversity naysayers.

Black Panther #1, which had a big following from the movie tie-in and was an established Marvel character, did well, certainly. That being said, it would be a bit odd to challenge Gabriel using that as an example, since he talked about returning to core characters instead of promoting diversity specifically and, well, Black Panther, as I just said, is a core Marvel character. So let’s look deeper at the monthly numbers, starting in April, where Black Panther, Gwenpool and Poe Dameron were all in the top ten. The thing to note here is that those were all #1s, and Marvel had another #1 in that top ten, which was C3P0, which she ignores (droids obviously not being “diverse”). #1s always get a bump due to them being the first issue, and all of these had ties to other things that would get them noticed. As I’ve already mentioned, Black Panther got a boost from the publicity from Civil War. Poe Dameron was linked to “The Force Awakens”. And Gwenpool was linked to both Deadpool and Spider-man, and was such an odd concept that people might definitely be interested in checking it out just to see what the heck was going on with it. Obviously C3P0 got the same boost.

So let’s look at what happened the next month, which had Civil War II 0 and maybe some other Civil War II crossovers. Black Panther #2 fell to 9, Poe Dameron fell to 12, and Gwenpool collapsed to 45. But that could be the influence of Civil War II, right? Not likely. Amazing Spider-Man #12 didn’t move at all compared to #10 and was only slightly 10,000 higher in sales than #11. Spider-Man Deadpool #5 sold basically the same as Spider-Man Deadpool. Star Wars and Star Wars Darth Vader didn’t lose any ground at all (Darth Vader actually sold more issues in May than in April, Star Wars had a slight decline). And Deadpool, despite releasing two issues that month (11 and 12) stayed roughly the same as well. So it’s far more reasonable that the decline came from the issues no longer getting the #1 boost than from Civil War II.

In June, more #1s flood the top ten, and so they lose even more ground (Black Panther comes in at 27, Poe Dameron at 43, and Gwenpool at 76) but Black Panther’s sales are mostly flat while both Poe Dameron and Gwenpool lost sales. For comparison, Star Wars stays flat, Darth Vader loses some — but also has two issues in the month — Amazing Spider-Man loses but has three books in that month, including the Civil War II tie-in — which didn’t lose when compared to Amazing Spider-Man in May — Spider-Man Deadpool’s sales are flat, as are Deadpool’s.

So, given these numbers … I’m not sure what “that” the diversity naysayers are supposed to “take”. It doesn’t really look like the new, diverse comics outperformed those focusing on core characters after the glow from their first issues faded, and most of them had influence from core characters or other media buttressing them in the first place. This is not a good argument that the idea that diversity doesn’t sell is just patently false.

Brown then moves on to differentiate the old school comic fans from the modern comic fans:

Comic book fans generally come in two flavors: the old school and the new. The hardcore traditionalist dudes (and they’re almost always white cishet men) are whinging in comic shops saying things like, “I don’t want you guys doing that stuff…One of my customers even said…he wants to get stories and doesn’t mind a message, but he doesn’t want to be beaten over the head with these things.” Then there are the modern geeks, the ones happy to take the classics alongside the contemporary and ready to welcome newbies into the fold.

So, technically, by this I’m both? My subscriptions included — when I still had them in force — Deadpool, Darth Vader, and Agents of Shield (with the latter clearly being “contemporary”). So I like my classics and I like my contemporary, and don’t care one way or the other about “newbies”. However, I am indeed one of those customers who says that I like stories an I don’t mind a message, but I don’t want to get beaten over the head with it. And, to be honest, I can’t see what’s wrong with that. Is Brown going to suggest that being beaten over the head with a message is a good thing? She could be trying to argue that what they see as “being beaten over the head with a message” is nothing more than being diverse period, but she’d need to a) demonstrate that and b) well, actually say that. Which she doesn’t as she moves on:

This gets to the point made by a woman retailer at the summit: “I think the mega question is, what customer do you want. Because your customer may be very different from my customer, and that’s the biggest problem in the industry is getting the balance of keeping the people who’ve been there for 40 years, and then getting new people in who have completely different ideas.” I’d argue there’s a customer between those extremes, one who follows beloved writers and artists across series and publishers and who places as much worth on who is telling the story as who the story is about. This is where I live, and there are plenty of other people here with me.

So, Brown is promoting customers who don’t care about the specific characters, and don’t care about the specific stories, but care about who is telling the story? I mean, okay, there are writers and artists that I might chose to follow to books that I might not otherwise buy, like Peter David or JMS, because I like what they do. But even then I’m not likely to pick up a work with a character that doesn’t interest me. And for artists, that’s more likely to be an exclusion list than a “Oh, I like their art but hate the character and story, so I’m going to buy it!” So … where do I fit in this paradigm? And where do the “old school” customers who do follow writers and artists around fit?

