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?