As my colleague Murphy Leigh reported yesterday in an excellent piece, Marvel Comics has cancelled Black Panther & The Crew after only two issues, and Murphy’s piece makes a persuasive argument that both Marvel and the comics press (us here at Capeless included) could have done more to raise awareness of the title. But in this follow-up piece I’m going examine how the cancellation of Black Panther & The Crew exemplifies a particular problem Marvel’s currently facing regarding its sales and its approach to the perpetually hot-button issue of diversity.
The Dilemma of Judiciousness
If you take a look at the surface view, it certainly could appear that the failure of Black Panther & the Crew indicated that the bulk of comic book fans aren’t willing to accept too many titles starring men and women of color, or that such a title wouldn’t attract new ethnically diverse readers hungry for representation in mainstream comics. Given the industry’s admittedly troubled history in reflecting the diverse world in which we live, you could be forgiven for seeing this turn of events as a sad reflection of an ongoing struggle to provide room for non-white, non-straight, non-male voices and characters.
But, I think that what this development represents is something different, a problem that is currently plaguing Marvel specifically. It’s a problem I saw recently and eloquently raised by critic and comic retailer Brian Hibbs in a piece he wrote for Comics Beat in April.
Hibbs’ point in the article is that Marvel isn’t losing sales in reaction to its attempts at greater diversity. He tells us that, when the latest volume of “Black Panther” by writer Ta-Nehisi Coates hit shelves, its first issue was a huge seller for his store. He attributes that to Marvel actually achieving what a book like that was meant to do; new faces were coming in to the store and enjoying what a fresh and talented voice could do with a more diverse character and world.
But here Hibbs points out how Marvel’s publishing strategy sabotages their own aims:
With “Black Panther”, it was tons of new faces, diverse faces, genuinely excited about comics. And they were vibing on it… until Marvel saw it had a hit on its hand, and decided to push out “Black Panther: World of Wakanda”, and then Black Panther: The Crew. And this new audience began to leap off in droves because they don’t grasp (or want) Marvel’s publishing plan.
Seriously, our sales drop-off on “Black Panther” is significantly worse than similar titles and launches, and you can see the deflection points accelerate as the additional titles are released. Less is more when it comes to entertainment and branding.
Gibbs distills Marvel’s problem perfectly in this passage:
I think that Marvel’s core problem the last decade or so has been a lack of judiciousness, more than anything else.
Put even simpler, if Marvel sees something start to hit or resonate, they immediately want to capitalize on it by releasing as many similar spin-offs or copycats as possible. This is why the Spider-Man and X-Men main titles are surrounded by an ever fluctuating collection of spin-offs, tie-ins and events. There used to be one or two Spidey books to choose from. But today’s Marvel asks a new reader, maybe a kid who loves the movies, to choose between “Amazing Spider-Man” and “Spider-Man” (which don’t even star the same Spider-Man) or “Peter Parker: Spectacular Spider-Man.” It’s also recently had titles like “Spidey,” and spin-offs like “Silk,” Spider-Gwen”, Spider-Man: 2009,” and so on. And don’t even try to navigate how many books are currently under the “Avengers” banner.
Faced with that bevy of impenetrable choices, a new fan might instead opt to simply just stick to the movies and not try to navigate the baffling array of books. I’m not saying some of these books aren’t good, of course, because some of them are very good indeed. But if new readers aren’t feeling intrigued enough to stick around, then all those titles are competing for the same pool of readers.
This relates to Black Panther & The Crew in a couple ways. The readership for “Black Panther” was invested and engaged at first, much like when a new TV series connects with viewers. But imagine you start watching, say, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and three episodes in they spin off a character’s story into a second TV show. And then before the second season starts, Hulu announces a third TV series with more of the story being told there. Yeah, you might get some viewers, dedicated fans, who will watch all three shows to get the whole story, but you might just as easily see a considerable block of viewers say, “I don’t have time for all this, I just want to watch a good TV show.” This is essentially the problem that faces comics from the big publishers. They have a steady collection of fans that will read books, but their very practice of immediately capitalizing on hits with related series is having the opposite effect they are shooting for.
