Robot 6

‘Whenever your leads are white American males, you’ve got a better chance of reaching more people’

"Truth: Red, White & Black" star Isaiah Bradley, by Joe Quesada

"Truth: Red, White & Black" star Isaiah Bradley, by Joe Quesada

With its unique blend of Marvel-minutiae mastery and near-total frankness, Marvel Executive Editor Tom Brevoort’s Blah Blah Blog on Marvel.com tends to be an extraordinary document even on days when it’s not touching the third rail of fanboy politics. But in his most recent post, Brevoort does exactly that, addressing the question of why, despite having a great big universe at its disposal, Marvel’s comics tend to star white dudes from the U.S. of A.

Responding to a reader question regarding the difficulty of sustaining books with international leads, like Captain Britain & MI:13 or Alpha Flight, Brevoort expands the issue, likening the situation to the plight faced by “series with female leads, or African-American leads, or leads of any other particular cultural bent”:

Because we’re an American company whose primary distribution is centered around America, the great majority of our existing audience seems to be white American males. So while within that demographic you’ll find people who are interested in a wide assortment of characters of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, whenever your leads are white American males, you’ve got a better chance of reaching more people overall.

Interestingly, Brevoort seems to view “American” as a far more key component for a book’s success than “white” or “male”: He goes on to speculate that books whose leads are black or female and American will have an easier go of it than books whose leads are white and male but foreign.

There’s an awful lot to chew on in there, from the assessment of Marvel’s audience to the characterization of their interests to the comparison of international characters with women or minority characters to the whole chicken-egg question of which came first, the demographic or the subject matter. Is Brevoort’s analysis a common-sense observation, a self-fulfilling prophecy, or something else entirely? What do you think?

News From Our Partners

Comments

24 Comments

I think Dwayne McDuffie’s now defunct plans for a new series at DC Comics would have worked. I’m pissed that DC comics deep-sixed yet another promising series.

If the story is good enough, then I think the ethnicity of the characters could be anything. Would they sell as much as Bendis’ Spider-Man or Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern? Probably not. This is because the biggest selling titles on the market are only properties that were made decades ago and the customers are buying them almost purely for nostalgic reasons. New concepts and entirely new settings have extraordinarily difficult times becoming consistent breakout successes.

The larger problem is trying to get the buying public to buy any entirely new comic book title.

Still, I’d like to see Dwayne McDuffie and John Cassaday work together on a title.

What about Wolverine? He’s Canadian.

He’s right. What that says about comic readers, one way or another, is something else entirely, but he’s right. As far as black American characters outselling white male foreign characters (too many descriptive demographic terms!), I don’t know. Brevoort would have the sales figures—compare the Union Jack series to The Blue Marvel.

Sounds ridiculously dickish, but he does have a really valid point. The majority of readers, i think, really are incapable of latching onto a character as easily if there’s no surface superficial thing the reader has in common with the lead character. You’re seeing this kind of idiocy with Avatar and people bitching about how humans are the villains Yet Again, when first of all it’s not That prevalent a trend, and second of all really what it comes down to is a hero-villain dynamic in the story. The question then becomes “who should be the villain?” If it’s not us, it’d have to be the Na’Vi. The aliens-as-dickheads story, however, Is done to death. The only difference between Avatar and anything else is that the ones who look like us are the ones demonized, and now we have fanboy poo-diapers all over the place to clean up. It’s fuckin stupid, but we really do seem to need to have somebody who looks like us come out smellin like roses or people throw hissyfits.

@ J. Jonah: …So, it couldn’t be because Bendis’ Spider-Man and Johns’ Green Lantern are good comics? Its gotta be for nostalgic reasons?

@ Punchy: Exception to the rule, and they don’t focus on his ethnicity. All his stories tend to take place in America, so how many people even know he’s Canadian?

Spike, if it sounds “dickish,” that’s as much on Sean as it is on Tom for taking Tom’s statement out of context. In the original post, Tom makes it abundantly clear that he’s not sure he has an answer, isn’t sure he knows THE answer, but that he’s hazarding a guess. And while Tom’s syntax following that is a little blunt…man, I wish it were wrong, but it’s not. Every comics publisher ever, including BOOM!, can tell you maddening tales of retailers who, even now, in the 21st century, are hesitant to order books with non-white, non-American leads because their community won’t support them. It’s absurd, it’s crazy-making, I don’t know what it’s going to take to change that other than time…but like it or not, it is an unfortunate truth of the time in which we live.

