The Real Reasons for Marvel Comics’ Woes

A recent push for diversity has been blamed for weak print sales, but the company’s decades-old business practices are the true culprit.

A man holds copies of the Captain America comic book at a store in New York March 7, 2007.  (Shannon Stapleton / Reuters)

Marvel Comics has been having a rough time lately. Readers and critics met last year’s Civil War 2—a blockbuster crossover event (and a spiritual tie-in to the year’s big Marvel movie)—with disinterest and scorn. Two years of plummeting print comics sales culminated in a February during which only one ongoing superhero title managed to sell more than 50,000 copies.* Three crossover events designed to pump up excitement came and went with little fanfare, while the lead-up to 2017’s blockbuster crossover Secret Empire—where a fascist Captain America subverts and conquers the United States—sparked such a negative response that the company later put out a statement imploring readers to buy the whole thing before judging it. On March 30, a battered Marvel decided to try and get to the bottom of the problem with a retailer summit—and promptly stuck its foot in its mouth.

“What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity,” David Gabriel, the company’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, told an interviewer at the summit. “They didn’t want female characters out there. That’s what we heard, whether we believe that or not ... We saw the sales of any character that was diverse, any character that was new, our female characters, anything that was not a core Marvel character, people were turning their nose up against.”

Despite an attempt by Gabriel to walk back the quote, the remarks kicked up another firestorm of criticism by those concerned Marvel was shifting the blame for poor sales on to “diverse” characters—particularly since, contrary to the company’s claims, sales data showed that minority-led books were actually doing relatively well compared to books starring white male characters.

At first glance, the dustup was an industry cliche: The relative lack of diverse creators—and charactershas been a bone of contention for years at both DC and Marvel.  But in the aftermath of Marvel’s rocky first quarter—and with the controversial Secret Empire now in full swing—it’s clear the publisher’s problems run more deeply than an ill-timed storyline or public-relations fumbles. Audiences are drifting away. New fans feel ignored. Despite movies that dominate the cultural landscape and regularly clear millions of dollars, the entire edifice of corporate superhero comics represented by both publishers has been quietly crumbling for years, partially due to Marvel’s own business practices. Marvel can’t seem to actually sell comics, diverse or not—and the company only has itself to blame.

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The comics industry these days is much diminished from its heyday. Beginning in the 1970s, corporate comics publishers moved away from selling through newsstands and grocery stores, turning instead to “the direct market,” which allowed buyers to purchase books straight from the publishers. This change both fueled the growth of specialty-comics shops and led to the corporate monopoly held by Diamond Comics Distributors, the middleman between retailers and publishers. In the 1990s, an issue of the popular The Amazing Spider-Man that sold around 70,000 would be considered a failure. The collapse of the comics speculation bubble in the mid 1990s—a bubble partially fueled by Marvel’s own encouragement of the speculator boom and flooding of the market—dealt a blow to the market it never quite recovered from. These days, what counts as a successful superhero book is anything that can sell a regular 40-60,000 copies. Most sell quite a bit less.

As it happens, speculation is an inherent feature of the direct market. Unlike in traditional publishing, comics sold to retailers through the direct market can’t be returned for a refund. So retailers have to preorder comics months in advance, knowing that if they order too many, they’ll be stuck with the overstock. Marvel and DC largely judge sales based on these preorders, and a low number of initial preorders can lead a publisher to cancel a series before a customer ever gets a chance to buy the first issue. There’s an incentive for publishers to push out as much product as they think the market will bear, and a narrow window for feedback. Due to the preorder system, books that might reach out to new audiences—such as those starring minority characters—are at an immense disadvantage right out of the gate. As a result, books like David F. Walker and Ramon Villalobos’s Nighthawk or Kate Leth and Brittney Williams’s Patsy Walker, AKA Hellcat!, and even spinoffs of popular series like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther, like rarely last long before being canceled.  

The uncertainties of the direct market are something all comics companies have to navigate, and sales gimmicks like collectible “variant” covers and special, higher-priced issues are common. Big publishers like DC and Image enthusiastically take part in these gimmicks. But Marvel pursues them at a level that puts other publishers to shame. Their primary trick is the consistent (and damaging) strategy of relaunching books with #1 issues or titles.

