“Diversity” has been the watchword in comics for quite some time now. It’s a known fact that the marketplace has been shifting from “white males” to “everybody” over the last twenty years and, unsurprisingly, audiences have been demanding characters and concepts that look more like 21st century America and less like a Norman Rockwell painting. This has been a loud outcry, and a search on various comics blogs and websites will turn up any number of articles calling for more diversity in what’s published. (In fairness, those three links are to this website, but you know you’ve seen diversity calls elsewhere.)
Well, guess what comicdom: you’ve got your diversity. We’re about to do some number-crunching here, but a survey of the comics released last month shows an incredible demographic shift in lead characters. It’s by no means perfect, but Diamond’s Top 200 titles sold show a plethora of non-white male leads. Here’s a breakdown of titles by rank, sales numbers, and demographics of the lead characters:
|15||Black Widow||1||Marvel||62,375||White female|
|19||Captain America Sam Wilson||7||Marvel||54,881||Black male|
|20||Mighty Thor||5||Marvel||54,568||White female|
|27||Harley Quinn||26||DC||51,420||White female|
|36||All New Wolverine||6||Marvel||44,668||White female|
|41||Power Man and Iron Fist||2||Marvel||41,104||Black male|
|46||Wonder Woman||50||DC||36,328||White female|
|58||Totally Awesome Hulk||4||Marvel||32,585||Korean Male|
|60||Ms Marvel||5||Marvel||31,871||Muslim female|
|68||Spider-Man 2099||8||Marvel||28,580||Half-Mexican Male|
|69||Captain Marvel||3||Marvel||28,469||White female|
|85||Poison Ivy Cycle of Life and Death||3||DC||22,812||White female|
|92||Scarlet Witch||4||Marvel||21,094||White female|
|93||Unbeatable Squirrel Girl||6||Marvel||20,739||White female|
|101||Dc Comics Bombshells||10||DC||19,820||Female team|
|120||Constantine The Hellblazer||10||DC||16,755||Bisexual male|
|121||Legend of Wonder Woman||3||DC||16,497||White female|
|124||Patsy Walker A.K.A. Hellcat||4||Marvel||15,971||White female|
|129||Angela Queen of Hel||6||Marvel||14,946||Lesbian female|
|130||Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur||5||Marvel||14,771||Black female|
|142||Black Canary||9||DC||13,566||White female|
|175||Red Wolf||4||Marvel||9,932||Native American Male|
|177||Doctor Fate||10||DC||9,780||Egyptian Male|
|181||Jem & The Holograms||13||IDW||9,032||Female team|
So…doing a lot better, right? Out of the top 200 books, that’s 38 titles where the lead is not a white heterosexual male. It’s not perfect, but it’s a much more diverse spread of characters than we had five years ago. (Also worth noting: this list excludes books like Justice League or We Are Robin which include a mixed cast.) Certainly, this is not demographic perfection: “white female” seems to be the dominant category, there’s still a ways to go in getting more Asian- and Hispanic-led books on the market, and religion is seldom seriously represented in comics. But like I said, this is a lot better than five years ago.
Except. For. One. Thing.
It’s the sales. A substantial quantity of diverse titles means nothing if they’re plummeting towards cancellation, and many of these books are headed in that direction. Comic books are a remarkably competitive marketplace, and Marvel and DC are businesses first and social justice pioneers second. If a title isn’t selling past a certain point, it will inevitably go and be replaced with the next hot property.
If you don’t believe me, you need to look at the rankings and sales numbers of the books above and compare them to how the did when they initially launched. For example, Silk got a huge push last year as Marvel’s first book with an Asian female lead. (Which was not correct, but never mind.) Silk Vol 1, #1 in 2015 was Diamond’s #9 book with 74,501 units sold. Now a year later, Silk Vol 2 has dropped to 79th place with only a third of those numbers. A-Force got a big boost in the press on launch as an all-female superhero book, led by a female writer. A-Force Vol 1, #1 was the 6th-highest selling book with 114,528 copies sold. Last month, it was ranked #53 with 34,133 sold. That’s barely a quarter of its original numbers.