I have a issues with Brevoort’s statement for many reasons, but mostly for what it ultimately suggests, which is that we should only have lead characters who are white, American, and male, and that the fan base for comic books can never be increased or diversified.

Yes, white American males are the majority of the comics audience. And that’s all the audience will ever be if the companies cater strictly to them and never offer up lead characters that represent the vast diversity of the American population. And it is very diverse (an inherent problem with Brevoort’s logic is that he seems to be equating American with white…DC’s Blue Beetle has Brevoort’s largest criteria in his favor, he’s American, and his book still didn’t sell well).

Anyway, the bottom line is that if women and non-white readers don’t see themselves reflected in some way in characters, they will likely lose interest. I know attempts to create racially diverse characters have not been sales blockbusters traditionally, but I don’t think that’s an excuse to give up. I’m white and I love me some Flash, Green Lantern, and Fantastic Four, but I also don’t want to read about all white men all the time. I like a little broader perspective.

Paul – I don’t think that’s what he’s saying at all. Assessing the facts on the ground doesn’t mean that efforts shouldn’t be made to change things, that the comics audience shouldn’t be increased or diversified, or that we should never have non-white, female, foreign lead characters. Its just recognizing the fact that books starring those types of characters are going to have a harder time making it in today’s comics market, with the current comics demographic.

Obviously, the issues can be overcome. Claremont’s original Uncanny X-Men team is basically a collection of mutants from many lands (and with many annoyingly stereotyped accents and catchphrases, Tovarisch!) Maybe it’s because he set the series in the US that it worked and caught on, maybe the strength of the work can sometimes overcome the marketing problems. Maybe the MI13 book would have done better if they had Captain Britain become an Avenger for a while first or something (though I cringe a bit at the thought of a Bendis-written Brian Braddock).

Its a complicated issue, and I don’t think anything Tom is saying is either offensive or wrong.

I’m still not buying it, though. I think with the right creative team, anything will sell. Hell, people have been begging for Bendis’s Spider-Woman comic for years. I also seem to remember there was a time where not a single con went by without someone asking Joey Q if there were any plans for Cloak and Dagger. Now both of those are in the pipeline, and I have no doubt they will sell. Over at the Distinguished Competition, the new Batwoman book is the title everyone is talking about, with not insignificant buzz for Power Girl. (I concede that 4 of those characters are white and 4 are American, but they’re still women and a black guy)

And look, I’m a white American woman, but I lived in London for a year– I know that Captain Britain had a devoted following, but I just could not get into it. I read two issues and just could not see what everyone else saw in it. Is it possible that maybe–just maybe–a book failed because it didn’t appeal to enough people, and not because of the demographic of the characters?

@Mark, I don’t think it was so much the tone or the syntax on either of their parts that makes me say it sounds dickish , it’s more that it sounds like a dickish opinion to have. Rereading my post it kinda just comes off as a jumble of anger and aliens and whatever else but what i was really trying to get across is that the people who are really stupid are the ones who won’t buy media (ANY media, i think, hence bringing the argument from comics to avatar) that doesn’t feature somebody they can “relate” to on a superficial level.

Spike, Mark: To be clear, I don’t think Tom was being dickish–Spike, I see you see the same thing later on. It seemed to me he was just describing the phenomenon as he saw it and offering a possible explanation. As I said in the post, he was speculating more than speaking authoritatively. Moreover, if you read between the lines of his post it seems clear he finds this pretty unfortunate and hopes for greater diversity, in audience and subject matter, in the future. For me the interesting question is whether his read on this is correct, or what the ramifications of his read, correct or not, might be; I don’t think Tom–or Mark, in his related comments about BOOM!’s run-ins with retailers, are ENDORSING the situation or doing anything similarly dickish by any stretch of the imagination.

I’m not sure that I buy this in particular, although I’d love to know whether they are savvy enough to have done any market research on the topic.