So my feeling has long been that Marvel (and to be clear, I think DC faced this too, just earlier. The New 52’s many failures of assorted titles had the same root) has been that they are hoping to cultivate more die-hard fans who will gobble up their whole output. But in my opinion, they’d be infinitely better off focusing on a smaller and more stable line of books and putting their efforts into making those more inviting. The success of Coates on “Black Panther” meant that Marvel should have left the title alone, and let these new readers bond with the title over time. This is how Marvel built itself in the first place, and how the publisher has reinvigorated itself again and again. For years and years, Spider-Man starred only in “Amazing Spider-Man.” That was how that character became an icon. It was after years of being a solid and consistent top seller that Marvel tried out titles like “Marvel Team-Up,” or “Spectacular Spider-Man.” If Marvel wants to replicate its golden age of sales success, patience and judiciousness is what worked. In the late 1970s and early 80s, when Chris Claremont‘s run on X-Men became a sales phenomenon, Marvel waited a long time to start spinning off books, beginning with “New Mutants,” then gradually adding others like “X-Factor.” Even Wolverine, the standout character of the era, waited until 1988 to gain an ongoing title, meriting a single 1982 miniseries prior to that. But despite each subsequent X-book having its high points, a case could be made that each new title saw diminishing returns, and that even the X-Men universe would today benefit from shrinking to a single series and getting its groove back.
So, the question becomes, how does Marvel approach the idea of new titles and spinning off new concepts? Particularly in a world where customers have a wide array of choice of entertainment, and in an industry with razor thing profit margins.
The M*A*S*H Effect
I’m not saying that Coates’ vision of Black Panther’s world that was expansive couldn’t have worked. His is an incredibly talented voice, and he and artist Brian Stelfreeze continue to deliver excellent work. Additionally, the spin-off titles featured work by some of the best and most diverse up-coming creators around, like Roxane Gay, Alitha Martinez and Yona Harvey, and fresh blood with new perspective is always a good idea. But the spin-offs would have had a better chance for success after five years of a top-selling and stable Black Panther book with an unshakable fanbase. If “New Mutants” had debuted in 1977 instead of 1982, I’m not sure it would have worked. The current Crew concept got a tiny try-out in a couple issues of “Black Panther,” but imagine if instead the team popped a few times over a few different arcs over a long period, so that fans of the team actually had an opportunity to clamour for their own title? That’s an example of the level of care and judgement Marvel needs more of, instead of pursuing an ever-expanding publishing strategy that isn’t working.
Which brings me to my second point; if you are going to spin-off a concept into its own title, then always remember the M*A*S*H effect. When M*A*S*H debuted on TV in 1972, it spent its first season in the ratings basement. If CBS had been more ruthless, the show would have been cancelled, indeed it nearly was. But they moved it to a new night, let it have another season to find its audience, and the show became a massive hit, running for 11 seasons, ending with a finale that was watched by a staggering 125 million viewers. I bring this up not because I necessarily believe Black Panther & the Crew was ever going to be a sales juggernaut per se, but to point out that if you’re going to go to all the trouble of developing and then publishing a title, then you owe it to the creators and readers to give it more of a shot to find its groove than two issues. If you can’t afford to have a title struggle for more than two issues, then you shouldn’t publish that title. Not only is the decision to immediately spin-off every successful concept indicative of Marvel’s problem with judiciously cultivating new readers, but it’s equally ill-advised to cancel that title before people even knew it existed. And if Marvel’s current strategy of jumping on trends and hits to expand the lines going to continue, then they need to have far more patience with the books they launch and the teams behind them, otherwise no reader will commit to any title for fear it’ll be gone next month.
It’s to my mind a far better thing to have ten books that sell incredibly well and spend your time cementing that readership as opposed to thirty books that readers drop in and out of. Probably the single most important reason why the X-Men line continues to support a bajillion titles to this day (even without huge numbers in terms of sales any longer) is that Chris Claremont’s run created generations of readers loyal to that concept despite ups and downs in quality in the years since. But that approach took time, and the loyalty that created has taken a long time to dissipate.
Within that kind of framework, a title like Black Panther & the Crew certainly could have had a better chance at success. Marvel’s attempts to bring more diverse voices to comics through the construction of a Black Panther franchise headed by a talent like Ta-Nehisi Coates is commendable, and there’s no reason why it couldn’t achieve both aims of selling well and bringing in new readers and new creative voices. But coming up with the concept, immediately releasing it without much support and then yanking it without giving it any time to adjust isn’t a recipe for long-term success.
There’s value to the concepts and ideas that brought forth Black Panther & the Crew. But that value means Marvel needs to move more carefully, with greater deliberation, not to strike while the iron is hot. And if they are going to construct a space for a wider, more representative range of characters and creators, then it owes the titles that spring from their efforts greater faith and patience.