The Problem with Marvel* is that there is no problem. Honestly. Marvel is, absolutely, integrally, Marvel, and not much is terribly different at the company now from the past 20 or so years that I’ve been paying attention.
However, for the sake of argument, if there is a problem with Marvel it’s that it’s still Marvel, and not, say, what people would prefer Marvel were. Which is to say, Marvel hasn’t significantly changed as a publishing entity in the past 20 years, despite being acquired by Disney, despite the aggressive movie slate creating millions of new fans worldwide. Marvel is Marvel in the face of enormous change around it. The fandom has changed (though there’s still about 30,000 old-timers hanging in there, the Marvel fauthful), the publishing industry isn’t the same publishing industry, and the discussion (‘the discourse’) is so very, very different too. Marvel largely can’t understand its new fandom, can’t understand the new publishing industry, and its certainly having a hard time understanding those with legitimate criticism as anything other than ‘internet complainers that we should not pay attention to.’ These changes didn’t happen overnight, they were gradual and consistent. The fan demographic has been shifting for years and the discussion has changed alongside it. There’ve always been voices of protest, but there are more of them and they are louder now, and there’s a much richer chorus. It’s harder to ignore.
Not, apparently, impossible though.
Speaking of ignoring dissenting voices. I have a lot of sympathy for comic shop retailers, having been a comic shop retailer for a few decades. Marvel, when the stars align, is tremendously easy to sell and a tremendously consistent seller. I’ll even go out on a limb here and say most direct market comic shop retailers would prefer to sell Marvel to anything else (including rivals at DC Comics), from my observations of them and discussions with them. Marvel is a tremendous part of their business, largely low-hanging fruit, and they understand it. They’re invested in it, and have been for a long time in most cases. When Marvel doesn’t sell well, when it’s out of sync with the world around it, retailers’ jobs become difficult, their thin margins evaporate, and their investment in Marvel is shown to have been a fool’s game.
I had a lot invested in Marvel for a long time. Now? Not so much. If this were five years ago I’d say I grew up, but I’m trying to be less inflammatory in my old age, so let me instead say simply that I moved on. Yes, these characters are [still] tremendously important to a number of people. Yes, there are touchstone moments from the history of Marvel comics that were tremendously important to me too–when Northstar came out in Alpha Flight I got to come out a little bit. But at a certain point I recognized that Marvel is Marvel, it’s designed to be (and stay) Marvel, and I’m not gonna be that closeted teen forever. I’m not gonna be that comic collector, I’m not gonna thrill to seeing Spider-Man web up Megatron, I’m not even gonna be awed viewing the 60s Marvel heroes through the lens of Phil Sheldon until the end of my days. I’m gonna move on and yeah, I’m still gonna enjoy a good yarn, but I probably won’t be able to enjoy it very much if I know that people are seriously hurt by it. It’s the difference between loving something, enjoying it, and being able to appreciate it despite its flaws. It’s being able to see that the emperor has no clothes but he’s still pretty hot if you squint and as long as he doesn’t open his mouth and ruin it.
In their most recent actions, Marvel more-or-less doubled down on being Marvel. I won’t get into specifics, but it looks like Marvel still doesn’t quite want to be anything other than Marvel. Or maybe it doesn’t know how? Regardless, they clearly see their standard operating procedure as no problem. So who am I to argue, right? We all want more of the same, slightly shifted. Heroes Reborn, Reborn, Reborn, Reborn. Alex Ross brought back to give us the old razzle-dazzle, to help us be awed by Superheroes again. Like I said, it’s not for me anymore, but Marvel seems convinced it’s going to work, that there are no problems that can’t be fixed by renumbering their books.
Ultimately Marvel is Marvel, and that ain’t mine anymore. Maybe after this it won’t be yours either? I just hope that in deciding to double down, in deciding to stay the course after years of growing dissatisfaction from the new fans of their characters, disenfranchised older fans of their comics, retailers who say that the product has stopped selling, and the people doing the work to try and illuminate issues around sensitivity and inclusion… well, honestly, I hope no one gets hurt, no one’s store closes, no one becomes disenfranchised by comics as a whole because the medium outside of Marvel is truly awesome. Heck, it’s even awesome AT Marvel every once in a while.
And if not, if Marvel means too much to you and you’re gonna hang in there regardless? I hope you can take solace in the fact that, at some point soon thanks to the movies and the cartoons and the merch, there are more people that wanna read the smooching-adventures of Steve and Bucky than want to see them on opposite sides of a dumb nazi brain-washing scheme, and I bet the folks at Disney will have no problem finding someone else to make that happen, because Marvel may be Marvel, but Money is Money.
*: Marvel Publishing, i.e.: Marvel Comics.