The highs, lows of Marvel’s complicated comic book evolution

The publisher’s comic book diversity is great, but that’s about it

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Catherine Wallin/Staff

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It’s no secret that films based on Marvel Comics characters are dominating the box office. One could go to the UA Berkeley 7, watch X-23 wreck shop in “Logan” and then walk up the street to buy a comic about her at Fantastic Comics. According to the shop’s events manager Juliette Capra, many people did just that, as the release of “Logan” saw an increased interest in the characters featured in the film.

According to Capra though, moviegoers who become interested in comics through the films don’t tend to just stick with the characters who drew them in. In this sense, the films serve as a gateway drug into the larger world of comic books, rather than direct advertisements for the characters in them. Of course, not everyone who sees “Logan” will buy a copy of “Old Man Logan” immediately after. Even so, the broad appeal of the films have allowed a new wave of comic book readers to emerge.

“One of the things I’ve noticed is, the films have allowed audiences who didn’t feel welcome in comics spaces to start reading,” Capra said. “There are a lot of women, people of color and queer folks who say, ‘I can go to the movies. That’s not a gate-kept space.’ ” She jokingly stated, “We can take their money at the comic book store also.”

This new market of comic book readers is large enough to have changed the landscape of the comic industry. Marvel’s recent “All-New, All-Different” branding diversified the Marvel Universe. At the moment, Tony Stark is (sort of) dead, and the Iron Man mantle (or rather, Ironheart) has passed onto the 15-year-old Riri Wiliams. Similarly, women and POC fill the boots of Marvel’s most iconic characters such as Captain America, Wolverine, Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor and Ms. Marvel.

Unfortunately, there has been resistance to Marvel’s push for a diverse roster of heroes. Recently, Marvel’s vice president, in association with conclusions from store retailers, suggested that decreased sales could be linked to its new characters. Whether or not Marvel’s diversity and its drop in sales are correlated (they’re not), there are many who have embraced the publisher’s nonwhite or female characters.

Marvel recently released a new title focusing on America Chavez, a reality-hopping Latinx LGBTQ+ teenager, and it was received particularly well by Berkeley’s comic book readers. “A queer Latina kicking ass and leading her own title — no one would have thought it would do particularly well, or that it would sustain,” Capra said. “But it’s only been one issue, and we sold out. It has something to do with communities who have not necessarily felt welcome in comic shops feeling welcome in a theater. I’m grateful to the movies for that.”

Even if the broad appeal of Marvel’s films have precipitated a more inclusive comic universe, it is still wrestling with its connection to the big screen. 20th Century Fox owns the film rights to the Fantastic Four (all but abandoned in Marvel’s comics) and the X-Men, who have taken a backseat to another superpowered species known as the Inhumans. “They’re just mad and throwing a temper tantrum,” said Jessica Balboni, assistant manager at Escapist Comics. She suggests that “until they get the rights back from 20th Century Fox, there won’t be a Fantastic Four book.”

Perhaps more egregious than the loss of legacy characters, such as the Fantastic Four and some X-Men, is Marvel’s recent blatant cash grabs. Last summer, the “Civil War II” comic event was released in conjunction with the “Civil War” film. Unlike the blockbuster, the comic was a critical flop, the latest in a series of poorly received crossover events (a major story arc that typically involves its own limited series and a number of tie-in comics from other titles). According to Balboni, the volume of crossovers has led to event fatigue for many customers because they limit the potential for standalone stories.

For perspective, Marvel released a total of seven crossovers and larger crossover events in 2016, plus one limited series. On the other hand, 2006 only saw two crossover events. Coupled with frustration at three rebrandings (basically reboots) in five years, many customers are less than satisfied with Marvel’s storytelling approach, which is what Balboni attributes to the publisher’s drop in sales, not its diverse heroes. “They’re all just big cash grabs,” she said. “I think they should focus on one big event per year. … Just focus on a really good story with really good art.”

In this sense, the problems facing Marvel reveal a truism that applies to the films and the comics that inspire them. Both mediums need to focus on telling one good story. Marvel’s comics shouldn’t churn out crossover events to make a quick buck but play the long game of telling great stories with the beloved characters it owns.

In fact, Marvel should take a page from one of 2016’s best selling comics: its “Black Panther” series by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The series features POC heroes while being the publisher’s epitome of a creator-driven, story-first effort. Its critical and commercial success should be a clear point of departure for the publisher.

Such a strategy works, as seen with the success of standalone films such as “Logan.” In comics, the perennial bestseller at both Fantastic Comics and Escapist Comics is “Saga,” a series from Image Comics, which is a publisher of independent creators. For those craving a vicious Marvel and DC rivalry (if that’s you, please stop), DC is well into its latest rebranding, DC Rebirth, and its focus on character driven stories has allowed it to become an overwhelming success.

Ultimately though, both comic book films and comic books themselves are here to stay, and while Marvel has its fair share of problems, its new readership is something to celebrate. “If (films) introduce people to the (comics) and allow them to try branching out to different kinds of stories, even outside the big two, not just Marvel and DC, I think that’s perfect,” Capra said. “That’s everything we could want.”

Harrison Tunggal covers film. Contact him at [email protected].