2017: The Year Almost Everything Went Wrong for Marvel Comics
2017 has been a bad year for Marvel Entertainment’s comic book division. It’s not simply that sales have tumbled (the company’s traditional dominance in year-end sales charts is absent this year), but that Marvel’s comic book publishing arm has suffered through a year of PR disasters so unforgiving as to make it appear as if the division has become cursed somehow. Here’s how bad things have been over the last twelve months.
This Week In Heat Vision breakdown
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.”
A report from comic book industry site ICv2 caused a stir, when then-Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso was accused of devaluing the contribution of artists during a presentation to retailers, 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.”
An interview with SVP sales David Gabriel, published on the same day as the previous report, provoked an even greater reaction after it appeared to show 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.”
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.
After Marvel announced order terms for the first issues of its Marvel Legacy relaunch, a number of comic book retailers announced that they wouldn’t be carrying certain releases in protest over what they considered unrealistic expectations from the publisher.
As the Secret Empire comic book series neared its conclusion, Marvel inexplicably spoiled the end of its own Secret Empire comic book series days before release via a New York Times story. Featuring artwork that showed the fascist version of Captain America being beaten up by the classic version, the story featured then-editor-in-chief Alonso saying that Marvel editorial “thought the story had something important to say about democracy, freedom and the core American values that Captain American embodies.” The NYT didn’t seem to be too impressed; the opening line of the story began, “Surprising absolutely no-one…”
This wouldn’t be the only time Marvel would spoil its own comic books that month, though; days ahead of the release of Marvel Legacy No. 1, the company announced the identity of the character who would return from the dead in the issue. (It was Wolverine, who had died in 2014.)
Marvel’s October started terribly, with a week which saw everyone discover that the special lenticular covers that had drawn criticism from retailers didn’t even work, as well as a presentation to retailers turn into a full-scale revolt, and finally, a deal with military contractor Northrop Grumman get pulled within 24 hours of its announcement because of backlash from fans and Marvel’s own creators. That this happened to be the same week as New York Comic Con was just unfortunate timing, really.
In a surprise move, top Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis left the publisher after nearly two decades to sign with DC Entertainment. That was far from the biggest departure from the company that month, however; within two weeks, news broke that Alonso was stepping down immediately as editor-in-chief in what was described as a “mutual decision” between himself and Marvel.
His replacement was C.B. Cebulski, a former writer and editor for the company, who — just eleven days after being named to the position — admitted that he had defrauded the company a decade earlier by pretending to be a Japanese writer called Akira Yoshida from 2003 through 2005, during which time he worked as a freelancer on Marvel comics while also, under his own name, working on staff as an editor for the company. Beyond his initial confession, Cebulski issued an additional statement on the subject to The Atlantic this month, but Marvel has yet to officially comment on the matter.
In other personnel news in November, it was revealed that Marvel had hired former Image Comics staffer Ron Richards as its VP/Managing Editor of New Media. His hiring was greeted by multiple accusations of sexual harassment. Neither the company nor Richards have responded to the allegations as yet.
As excitement grows for Marvel Studios' Avengers: Infinity War, the man who created the movie's central villain, Thanos broke up with Marvel's comic book arm. Jim Starlin aired his grievances on Facebook, naming Marvel executive editor Tom Brevoort as the reason he wouldn't be working with the publisher anymore, but helpfully adding that it was only the comic book division he had a problem with. Marvel Studios, he explained, "has treated me very well and generously. Them I like."
Meanwhile, the solicitations for Marvel’s March 2018 releases signals the cancelations of a number of comic series, including Gwenpool, Luke Cage, America, Generation X, Hawkeye, She-Hulk and Iceman. As has become customary, Marvel as a company has yet to comment officially on the cancelations — and declines to comment when specifically asked about them — with confirmations coming directly from the creators behind the comics on social media.
That the majority of series confirmed to be ending feature female leads or men of color didn’t escape the notice of many fans, with discussion of a boycott of the publisher soon following. This led to the unusual sight of a Marvel editor asking fans not to stop buying Marvel titles on social media:
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
Going into 2018, Marvel faces significant challenges, from reversing sales slides to convincing disillusioned fans that the company remains committed to diversity. New editor-in-chief Cebulski has yet to give an official interview as the new leader of the comic book line, nor answer direct questions about his time as Akira Yoshida — and if the company could stop spoiling its own comics days before their release, that would probably be a good idea, as well. It’s a super heroic task — but then, that almost makes it perfect for Marvel to handle.
by Richard Newby
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