Marvel and DC have never been shy about fudging with the status quo of their respective universes. Aside from Barry Allen, several other characters, including Wally West and Jay Garrick, also wore The Flash’s speedy red tights. Even exchanging white superheroes for heroes of color – and vice-versa – for ones more reflective of our culture as a whole isn’t exactly a new practice either. Diversification has actually created a wealth of complex characters and developed new heroes like DC Green Lanterns Jessica Cruz and Simon Baz, Marvel’s Totally Awesome Hulk Amadeus Cho, and All-New Wolverine Laura Kinney.
Admittedly, the superhero swap does come across as a bit of a ploy at times. The head cheeses of hero-land need to sell a book or three, so they foist the Blue Beetle mantle on Jaime Reyes or turn Thor into Jane Foster. Nevertheless, many comic book “purists” – who might as well emblazon “Social Justice Warrior” on a hotkey, for as often as they anonymously pound it onto message boards – feel that ethnic and gender-swapped superheroes are ruining comics.
Their claims, of course, are heavily supported by last year’s sales, which only managed a paltry billion dollars – the industry’s best outing in 20 years. Definitely a sinking ship.
Do upset fanboys have a genuine reason to think reaching out to female and minority audiences won’t build new bridges to fandom (and reap the almighty dollar)? Or is this yet another case of oh-woe-is-me, oppressed majority-types incensed that they’re not the only people atop the superhero food chain anymore?
Interestingly enough, opponents of superhero character-exchanges seem to have no trouble when heroes of color are whitewashed for the big screen. More moderate members of the opposition often suggest that new minority characters should be created (here, here!), instead of replacing classic heroes. In essence, their popularity should come as the fruits of their own labor.
As marvelous (pun sort of intended) as that sounds, the recent cancellation of Nighthawk, written by award-winning African American writer David F. Walker, is a sad reminder of the challenges facing start-up books at the Big Two comic houses. In his most recent run, the lesser-known character Nighthawk (a one-time Avenger and Squadron Supreme member) explored real world issues like racism and police brutality in Chicago. While the first couple of issues sold very well, unfortunately, sales rapidly dropped off as the book fell between the cracks of major events like Civil War II and DC’s “Rebirth.”
Some have criticized the nonwhite readership for failing to support a diverse book, but the hard truth is, without the right timing and support, brand new comics (with or without minority characters) have a tough time staying afloat at major houses – especially in the still very escapist superhero realm. Ironically, Nighthawk may have been a top-seller were it released by a smaller company. For instance, the fantastic comic’s second to last issue outsold Oni’s popular Rick and Morty line but still wound up as a cellar-dweller in Marvel’s ranks.
It’s also a sad case of overall consumer demand being outweighed by an industry sluggish to import sales from non-traditional distributors. Despite the fact that Walker’s book sold well initially and may have sold well with online, trade, and book store-based comic consumers, it’s nearly impossible for the public to track sales from these alternate formats (aside from Comixology’s best-seller page). And since the industry relies heavily on comic distributor interest to decide their next round of solicitations, as well as for feedback when deciding which series escape or receive the ax. Nighthawk’s numbers might have been strong online, but if sales look sluggish in the trade publications, fan buzz quickly dies and coverage on comic and news sites vanishes. It’s hard to accurately reflect upon a series’ popularity with such a limited view of the big picture.
Does that mean diverse characters aren’t selling? The numbers certainly beg to differ. Two of DC’s top titles from the industry’s record-breaking August were Supergirl Rebirth (at #10 on the top 300 list) and Harley Quinn (the top-seller), which both featured female leads. Unsurprisingly, their other heavy-hitters were connected to Suicide Squad, including the Suicide Squad Rebirth issue, Batman, and Justice League (to DC’s credit, their storytelling has been spot-on this year). At the same time, and as a reminder of the growing consumer base, Suicide Squad’s success came, to a large degree, thanks to its broad-reaching marketing campaign and its representative cast of characters.
On the Marvel side of things, even if sales were lighter or about the same, some of their hottest summer titles (aside from classics like Amazing Spider-Man and Star Wars) were Black Panther, Miles Morales’ Spider-Man, All New All Different Avengers, Spider-Gwen, The Mighty Thor (with Jane Foster as Thor), and All New Wolverine. All of these titles, with the exception of Black Panther, feature characters who’ve changed gender or ethnicity in recent years. Yep, no one wants to read that trash.
It’s also telling when a brand new series, Champions, from artist Humberto Ramos and creator Mark Waid, sold 400,000 preorders (keep in mind, those numbers don’t count as official sales yet but are still HUGE). The latest Marvel super-team features a diverse squad with popular heroes like Ms. Marvel, Amadeus Cho’s Hulk, Miles Morales, as well as space-corpsman Nova, young Cyclops, and Viv Vision (androids represent!). Like Nighthawk, the characters in Champions will tackle social issues, in addition to classic physical supervillains.
It will be interesting to see if a hip, young team with a hot artist/writer team will succeed at the House of Ideas where an excellent if more-realistic book fell just short of glory.
As one of the few mediums to retain both print and online readers, the comic book industry needs to respect its current fans, while courting fresh audiences to push sales in both respective markets. Marvel’s NOW! and All-New All-Different initiatives (as well as DC’s New 52) may annoy a small cadre of fans, but the savvy publisher understands the vast, untapped market in front of it is greater than a couple dozen irritated bloggers (who’ll probably come around when one of their old favorites comes back). Millions of moviegoers may get excited after watching superhero flicks and can hop online to find out more about a whole new world filled with heroines like Black Widow, Katana, or Cyborg.
Yes, diversity sells. Providing more comic book characters that accurately portray the unique American (and global) cultural experience has already helped the industry recapture lost ground and set new records. Even the success of DC’s more nostalgic “Rebirth” proves that relying on strong, well-written characters with diverse backgrounds (looking at you, Justice League and Suicide Squad) is necessary for the industry. Capturing a younger, broader, media savvy audience, as well as maintaining their current one (don’t think of it as subtraction, super-fans, but addition), requires new angles and fresh faces to keep them afloat.
Marvel and DC’s long-term success has always depended upon reinventing themselves to capture readers. Whether altering the origins of classic characters, dressing different heroes in familiar capes and cowls, or creating new legacies, modern comics have to evolve as their audience expands thanks to mass media exposure. Employing female writers, creators of color, and developing superheroes that represent the full spectrum of human experience will only strengthen our collective storytelling and keep the four-color world evergreen – and that’s something comic book fans of all backgrounds can get behind.
This article was originally published on the (sadly) now-defunct site Cinema Thread