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Marvel's metrics: Are superhero publishers super out of touch?

An image from Marvel's upcoming Generations crossover, showing the older generation of heroes with the younger, more diverse lineup.
An image from Marvel's upcoming Generations crossover, showing the older generation of heroes with the younger, more diverse lineup.

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The dust is still settling after Marvel Vice President of Sales David Gabriel made some unsettling comments last weekend.

Here's part of what he said:

"What we heard was that people didn't want any more diversity. I don't know that that's really true, but that's what we saw in sales."

The backlash to Gabriel's comments was swift, with people across social media platforms taking apart his claim. Because L.A. is an epicenter of comic book culture, we hit one of the dozens of comic book stores near our station to hear what they had to say: Comics Factory in Pasadena. The shop's assistant manager, Stacy Hill, said Gabriel's comments that readers don't respond to diverse characters doesn't reflect her experience:

"I've never found that to be true, 'cause people are always excited when there's any sort of diversity in comics ... 'cause comics have been a mainstay for a long time. ... You have your characters that have always been there and when you get a spin on a new character and it appeals to so many different fan bases ... because you know they have issues and stuff that are being addressed in these comics, they have somebody to relate to."

That may be just one comic book retailer's perspective, but it was echoed online. So what about the hard numbers — those sales figures Gabriel referenced? Alex Abad-Santos wrote about this for Vox and he joined A Martinez for more.

Context is important

To understand where David Gabriel's comments come from, you have to step back and look at where they took place, according to Abad-Santos: a retailers summit.

"David Gabriel was actually repeating what retailers were saying. When I say 'retailers,' I mean the comic book shop owners that were invited to the summit. And so, they [Marvel] were saying that he was just simply reiterating what he heard, but it was taken in the context of, 'this is what Marvel believes, and this is Marvel formal policy.'"

To gain a better understanding of where these retailers were getting this from, Abad-Santos gave a general overview of where these sales numbers come from, and it comes back to the retailers themselves.

"Comic books have this, it's this weird esoteric market, where comic book retailers actually buy comic books three months in advance.

"What happens is that those comic book retailers, that's a final sale for them. They can't sell back the issues that they don't sell. So you can have a situation where the comic book retailers will put in an order and this comic book becomes a bestseller ... and no one's even bought it yet. It hasn't even gotten into someone's hands. 

"And so I think what you have is a lot of retailers pre-ordering and ordering the big heroes like the Avengers, the crossovers, the X-Men, and I think you have that kind of conflict of what retailers want and what customers want."

Other metrics?

A cover showing several of Marvel's more diverse characters.
A cover showing several of Marvel's more diverse characters.
Marvel Comics

The comic book industry has some catching up to do. Music and television have adapted and now incorporate streaming into how they calculate ratings. Books take e-book sales into consideration. But comic books aren't quite there yet.

"The problem is that Marvel and a lot of comic book companies don't give out those numbers so freely. Like they'll say, 'Well this is a top seller,' but we don't really know what those numbers look like or exactly what the demographic is of who's buying them."

When it comes to the actual retailers, some are actually stuck with some of these titles and it doesn't look like they're going anywhere. But if that's the case, is it safe to say that a connection between low sales and diverse characters might be real for them?

"You could say that, but I'd be a little careful. There are a lot of reasons why comic books don't sell. It could be a price point, it could be a weird crossover, it could just be a bad writer that you don't like. 

"There are a lot of comic books from A-list heroes like Iron Man that just completely plummet into mediocrity, and no one is ever like, 'Hey, well, maybe we should stop having white guy straight superheroes because they're not selling.'

"The problem is there's a lot of factors, and when you single out that one factor, I think you have to be very careful and just completely sure that you want to put this out there, because you're alienating a lot of your fans and a lot of work that you've been doing over the past few years."

Where does Marvel go from here?

Marvel has put half-African-American, half-Latino teen Miles Morales in the Spider-Man suit.
Marvel has put half-African-American, half-Latino teen Miles Morales in the Spider-Man suit.
/Courtesy of Marvel

These comments were a tough blow for Marvel fans that follow heroes like Miles Morales — the half-black, half-Latino Spider-Man — or Kamala Khan, a new iteration of Ms. Marvel who is a Pakistani-American teen from New Jersey.

"Their comments hurt the whole idea of it, because you expect Marvel who has been backing these heroes to just kind of support them, right? And I think when you blame your low sales numbers on heroes that are non-white and heroes that are women, you just kind of wonder, 'Why would you say that and try to alienate your fanbase that you're trying to build?'"

So where can Marvel and its fans go from here?

"For Marvel, it's definitely a wake-up call. To see, well, we're not reaching the people that we should be reaching, and it gives them this gut check that ... if they're marketing to the right people, what their marketing strategy is [and] how to get fans interested.

"And I think for fans there's also this question of ... if we really like a book, how can we support a book better? How can we go into a comic book store, tell people to go into a comic book store? If this is the way things are being counted, how can we figure out how to affect that kind of change and try to get more support for these good books?"

To listen to the full segment, click the blue play button above.