And those are just books that are lucky enough to get a big push in the press. Moon-Girl and Devil Dinosaur is the only book with a black female lead right now, and while it’s gotten some fan-favorite attention, it mostly seems to have missed the spotlight. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t do great on launch, with the first issue ranked at #63 and only 38,133 copies sold. Today it’s slated for cancellation with its latest issue fallen to #130 and under 15,000 sold. [Edit: Actually, I’m mistaken–I haven’t yet seen a cancellation for Moon Girl yet, so if it’s still going, then good. I hope the numbers pick up, though.] Red Wolf did much worse, dropping from #64 to #175 on the charts in only four months.
Of course, some dropoff is understandable. It’s impossible for a book to sustain its first issue numbers, because a launch issue is always ordered in excess for speculators and people looking to try a new book. Speculators inevitably don’t come back for later issues, and some people try a book and just don’t like it.
These charts also don’t account for digital sales, which the big publishers have been notoriously coy about releasing. We simply don’t know if, for example, All-New Wolverine‘s readers have jumped from the print to the digital version, although that book has also lost upwards of 60,000 print readers since its launch. The fan-favorite Squirrel Girl is apparently doing well in the digital and trade markets, so it’s presumably a safe book despite its anemic 20,000+ sales. On the other hand, we can guess that black-led Moon Girl [Edit: see above] or lesbian-led Angela: Queen of Hel aren’t doing so well since they’re both slated for cancellation.
Over at Marvel, it’s probably fair to speculate that Silk, Spider-Woman, Scarlet Witch, and Patsy Walker A.K.A. Hellcat are probably headed for the chopping block. Silk and Spider-Woman are at least safe through their 14th and 12th issues respectively, as their trade paperbacks for those issues have already been solicited, and they’re both involved in the “Spider-Women” crossover which will boost their numbers. But it’s not looking good for them with them both having lost a lot of sales since their launch.
It’s harder to predict DC’s future since certain titles will probably always be published even with weak numbers (Wonder Woman, Catwoman, Harley Quinn). With others, it’s already a given that their current iterations are doomed (Midnighter, Black Canary, Starfire). That leaves the question of whether books like Constantine and Bombshells will hang in there with dropping numbers, but history suggests that they won’t.
At the end of the day, what is selling isn’t surprising. It’s the “hot” titles: popular characters, licensed properties, and crossovers. March 2016’s top-selling titles were Batman, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, and Star Wars, and other titles in the top 20 or so books tend to follow that trend. If Harley Quinn sells well, it’s probably less because she’s a female character and more because she’s just massively popular at the moment, succeeding in spite of her popularity and not because of it. And we’ve got a whole summer of Civil War II and DC Comics Rebirth ahead of us, and that’s focused on sales and not on diversifying the marketplace.
Yes, the publishers have a responsibility to promote their diverse titles. Marvel seems to have learned their lesson on that front. The “Marvel Now” era had three woman-focused titles that all failed: Red She-Hulk, Journey Into Mystery (with Sif), and Fearless Defenders, but two of those titles just took over existing books and didn’t get much of a push. But today? Marvel’s giving their female-led books a heck of a push, even doing a “True Believers” month in September 2015 with ten $1.00 reprints of female books (which all sold pretty well for reprint titles). But even that doesn’t seem to have been enough.
In other words, part of the blame for the failure of diversity-led titles has to lie with you, the readers. No, no one is obligated to buy a book they’re not interested in just because it hits a diversity checkbox. And yes, Marvel and DC have to make these titles interesting enough to bring in readers. Still, it’s baffling that we have a comics community that regularly demands diversity and yet doesn’t support the books which have risen to meet that demand. If this keeps up, then the books will be cancelled and when they return, they’ll revert back to their non-minority led counterparts.
This may be the lesson that DC took going into this summer’s “Rebirth” launch. A year ago, DC pushed the “DCYou” label which was intended to reflect a more diverse marketplace. We got Starfire, Midnighter, and Prez out of it, and we can see how that worked out. A year later, we’re getting “Rebirth,” which for all intents and purposes looks to be a return to the DC of old. It’s a return to what’s safe, not what’s diverse.
If the market really wants diversity, it needs to start putting its money where its mouth is. Put down Civil War II and pick up Silk. Put down Harley Quinn and try Mockingbird. These books don’t have to fail if readers actually support them and send the publishers a clear message that it’s what they want to read. The publishers are giving you a clear opportunity to prove that this is what you want.
Your diverse books are waiting, and more can come if it’s what you really want. You, the readers, need to show the companies that the call for diversity is real, and not just a vocal minority.
(By popular demand–credit to Alan Davis for the above image.)