by Jamison Ashley
As many observers have noted here and elsewhere, 2017 has been a very bad year for Marvel Comics. Yes, book sales have fallen, but beyond that Marvel’s publishing division has been fighting some of the worst PR disasters in their storied existence, and it seemed like each new calendar month, a new controversy would crop up. The Hollywood Reporter has examined just how bad things got over at Marvel Comics in 2017. It’s worth reading the whole thing.
The year started with the publisher announcing a new digital policy intended to increase sales of its print releases: Each week’s issues would contain download codes for three selected issues of other comics. The move prompted outcry from comic book retailers and fans alike as it replaces a longstanding policy where issues contained codes for a digital edition of that release, with both parties asking Marvel to reconsider. Two months later, Marvel did, with a statement from SVP of Sales and Marketing David Gabriel saying, in part, “We heard the message loud and clear on digital same issue codes… We are always looking to do what’s best for fans and the comics industry.”
No problems reported in February, although the Amazing Spider-Man series by Dan Slott was in the midst of a lackluster recycle of their Clone Conspiracy story line. It wasn’t until March that things really got ugly, that’s when the interview with SVP sales David Gabriel came out from ICv2 and all manners of hell broke loose.
the exec complaining about characters’ diversity in Marvel’s output. “What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity,” he said. “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. 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.”
Response was so vehement that Gabriel was forced to release a statement clarifying his comments. “Discussed candidly by some of the retailers at the summit, we heard that some were not happy with the false abandonment of the core Marvel heroes and, contrary to what some said about characters ‘not working,’ the sticking factor and popularity for a majority of these new titles and characters like Squirrel Girl, Ms. Marvel, The Mighty Thor, Spider-Gwen, Miles Morales, and Moon Girl, continue to prove that our fans and retailers ARE excited about these new heroes,” the statement read. “And let me be clear, our new heroes are not going anywhere! We are proud and excited to keep introducing unique characters that reflect new voices and new experiences into the Marvel Universe and pair them with our iconic heroes.”
This interview seemed to nearly overshadow the earlier interview from ICv2 with then Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso who seemingly devalued the contribution of artists during his presentation to retailers, by saying “We can hype our artists all we want, but I don’t know if we know how many artists, besides maybe [Steve] McNiven and [Olivier] Coipel, absolutely move the [sales] needle on anything to be drawn.”
ugh. And it doesn’t stop there.
The much-hyped relaunch of the X-Men franchise was immediately derailed by controversy when readers noticed that Indonesian penciler Ardian Syaf had hidden political references into the artwork for the debut issue of X-Men: Gold, the lead book of the franchise. “These implied references do not reflect the views of the writer, editors or anyone else at Marvel and are in direct opposition of the inclusiveness of Marvel Comics and what the X-Men have stood for since their creation,” Marvel said in a statement on the matter. Syaf was fired by Marvel days later.
Faced with growing criticism over a plot line in which Captain America’s history had been rewritten so that he was — and “had always been,” as per the rewritten history — an agent of fascist terrorist organization Hydra, Marvel took the unusual step of releasing a statement asking for readers’ patience and faith ahead of the launch of Secret Empire, a series which brought the storyline to the forefront of the company’s publishing line.
“At Marvel, we want to assure all of our fans that we hear your concerns about aligning Captain America with Hydra and we politely ask you to allow the story to unfold before coming to any conclusion,” the statement, released to Disney sibling ABC News, read. “What you will see at the end of this journey is that his heart and soul — his core values, not his muscle or his shield — are what save the day against Hydra and will further prove that our heroes will always stand against oppression and show that good will always triumph over evil.”
The finale of the series would see the fascist Captain America beaten up by a magically-created non-fascist version, using his muscles and his shield, but we’ll get there soon enough.
After an April tease, Marvel announced the launch slate for Marvel Legacy, the fall relaunch of its entire superhero line. The announcement was unusual, to say the least, with the series being revealed via animated gifs released with varying amounts of information across multiple websites, as well as Twitter and emails from Marvel’s PR department. More confusingly, the launch line-up as announced in June turned out to be incomplete, with Captain America being added a month later.
Despite a press release that promised the relaunch would “change the comic book industry,” response to the announcement was muted to say the least, with many noting that the relaunch was cosmetic at best — the majority of series were continuing publication, with the same creators attached — and also surprisingly backwards looking in its attempts to evoke nostalgia for days gone by.
The fact that one of the Legacy gimmicks involved renumbering certain series using math that didn’t really make sense didn’t help matters, either.
The article goes on to discuss the failure of Legacy to relaunch many titles, the debacle that was the Northrop Grumman promotion that got unceremoniously pulled within 24 hours of its announcement because of backlash by fans and creators, longtime Marvel creator Brian Michael Bendis suddenly leaving the company to go to DC Comics after nearly two decades, and Axel Alonso suddenly resigning as editor-in-chief. C.B. Cebulski, a former writer and editor was brought in to replace Alonso, and within two weeks a rival publisher, Image Comics, started spreading rumours that Cebulski has once pretended to be a Japanese writer called Akira Yoshida over a decade ago while working for Marvel comics.
The savage article even covers the various dust-ups most recently in the final weeks of December as Thanos creator, Jim Starlin aired his grievances on Facebook, singling out controversial Marvel executive editor Tom Brevoort as the reason he was “moving on from Marvel.” This was thankfully only the comic book division Starlin had problems with. Marvel Studios, he explained, “has treated me very well and generously. Them I like.”
And finally, what some called a “bloodbath” and others called a necessary “purge”, solicitations for Marvel’s March 2018 releases implied several cancellations of many under-performing comic series, including Gwenpool, Luke Cage, America, Generation X, Hawkeye, She-Hulk and Iceman. Marvel as a company has yet to comment officially on these cancellations, but most of these confirmed by the creators on social media. The fact that most of these comic series on the chopping block also featured female leads or POC, didn’t escape the notice of social justice warriors who began promoting the idea of a boycott of Marvel Comics almost immediately. Which prompted one Marvel editor to beg ‘fans’ not to stop buying Marvel titles:
I understand being upset about comics being cancelled–trust me, those of us working on those comics are likely AT LEAST as upset as you are, probably more upset. But that being said… please reconsider a knee-jerk “boycott”.
— Jordan D. White (@cracksh0t) December 28, 2017
Of course Jordan D White has his own controversies on social media.
Of course there were other ups and downs, from the bomb that was the Inhumans television series to the film hits like Doctor Strange, GotG Vol2, Spider-Man Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok. Although again, it’s not the Marvel Studios who are struggling this year, it’s been the publishing arm. So in closing, we wish Marvel Comics a better 2018 and a better new year.