I’d guess that the broader issue is one of franchising and brand recognition. For Marvel (for better or worse) ff you put an ‘X’ or ‘Avengers’ in your title you’ve got a better than average shot of capturing sales. (Same thing for any other immediately recognizable property such as Spiderman, Wolverine, and now seemingly Deadpool). For most these properties, you get the benefit of relying upon 40 years of product offerings to help sell the brand. Thus, even mediocre comics such as ‘X-Men Legacy’ or any of the multiute of mini-series can demonstrate sales potential.

End result: 20 X-Men related magazines, 10 Avengers related magazine, 4-5 Hulk, Spiderman, etc

What is the newest strong selling Marvel property that isn’t tied to something that Stan Lee or Chris Claremont created?

Deadpool is clearly the most recent character to merit multiple titles and thus what I would call franchise status. After that, you’d need to look at the Thunderbolts as something ‘new’ that has managed to attain any kind of longevity.

Captain Britain is a book that I dear miss. It was well written, and well drawn and peered into a lot of the odd nooks in Marvel’s cupboard. But at the end of the day, could the book have sold better if it were called Avengers UK or something similar? Isn’t that after all, how Excaliber was able to support itself for so long. It wasn’t American, but it was X-Men.

Mangir: Hmm, that’s a whole ‘nother way to slice this–perhaps the books that succeed are the books with the strong core concepts and decades of recognition, which for the most part are Lee/Kirby/Ditko creations, which for the most part starred white American guys. But there are exceptions: The X-Men didn’t really take off until the Wein/Cockrum/Claremont/Byrne era, during which they quite deliberately restocked the team with more women, more minorities, and more international characters; the Avengers’ star had faded until Bendis relaunched it, slightly JLA-ified it, and made a relatively obscure African-American character, Luke Cage, the de facto and eventually actual team leader. Do those exceptions prove the rule, or render it moot?

I think it’s a combination of a lot of what people have said. The demographic is seemingly mostly white, American males (this is mostly the case in my Graphic Novel class). It has a little to do with nostalgia also; series that have run since the silver age are more likely to succeed than new titles, minus a few exceptions. It has a little to do with the creative team and whose name is tacked on front. In a few cases a title really can exist thanks to creative merit alone. I mean who knew Nova and Guardians of the Galaxy could last more than 25 issues right?
But in my completely unprofessional opinion as someone that has only been reading comics for a scant 5 years, comics are more likely to succeed if they involve a brand that has already lasted for over 20 years. Avengers, Spider-Man, X-Men, Superman, Batman, Flash, etc. Anything related to those will last a good bit longer than anything else.

While I don’t think that the only successful titles are ones that are built on nostalgia, like Green Lantern: Rebirth, it’s a lot harder to sell a new concept with a minority, or even an old concept with a new twist and a minority lead, like Blue Beetle.

And I’m not saying that stories with nostalgic ties can’t be good. But if you had two Green Lantern series, both penned by Geoff Johns (so they should be of roughly equal quality and tone), but one focused on Hal Jordan and the other on John Stewart, I’d bet that the Jordan series would sell 75-100% better than the Stewart one.

@Sean

I’d rather make the case that it is much more difficult to get any original concept off the ground (regardless of race, ethicity, or nationality) unless it is tied to one of the cornerstone properties. The X-Men may have taken off once they got an i’nternational’ more ethinically diverse cast, but they also did it in an era in which they only competed with ~12-15 other Marvel books. And the creative team was given years to built their audience. Certainly the impression that I got was that the X-Men relaunch flew under the radar for a good long while until it really started to reach peak sales. After all, the book was still bi-monthly until midway through Bryne’s stint on the book.

Could a recipe like that work in today’s market? I doubt it – most new concepts are drowned under the classic properties (and their various satellite mini-series and one shots). And most of all business realities are such that anything that doesn’t find an immediate audience is gone within 12 issues.

I’d also argue that Luke Cage is merely incidental to Bendis Avenger’s relaunch. For starters, he does have a 30 year track record of his own…albeit nowhere near as successful as the major Marvel books. But more importantly, Bendis made the savvy move of adding Spiderman and Wolverine to the Avengers name. Regardless of the creative intent, this change tied the Avengers brand name to that of the X-Men and Spiderman, both of whom were better selling at the time. Audiences were more likely to check out their favorite characters in the move, and thus you could build your core Avengers (pre-Disassembled) audience with new blood.

