By now, everyone from comics bloggers to news sites (both left and right-leaning) has had their say about comments by Marvel Comics vice president of sales David Gabriel saying the onslaught of diversity, including many female characters, is hurting sales.
The responses to this ranged from, “that’s what happens when you mess with established characters,” to “readers need to be less sexist and racist.”
Really, when you talk about any form of literature, particularly any type of ongoing title, you have to talk about the one thing and one thing only that keeps readers on board: story.
If the story isn’t something the readers can get behind, no matter the intentions of the creative team, they aren’t going to waste their time reading it. One of the biggest elements in making a story enduring is the human connection. When you focus on anything else besides story, it just won’t feel relatable.
Marvel has mixed things up in the past, with much success. The What If..? titles and Earth X (in which Thor was also depicted as a female) are good examples. In 1998, an alternate universe series called Marvel Knights helped bring Marvel comics out financial hardships (they had filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy before this series). Marvel Knights in particular focused on bringing in great writers to tell a familiar story in a refreshing way, or creating an entirely new story all together.
This is where Marvel could learn something from the Eisner Award winning anthology, Astro City.
In 1995, myself and several other avid comic readers discovered Astro City, created and written by Kurt Busiek, with illustrations by Brent Anderson. The series’ extraordinary cover art is by Alex Ross, who worked with Busiek on one of Marvel Comics’ best stories, Marvels.
This comic made its way through various publishers — Image, Homage, Wildstorm — and is currently with Vertigo Comics, DC’s “mature readers” branch responsible for titles such as Preacher and Fables. All three of Astro City’s creative forces, Busiek, Anderson, and Ross, continue to work together on the stories. Keeping a team of this caliber in tact for more than 20 years is saying something, particularly considering the changes in publishers over time.
Astro City is a look at the lives of superheroes and civilians living in and around the title city. It pays homage to other popular long-running superheroes through its own original characters, but it also brings in very deeply human traits from a diverse range of characters, male and female, straight and gay, and of various races and ethnic backgrounds (as well as a other-world races).
This comic maintains a wildly loyal — and growing — following, because it focuses on creating a good story. Regardless of what the characters they are, Busiek makes sure readers are drawn into their lives, their origin story, or their current situation.
Stand out stories include a heartbreaking one shot special featuring a hero called Hanged Man, and the redemptive tale of former supervillain Steeljack. I got to see the exhausting isolation of the Superman-like hero, Samaritan, and the conflicted sense of obligation from the controversial feminist Winged Victory. I felt the desperation and helplessness of wanting to protect your children through the story of Jack-in-the-Box, and felt for the child super hero, Astra, who just wanted to be a regular girl.
There have been a couple of story arcs that have been a little preachy on some issues, but every writer funnels his opinions in their work occasionally.
All of these characters have one thing in common: they all tell a good story.
This is what Marvel needs to do: find new writers wanting to bring in new characters and stories. For example, they have a good thing going with Spider-Gwen, and her alternate universe. If these stories are well crafted and thoughtful, they’ll stick. If not, they’ll make their way to the $1 bin of comic shop obscurity.
However, if Marvel, or any comic company, puts quotas over quality or social trends over story, they might gain a few new readers here and there, but they aren’t going to keep any of them in the long run.