In 2013, for example, the writer Al Ewing began working on Mighty Avengers, focusing on a team of community-oriented superheroes led by Luke Cage and Jessica Jones. Fourteen issues later, Marvel relaunched it with a new #1 as Captain America and the Mighty Avengers, then canceled it nine issues in. In 2015, Ewing began writing both New Avengers and Ultimates, which followed characters from Mighty Avengers. Marvel relaunched both a year later—again with new #1s—as Ultimates 2 and USAvengers. Sound complicated? It gets worse: The 2013 Mighty Avengers was the third series to use the title; the 2015 Ultimates was the seventh. Both are unrelated to previous series. Such a publishing scheme is convoluted even for a committed fan; for a new reader, it’s nearly impenetrable.

Marvel’s argument for this approach has typically been that new #1 issues both boost sales and pull in new readers. It’s true that a #1 issue tends to sell quite well on the direct market—but since retailers are ordering inflated amounts sight unseen, it’s an artificial bump at best, and sales drop sharply afterward. In fact, according to an exhaustive and entertaining analysis by the writer and game designer Colin Spacetwinks, this constant churn badly erodes the readership. G. Willow Wilson’s excellent Ms. Marvel, a series starring a young Muslim heroine from Jersey City, debuted at a circulation of roughly 50,000 before holding steady at 32,000; the relaunched version a year later began at around 79,000 before dropping sharply to a current circulation of around 20,000. “Marvel’s constant relaunching ... has been harmful to direct market sales overall,” Spacetwinks writes, “as well as harmful to building new, long-term readers.” With every relaunch, it becomes easier to jump off a title.

Another source of instability lies in the way corporate superhero comics have largely moved away from long tenures by creative teams. Artists are now regularly swapped around on titles to meet increased production demands, which devalues their work in the eyes of fans and rarely lets a title build a consistent identity. (Imagine a television show using a new cast and crew every few episodes for a sense of how disruptive this is.) Marvel and DC are both guilty of this, but neither seems to have grasped how damaging it actually is to the books themselves—and Marvel has pursued the practice for longer.

Marvel’s editor-in-chief Axel Alonso told an interviewer at March’s retail summit that he didn’t know if artists “[moved] the needle” anymore when it came to sales. The fact that Marvel has trained audiences to regard those artists as disposable doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind; nor does the possibility that buyers—like a few prospective comics fans I know—might be turned off by constantly rotating art teams.

Marvel’s instinct with readers who do stick around, meanwhile, has been to squeeze them for all they’re worth. Marvel comics tend to be priced at around $3.99 to $4.99 for 22 pages, and many series ship new issues twice a month. (Digital editions are usually priced about the same.) Marvel publishes around 75 ongoing series, along with miniseries and single-issue specials. (DC, for comparison, made a concerted effort for the last few years to publish around 50 ongoing series and also had trouble making them stick.) April alone saw five “Avengers”-titled books. Then there are the crossover events—four so far this year—which interrupt the storylines of ongoing series and require readers to buy multiple other books to understand what’s going on. Reading Marvel, in other words, gets very pricey, very quickly, and the resulting flood of product exhausts retailers and ends up driving customers away.

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Marvel’s marketing and PR must bear a hefty share of the blame as well. The company habitually places the onus for minority books’ survival on the readership, instead of promoting their product effectively. Tom Brevoort, the executive editor at Marvel, publicly urged readers to buy issues of the novelist Chelsea Cain’s canceled (and very witty) Mockingbird after the author was subjected to coordinated sexist harassment.

The problem, however, is that the decision to cancel Mockingbird was necessarily made months in advance, due to preorder sales to retailers on the direct market. The book itself launched with only a few announcements on comics fan sites; no real attempt to reach out to a new audience was made. Marvel’s unexpected success stories, like Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Captain Marvel, are largely built on the tireless efforts of the creators themselves. (In Deconnick’s case, she paid for postcards, dog tags, and fliers for fan engagement out of her own pocket, for a character she didn’t own or have a real expectation of royalties from.)