A seld-fulfilling prophesy — Our customers are mostly white, so we publish mostly white characters.

While never a “big seller” one of my favorite monthly comics that I read while growing up was “Shang Chi: Master Of Kung-Fu”. A title that last for 100+ issues (over 8 years) and featured, for the most part, a non-American cast (a Chinese lead with British supporting cast).

Sure, it was written by a white writer and drawn by white artists, but the subject matter and feel of the title wasn’t the same as your typical “White-American-male-adventure” comic.

The sad part is today, that a series like MOKF during a period where audience diversity is growing in most forms of entertainment, wouldn’t last two months on the shelves at your local LCS.

I think most important thing in that entire paragraph is the phrase “existing audience.” This, to me, clearly shows that no one cares about getting a new audience, just catering to the existing one. Thus, self-fulfilling prophecy. Selling and marketing characters that are not white, male, and/or American is more work. And that’s apparently too much more work to consider doing all that often.

Manglr wrote:

[Captain Britain is a book that I dear miss. It was well written, and well drawn and peered into a lot of the odd nooks in Marvel's cupboard. But at the end of the day, could the book have sold better if it were called Avengers UK or something similar? Isn't that after all, how Excaliber was able to support itself for so long. It wasn't American, but it was X-Men.]

You beat me to it.

The original Excalibur series lasted so long in the 1980s and 1990s because Marvel emphasized its ties to the Uncanny X-Men. The publisher used a major mutant crossover (Fall of the Mutants) and a few former X-Men (Kitty Pryde, Nightcrawler, Rachel Summers) to draw X-fans like me to Excalibur. Add in X-Men writer Chris Claremont penning some of the early issues, and you have a winner.

The recent Captain Britain series lacked that kind of serious push and thus had a much shorter run. Fandom’s hostility to characters outside the icons (Superman, Spidey, etc.) doesn’t help.

I work very hard as a librarian, trying to help build up the audience for comics by having them available for the students in the school where I work. As Robin Brenner (my esteemed friend and colleague) has stated, comics publishers need to reach out beyond the existing audience to new readers, be they of different ethnicities, age levels, gender, nationality. Right now, manga is working to reach those new readers. Some of the smaller comics publishers are, also. And now trade book publishers are getting into publishing graphic novels. And those books are reaching out beyond the existing audience. I’ve been a comics reader for nigh on 50 years now, and I’m female and mixed race. I like superhero comics, but I like a lot of the indie titles that do go beyond “white American male” protagonists. I want to see more of them in mainstream comics (count me as one of the new Blue Beetle fans, as is my 14-year-old son).

Look, soccer is the most popular sport in the world and yet one of the main reasons it’s not big in America is because their aren’t many great American players (Canadians can put “hockey” in place of “soccer”). It cuts across all forms on entertainment.

The Comix industry needs a “Will Smith”. why is it that Will has monopolized the action hero role in movies for the last decade and yet the comix industry can’t seem to capitalize on a growing white/male audience who is willing to pay $12 at the box office for any and everything Will pumps out?

Looking for demographical info on black comic book readers I ran upon a similar discussion on the racialicious website. I posted this in response:

This is a discussion that has been going on for at least 3 years at the blacksuperhero.com forum. We are still tryin to figure out the size of the African American audience for comic books. 1 estimate says there are 250,000 hard-corp comic fans and that at least 50.000 of these are Black.

One of the things we’ve been trying to do is figure out new ways to market comics created for and by minorities. 1 step in the right direction was the creation of:

http://www.africomics.com

A site dedicated to showcasing comics independently created and sold comic books from Black creators and also mainstream books with black leads. Our take on the situation is that their are fans out there who don’t even know they are fans yet. We just need to reach them with quality books with cool concepts.

To address this we’ve been kicking out new and innovative marketing ideas, and trying to see what sticks. The truth of the matter is Breevort is right, white fans find it hard to relate or even conceptualize someone different from themselves being the hero. Whining about it and trying to force the big 2 to create black books won’t help that.

So we as a collective need to market books to our people by-passing the mainstream distribution channels all together. When our stuff starts poppin off, the big 2 will be just like the record industry was with Hip Hop or the movie industry was with Tyler Perry.

Leave a Comment

 


Browse the Robot 6 Archives