Or, does Brown really mean that she cares not about their skill, but about who they are? Does she follow them because she likes their work … or because they are themselves “diverse”? This would indeed be a difference, but I’m not sure that it’s one that we should promote as being a good way to approach comics, or that comics should try to appeal to these customers who don’t seem to care about the actual product.

Blaming readers for not buying diverse comics despite the clamor for more is a false narrative. Many of the fans attracted to “diverse” titles are newbies and engage in comics very differently from longtime fans. For a variety of reasons, they tend to wait for the trades or buy digital issues rather than print. The latter is especially true for young adults who generally share digital (and yes, often pirated) issues. Yet the comics industry derives all of its value from how many print issues Diamond Distributors shipped to stores, not from how many issues, trades, or digital copies were actually purchased by readers. Every comics publisher is struggling to walk that customer-centric tightrope, but only Marvel is dumb enough to shoot themselves in the foot, then blame the rope for their fall.

I have to agree with her, in some sense, on this. As I’ve said before, the subscription model is terrible, which stops me from subscribing. This is at least in part because they keep cancelling and rebooting books, and because they keep driving events that would require me to buy far more than I’d like just to get the entire story. Brown says more about this in the post and all of those points are reasonable. I do agree that this is probably causing more of the problems than “diversity”. But as I said above, the solution to that is not going to be promoting diversity, because that doesn’t help.

When you look at the sales figures, the only way to claim diversity doesn’t sell is to have a skewed interpretation of “diversity.” Out of Marvel’s current twenty female-led series, four series—America, Ms. Marvel, Silk, and Moon Girl—star women of color, and only America has an openly queer lead character. Only America, Gamora, Hawkeye, Hulk, Ms. Marvel, and Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat! (cancelled), are written by women. That’s not exactly a bountiful harvest of diversity.

But Brown thinks that, indeed, that’s the solution. On what evidence? What evidence does she have that ramping up the diversity is going to improve their numbers? None of her examples demonstrated that at all, and weren’t bountifully diverse themselves. And then she says this:

Plenty of comics starring or written by cishet white men get the axe over low sales, but when diversity titles are cancelled people come crawling out of the woodwork to blame diverse readers for not buying a million issues. First, we are buying titles, just usually not by the issue. Second, why should we bear the full responsibility for keeping diverse titles afloat? Non-diverse/old school fans could stand to look up from their longboxes of straight white male superheroes and subscribe to Moon Girl. Allyship is meaningless without action.

So, those who are diverse and thus would be the intended audience can’t be expected to, you know, actually buy comics in the way that keeps them afloat. Instead, those who are not the intended audience and many of whom who have no interest in being an “ally” in the first place need to belly-up to the bar and buy those comics for … reasons. Riiiiiiiiight. Or, you know, they can keep buying the comics that they, you know, actually like and let you buy the ones you like and keep them going. If you can.

Really, this is just ridiculous. If the comics can’t appeal to their own intended audience enough to get enough sales to avoid cancellation, then they should be cancelled, and appealing to those outside of that audience to save them is just … well, doomed to failure, and utterly entitled.

“Diversity” as a concept is a useful tool, but it can’t be the goal or the final product. It assumes whiteness (and/or maleness and/or heteronormitivity) as the default and everything else as a deviation from that. This is why diversity initiatives so often end up being quantitative—focused on the number of “diverse” individuals—rather than qualitative, committed to positive representation and active inclusion in all levels of creation and production. This kind of in-name-only diversity thinking is why Mayonnaise McWhitefeminism got cast as Major Motoko Kusanagi while actual Japanese person Rila Fukushima was used as nothing but a face mold for robot geishas.

So, know who “Mayonnaise McWhitefeminism” is? Scarlett Johannson. That’s a great way to encourage “allyship” by tossing an ally under the bus, and then driving the bus forward and backwards a number of times just to really drive home how loyal you are to your allies.

Also, I agree that making diversity the goal is not a good idea, because it leads to simply counting diverse characters/writers/artists instead of making sure that, for example, things are actually done with those characters and their diversity or that you are getting interesting, quality and also different narratives. So, given that … how come her examples above are all about counting the numbers? She just counts the numbers across more fields than simply the characters in the books themselves. Kinda hypocritical.

At the end of the day, using diversity as a main selling point doesn’t work. Diverse audiences won’t flock to media they don’t care for just because it happens to be diverse, those who hate diversity will avoid the titles like the plague, and everyone in between will just throw up their hands in frustration and retreat to those boxes of comics they have in their basement because, hey, at least they know what they’re getting. Brown’s arguments in favour of more diversity aren’t demonstrated and Gabriel’s comments ignore the real structural problems in comics that have nothing to do with diversity. Until people can figure out what’s really going on, comics are not likely to recover.

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