Recently an executive at Marvel made this statement where he claimed that the reason why the sales of Marvel comic books have gone down is because there is too much diversity among its superheroes. Not surprisingly that executive’s quote has literally lit up social media as comic book fans of all stripes weighed in on this matter.
As someone who has been reading comic books off and on since childhood, I have my own reasons why comic book sales have gone down and none of them have anything to do with increased diversity in the number of superheroes who are female, LGBTQ, and/or people of color.
I’m old enough to remember when comic books used to cost 25 cents per issue. They were cheap enough for children to buy with their own allowance money or convince their parents to buy one or two issues. I fell out of reading comic books when I hit the fourth or fifth grade only to briefly pick up an issue or two of Howard the Duck which I found at a local pharmacy for around 35 cents when I was in middle school. (At least the reprinted volumes of the 1970’s Howard the Duck comic books, which I wrote a series of reviews about last summer, had the 35 cent price on the covers.)
I put comic books behind me after that until college when I dated my future ex-husband and he was the one who was into collecting comic books. By then comic books were priced at around 75 cents per issue, which still wasn’t too bad because they were still affordable to kids, college students, and people who either were unemployed or worked low-paying jobs. My husband and I continued to read them after college and during the first few years of our marriage until the prices shot up to $1.25 per issue and we grew tired of shelling out so much money for comic books. By that point we had also gotten more involved with our jobs and other activities so we didn’t have as much time to read comic books as before.
I started checking out comic books again over the last few years but nowadays prices have risen to an astronomical $3.99 per issue. That high price has definitely put a damper on resuming collecting comic books to the point where I’m extremely picky as to which comic book I’ll purchase. That has an effect because in the past, when my ex-husband and I collected comic books early in our marriage, we used to buy an extra comic book or two on impulse because we liked the cover. Thanks to that $3.99 price tag, I tend to pass on the comic books that have awesome covers, especially if I’m not familiar with the characters or storyline, because it would be incredibly easy to drop $75 or higher on a pile of comic books. In fact, not too long ago, I saw a young couple at the cash register buying a stack of around 25 comic books. They reminded me of the days when my ex-husband used to buy a stack of around 25 comic books. The big difference is that we used to pay something like $25 for that comic book stack. In contrast, I nearly gasped when I heard the store clerk charge the couple $100 for that comic book pile.
2. Too many knock-offs of the same character or concept.
This started while my ex-husband and I collected comic books. My ex had turned me on to The X-Men, which was a well-written series about a group of mutant superheroes who try to do good deeds even though much of society are prejudiced against mutants because it’s a classic case of hating/fearing those who are different. Many of the storylines were analogous to the racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and Islamophobia that occurs in the U.S. The X-Men led to one spinoff called Dazzler, which was about a mutant who was more into using her mutant light creation powers to entertain people than becoming a superhero but she frequently was dragged into situations where she had to use her mutant powers to defend herself or help someone else. Then there was Alpha Flight, about a superhero team in Canada—some were mutants and some were regular humans who wore special suits that enabled them to have powers. In addition, there was The New Mutants, about a team of mutant kids who were essentially X-Men in training. I think there were a few more spinoffs from The X-Men but I don’t remember. All I know is that the storylines in these mutant comic books began to overlap with each other to the point where we had to read all those series in order to get the entire story. It was also around the time when comic books began to be priced at over $1 per issue and it just got too expensive for us to keep up.
Since I started looking at comic books again I noticed that this trend has gotten more ridiculous. One example: There’s the currently popular comic book series Guardians of the Galaxy. Two of that group’s most off-beat and popular characters—Groot and Rocket Raccoon—not only appear in Guardians of the Galaxy but they also appear in separate solo titles. In addition, there’s also a Rocket Raccoon and Groot series for those readers who can’t get enough of either one and want to see them together without the rest of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Anyone who wants to get all four series would have to pay $16 per month.
I remember a time when there was only one Iron Man comic book. Now there are at least three or four separate Iron Man comic books and each one has a different person wearing the armored suit. I remember when there was only one Spider-Man comic book and there are now something like three or four Spider-Man comic books plus two or three other comic books featuring female versions of Spider-Man that are sold under titles like Spider-Gwen and Silk. Here’s a photo of a shelf full of different Spider-Man related titles—all of which are separate comic book series—that I shot at a comic book store a few years ago.
All these variations of the same superheroes tend to confuse comic book newbies and casual comic book readers plus there’s the $3.99 price per issue. It just makes those who aren’t hardcore comic book nerds with deep pockets end up just saying “The hell with this!” and walking out of the store empty-handed.
3. Limited distribution.
There were no comic book specialty shops in my area when I was a kid. But that was no problem because one could find comic books being sold at newsstands located in pharmacies, grocery stores, five and dime stores, and book stores. Seeing those comic books in plain sight encouraged kids to beg their parents to buy them a comic book. Parents had no problem with obliging because the prices were pretty cheap.
Nowadays if anyone wanted to read a comic book, that person has to go to a comic book specialty shop because the vast majority of comic books are no longer distributed in grocery stores and other non-comic book specialty shops (with the exception of Archie comics, which I can still find at the supermarket checkout line). I’m lucky enough to live in a populated urban area plus I live near a college town so I have no problem with finding comic book stores to browse in. But people who live in rural areas just don’t have that option unless they happen to live in a college town. Limited distribution is just as short-sighted as charging $3.99 per issue because people living in areas without a comic book specialty shop but who would be interested in buying a comic book just don’t get that opportunity.
Limited distribution just results in lost opportunities. Here’s one example: When I was trying to get rid of my ex-husband’s comic book collection that he left behind, I ended up making coasters with them because I couldn’t find anyone willing to buy them. While I was looking through various issues while deciding which comic book panels to cut up for my art projects, I saw a notice in one of the old Marvel comic books gleefully announcing that one of their newer comic books at the time, Power Pack, was being distributed exclusively in comic book specialty shops.
