The last few weeks have not been kind to Marvel. First it was Marvel executive David Gabriel saying people didn’t want diversity. Though Gabriel and Marvel tried to walk back the comments the damage was done, as shown by the week of articles speaking on diversity in comics that followed. Now to make things worse for Marvel’s PR department is Ardian Syaf inserting controversial political and religious references into this past week’s X-Men: Gold #1. As much as this highlights Marvel’s problem with their approach to diversity, the bigger thing all these PR issues highlight is the status of Marvel’s current creative direction.
Now before I continue for those unfamiliar with what occurred with the X-Men: Gold #1 controversy, Ardian Syaf snuck in controversial references involving a verse from Qur’an and on political protests taking place in Indonesia. Bleeding Cool recently broke down these references, with ComicBook.com providing a statement from Marvel on the controversy. Ms. Marvel creator G. Willow Wilson had a very good breakdown and think peace on the controversy that I recommend people read on her Tumblr website.
This is all on top of David Gabriel recently telling ICv2 during an interview “What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity. They didn’t want female characters out there. That’s what we heard, whether we believe that or not. I don’t know that that’s really true, but that’s what we saw in sales.”
Now there have been countless number of articles that have broken down Marvel’s problem when it comes to diversity and this weekend’s controversy involving Syaf. Looking at all this purely as a fan, these controversies around Marvel just highlight the company’s problem with their chosen creative approach.
In the modern blockbuster event-era of comic books Marvel has had top creative talents working for them, including Brian Bendis, Dan Slott, Ed Brubaker, Mark Millar, Jonathan Hickman, Jason Aaron, Matt Fraction, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Jeff Lemire and Warren Ellis, to name a few. Though Marvel does have great talent like Tom Taylor, Jason Latour and G. Willow Wilson working on comic books, their current crop of creative talent is not yet at the level or numbers it once was.
One of the causes of this is the fact that many of the big name talents have left Marvel for creator-owned books at Image and other publishers or are working for DC Comics now. The reality for Marvel is that they aren’t the destination for comic book creators anymore. Sure it is a big check mark to have Marvel and DC Comics properties on your resume as a creator, but it is not the endgame for them anymore. Rather, Marvel and DC are seen as way to build up your name in the industry while working on or moving on to work on creator-owned projects.
As a fan who sees this rolling carousel of incredibly talented creators leaving Marvel there has been less of an incentive to continue reading their comics. Sure Marvel has been able to keep talent like Bendis, Slott and Waid around but of those three only Bendis works on more than one franchise. For Slott his focus has been on Amazing Spider-Man while Waid now only works on Avengers and Champions since Black Widow ended.
Hurting creative even more is the constant reset button that Marvel editorial continue to push with each event. While things weren’t as bad this last time following Civil War II, more often than not Marvel has relied on new #1 issues to sell comics. The reality is that Marvel editorial has used the used new #1 issues as a smoke screen to buy themselves time to find the next big talent. Unfortunately this mindset has instead created an environment where fans are unable to have long-term connections with creators who would in turn help create interest in future Marvel comics they work on.
The constant relaunch of comic book titles, that include their core Avengers, Amazing Spider-Man and X-Men books, the last few years also creates the idea that fans should not expect long-term storytelling. In doing so Marvel has broken the intense loyalty that comes with comic books since there is no consistency to how characters evolve in their own comic books. Even now, not long after Civil War II ended and changed the Marvel Universe we are already hearing how the upcoming Secret Empire will change the company’s direction.
Bringing things to Secret Empire, Marvel’s upcoming blockbuster event just further highlights one of the bigger creative problems the company has. Because as much as creative teams will say that their tie-in issues can be read on their own, comic books with “Road to……” or “……Tie-In” banner over covers have an aura that you’re missing out by not reading the main event. Even if you have zero interest in Secret Empire or Civil War II, as a reader you feel left at a crossroads of continuing to buy or momentarily drop a comic book you were enjoying. If you end up doing the latter there is the possibility that causes comics to be canceled, making it now look like Marvel is nickel and diming you no matter what road is chosen.
All of these problems circle back to the company facing a creative crisis as their comic books lack an element of fun. While characters like Captain America were created before social justice warrior was ever a thing in mainstream culture comic books have become more than that. Comic books are a form of escapism. They allow us to see other worlds that are unlike our own, where characters evolve over the course of their series. Unfortunately that evolution of a character is brought to a halt by Marvel’s event- and relaunch-driven culture that they’ve created. In doing so Marvel forces changes rather than allowing characters evolve in a natural way that is based on storytelling rather than company directive.
It’s that lack of consistency that has hurt whatever Marvel has tried to do to add diversity to their catalog of published comic books. It also highlights how the all-in mentality hurt Marvel’s when it came to diversity. Because rather than treating characters as people first Marvel was perceived to be obsessed with the PR message of “Hey look at how diverse are comic books are with X and Y characters.” Whether true or not, that perception is hard to shake, especially with how often Marvel changed the direction of their universe.
Additionally, instead of a takeover approach Marvel took to build-up new or old diverse characters, there should’ve been a natural build alongside their iconic heroes. Marvel and their creators should’ve instead looked at how iconic characters like Iron Man, Thor and Spider-Man could build up the credibility of the next generation of heroes and villains. While it’s more of a long-term approach it would’ve made Marvel’s shift to diversity come off as a much more natural progression of their universe rather than being forced down fans throat.
I say all of this as someone who has enjoyed Tom Taylor, G. Willow Wilson and Jason Latour’s work to build up Laura Kinney as Wolverine, Ms. Marvel and Spider-Gwen, respectively. And though his momentum has cooled since joining the main Marvel Universe, Brian Bendis did a great job building up Miles Morales as an alternative to Peter Parker’s Spider-Man.
These characters have all been great additions to go along with characters like Black Panther, Storm, Black Widow, Falcon, Luke Cage and Captain Marvel, who have had prominent roles in the Marvel Universe the last few years. But to make sure these characters stick around Marvel needs to allow them to organically grow with the rest of the universe, rather than going with an all-or-nothing approach to diversity. By just abandoning ship in developing new and iconic characters simultaneously Marvel is just proving what people writing and talking about their diversity problem right.
At the end of the day there is going to be a lot more discussion about Marvel’s current and future direction. But that does not change Marvel’s need to properly analyze their creative direction and find real solutions to what really led to these recent controversies. As a fan whose first comic book was Amazing Spider-Man #284 I want to see Marvel succeed but that has been hard with Marvel’s current approach on telling stories. If Marvel really wants to rebuild fans loyalty they need to rediscover how to tell stories and develop characters in an organic way.