It might be argued that Marvel has to be judicious about what books it spends money to promote, and that good word of mouth can make up the difference for free. Again, the dropping sales numbers for Marvel’s books suggests this isn’t the case. But even if it were, the publisher’s word of mouth lately has been abysmal. The past decade has been a parade of singularly embarrassing behavior by Marvel writers and editors in public. The former editor Stephen Wacker has a reputation for picking fights with fans; so does the Spider-Man writer Dan Slott. The writer Peter David went on a bizarre anti-Romani rant at convention (he later apologized); the writer Mark Waid recently mused about punching a critic in the face before abandoning Twitter. The writer of Secret Empire, Nick Spencer, has managed to become a swirl of social media sturm all by himself, partially for his fascist Captain America storyline and partially for his tone-deaf handling of race and general unwillingness to deal with criticism.

What’s frustrating about all of this is that Marvel has recently demonstrated an interest in publishing good, socially conscious books. Ewing’s Ultimates and Avengers work is consistently charming and witty; Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is an unalloyed delight; G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s Ms. Marvel deserves all the praise it has gotten and more. Yet the company’s strategy has largely been to launch books into a flooded market—one, again, that they themselves have flooded—and let them sink or swim. Books like The Amazing Spider-Man have enough name recognition that they’re always going to sell with minimal marketing. Books led by newer, more diverse characters, no matter how good they are, do not have that luxury. Marvel may publish good books, but without full commitment from the company, many of those books are being set up for failure—and allowing Marvel’s audience dwindle.

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For all of the cultural preeminence of Spider-Man or The Avengers, the superhero-comics industry remains a sideshow. The media conglomerates that own DC and Marvel use both publishers largely as intellectual-property farms, capitalizing on and adapting creators’ work for movies, television shows, licensing, and merchandise. That’s where the money is. Disney has very little incentive to invest in the future of the comic-book industry, or to attempt to help Marvel Comics reach new audiences, when they’re making millions on the latest Marvel film. If the publisher wants to pull itself out of this slump, it’ll require a fundamental shift in the way the company thinks about selling comics. The trick is sustainability, not short-term profits, and that requires not just staunching the drain in customers but actively attracting new ones. That involves figuring out what prospective readers want, not what they will simply tolerate.

A potential example lies in popular series from Image Comics like Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s The Walking Dead and Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples’s Saga. The former sells fairly steadily at around 75,000 units through the direct market, and the latter sells around 50,000.** Collected editions are regulars on graphic-novel bestseller lists. While the series are long-running, they offer a consistent and contained experience, with a writer and artist working in sync and constant fan engagement. These sorts of books aren’t constantly relaunched, and they aren’t burdened with multiple spinoffs. They’re easy to follow in collected editions. They don’t offer the dizzying direct market highs of a new #1, but after years, they’ve maintained a dependable and fervent following.

Marvel and DC might emulate this model by cutting back on the number of series they publish and the frequency with which they ship them. Both companies could be more judicious in pairing artists and writers for sustained periods, promoting series outside of the usual channels, and warmly engaging with fans. Instead of simply telling people to buy their books, they could instruct new audiences how. And they could listen to what new audiences say they want: diversity not just in racial, religious, or sexual terms, but also in terms of the types of stories told: Is there really any more harm in publishing a comic where Captain America has a romantic cup of coffee with his boyfriend Bucky than one where he’s a Nazi?

There are signs that Marvel is beginning to take reader and retailer concerns partially seriously: The company has promised that its new “Legacy” initiative will keep crossovers to a minimum, will have fewer incessant relaunches, and will maintain a focus on diverse characters. The question is whether the company will be able to resist going back to its old habits. After all, there are only so many times you can relaunch yourself before people wonder if what you have is really worth buying.

* This article has been updated to clarify that just one ongoing Marvel superhero title sold more than 50,000 copies in February 2017.
** This article originally misstated that The Walking Dead series sells at around 50,000 units. We regret the error.