I remember my ex and I reading Power Pack in the latter days of our comic book collecting before we gave up on it altogether. It was about four young siblings between the ages of 5-12 who were given superhero powers. These kids had to juggle taking on the villains with other things like going to school, doing homework, and adhering to curfew. I thought it was incredibly short-sighted of Marvel to not distribute Power Pack more widely because most kids going to the local grocery store or pharmacy with a parent would have gone crazy over the idea of superhero kids their age and begged their parents to buy them that comic book. Thanks to that corporate bone-headed decision, the vast majority of kids never knew that the comic book even existed and that series no longer exists. (Or at least I haven’t seen any latest issues of Power Pack on sale at a comic book specialty shop.)
4. Too many large corporate-wide comic book events that are hyped as “THE MARVEL/DC UNIVERSE WILL NEVER BE THE SAME!”
This started back when my ex and I still collected comic books when Marvel came up with a special limited series called Secret Wars where a variety of superheroes from Marvel’s bigger-selling comic books at the time (such as The Fantastic Four and The X-Men) were taken to a planet by someone known as the Beyonder and forced to undergo a series of battles. That series affected the storylines of the regular comic book series. I don’t remember much about the Secret Wars other than feeling annoyed that the storyline of The X-Men had them dealing with being alienated by the other superheroes in the Marvel Universe while two X-Men ended up ending their budding romantic relationship over what went on during the Secret Wars.
Now Marvel and DC go to the well frequently by coming up with a corporate-wide events where limited series are released under names like Rebirth, Civil Wars, and Civil Wars 2 that literally changes the storylines of the regular comic book series. Hardcore comic book fans are asked to spend even more money on these limited series in order to keep up on what’s going on with their regular favorite series while confusing casual fans so much that they pass on the entire event.
The comic book companies will more likely gain readers if they quit doing these stupid events that tend to cater mainly with the small minority of hardcore comic book fans while screwing up the storylines of regular comic books so much that the more casual readers are turned off.
5. The comic book industry caters to the hardcore comic book fans at the expense of kids and more casual readers.
When I was a kid comic books were mostly action-packed series with very little of the “I have a lot of personal problems that are wearing me down” storylines. They were pretty escapist for the most part.
Recently I heard of an uproar when Marvel decided to turn Captain America into a fascist. Never mind the fact that the comic book first came out during World War II and Captain America was depicted as an active Nazi fighter. I remember reading Captain America as a child when he was basically a good guy fighting villains. Only the hardcore comic book fans would be okay with this sudden change in character.
One of the reasons why I quit reading The X-Men besides time and price is that I grew weary of the dark dramatic storylines depicting the team as being persecuted for being mutants while continuing to fight bad guys and save the same people who would love to see them get discriminated and/or annihilated simply because they are mutants. I don’t mind dark dramatic storylines if they are well-written but after reading such storylines for years I began thinking that if I was a mutant superhero defending people who would want me dead, I would reach a breaking point where I would just say “Bye, Felicia!”, give up being a superhero, and pursue something more quiet like gardening. What’s more, these dark depressing storylines tend to appeal more to hardcore comic book fans with deep pockets who have no problem with spending years keeping up with various convoluted storylines about persecuted mutants.
The main reason why I haven’t resume reading The X-Men or any of its many mutant superhero spin-offs is because of the fact that if I wanted to spend my time reading dark stories full of prejudice, death, and general mayhem, I’ll go online and read BBC News or Al Jazeera without being charged $3.99 per issue.
The only Marvel superhero series I even follow these days is The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and that’s because the stories are more lighthearted and full of humor. Squirrel Girl is a mutant and she doesn’t let it get her down as she juggles fighting super villains with being a college student. More recently I checked the Batgirl of Burnside graphic novel out of the public library and I found that one to be in a similar vein to The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl as Batgirl learns the hard way the folly to taking selfies for social media while battling crime at the same time. Like Squirrel Girl, Batgirl is smart, hip, and is very comfortable with the latest technology. If more comic books were a similar vein, they would gain the attention of casual fans and even increase sales. Plus parents would feel more comfortable buying such comic books for their children instead of a comic book series with an ongoing dark and depressing storyline about a persecuted superhero mutant with major personal problems.
Which leads to the issue of appealing to deep-pocketed hardcore adult comic book fans at the expense of children. Sure it’s a cliche to say that children are the future but in the comic book industry it’s vital to gain the interest of children because these kids will grow up to become future comic book fans. If children don’t live in an area with a comic book specialty shop they won’t see comic books being sold in their local store so they won’t ask their parents to buy them an issue of Superman or Captain America. If children can’t afford the $3.99 per issue price tag, they will grow up without reading comic books. And if the dark storylines are too adult for the kids to read or if the kids are so confused by the numerous separate comic book series about Spider-Man or Iron Man that they end up not even picking a comic book, then they won’t grow up to become adult comic book readers nor will they buy comic books for their own children when they become parents.
Ultimately children who don’t read comic books will end up not reading comic books as adults so they won’t be there to replace the current crop of adult hardcore comic book fans when these people start to die off. This will put the comic book industry in a total death spiral to the point where some of these comic book companies may eventually go out of business.
In a nutshell.
The problem with the decline of comic book sales isn’t too much superhero diversity. It’s the price, the numerous knock-offs of the same characters, the limited distribution, the comic book events, and the constant catering to hardcore comic book fans at the expense of everyone else that are all slowly killing the comic book industry. Unless the comic book industry takes a hard look at these issues and do something about them instead of blaming diversity, it will recede further into irrelevance over the next few decades.