Recently, Marvel Comics executive David Gabriel drew some heat for observing that readers didn’t want diversity in comics. I can’t agree with this, and I find it disingenuous that the excuse given for poor sales gets shuffled onto readers that Marvel paints as little more than mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging cavemen.
“When in doubt, blame the customer.” –Sign I once saw in a general store in rural Alabama.
The sentiment seems to work for Marvel: It’s not their fault their efforts to introduce diversity to their cast of characters proved a dismal flop; it’s the customers’ fault.
But it’s not. Marvel just wants an out for their epic blunder.
But if not their customers’ limited world-view, then why did Marvel’s efforts tank? Three reasons come to mind.
- Unoriginality: What’s the difference between She-Hulk and Hulk? A penis. Derivative characters are inherently unoriginal. Original characters reflect original attitudes and a clear break from the past. Simply handing a woman Thor’s hammer doesn’t work for the reader–it’s like giving your kid sister your old Boy Scout uniform so she can play soldier. Unoriginal characters patronize the reader and are incapable of covering their own symbolic turf in their own way. The female derivative of any male superhero will automatically occupy the same semiotic space as her predecessor and so be trapped in his world, not her own.
- A Lack of Subtlety: “You’re a man and I’m a woman, so you’re WRONG!” And that’s about the depth of most “feminist” (and I use the word in this context while holding my nose) genre fiction dialog. It’s surface, it’s shallow, and it doesn’t really show anything. What passes for acceptable story-telling among Identity Politics-oriented authors often suffers a lack of depth and subtlety. Sure, you can have a sexist villain, but sexists never display overt sexism (not in the way Marvel has them doing it.) Sexists and racists generally don’t see themselves as these things and so are seldom up-front about it. When the reader gets hit with banal dialog, they’ll feel patronized. If you treat the readers like you think they’re too stupid to reach the moral conclusion you want them to reach by story’s end, they’ll stop reading.
- Wasted World-Building Potential: More than anything, when readers hear about potential new characters, they think of new settings and new scenarios. When the characters wear hand-me-down costumes, wield familiar weapons, and pretty much do what their predecessors did every time, the reader encounters wasted potential; we sailed into the unknown and landed on familiar shores. It’s disappointing.
So no, David Gabriel, it’s not that people don’t want diversity; it’s that Marvel failed to deliver. You can’t just slap a new heroine together and make her the new Captain America. You’ve got to build original characters from the ground up.
It takes time to develop a solid character. Marvel tried to whip their’s up overnight. The results speak for themselves.
And don’t try to blame it on the reader–that’s how you lose customers.