The topic of diversity in comic books is a contentious one - whether it's female-fronted comic titles, gender-bending established characters, ethnicity changes in big-screen adaptations, or some other approach to creating a more inclusive comic world. Controversies continue to dog the comic book giants - from the white savior-ness of Iron Fist, the shocking lack of a female-fronted Marvel movie after ten years of films, the upskirting of Wonder Woman in Justice League, the gender-bending of legacy heroes like Thor and Wolverine... there have been so many controversies in the past decade that it becomes impossible to list them all.
One thing is clear, however: there is some serious debate over whether these controversies even 'matter', or if they represent only a tiny fragment of the comic book fandom. Take a deep breath and a dive into the comments sections on any of these topics, and you'll find a huge number of fans who consider efforts to make comics more diverse to be useless pandering, not legitimate changes. Unfortunately, it seems that the executives at publishers and studios often agree with them; the resistance to female-fronted super-movies is well documented, and several newer and more diverse comic titles have been canceled recently, as execs claim that the sales just don't support them.
Does the data actually support the claim that fans don't want diverse comic titles, though? On the surface, it does often seem that the more 'diverse' titles in particular aren't selling, and that's what really matters to the publishers... but a little more time looking at the numbers and how they relate to the reading habits of the fandoms paints a very different picture.
Comic Executives Claim That Fans Just Don't Want Diversity
The March 2018 solicitations revealed the cancellation of several titles that fit the 'diverse' label, including Gwenpool, Luke Cage, Iceman, Generation X, and America. In short, almost every title on the chopping block featured female, POC, or LGBT+ leads and/or creative teams - not a great move for Marvel. These straight-up cancellations aren't the only casualties, either. Jane Foster as Thor is unlikely to live past the spring, as Marvel is teasing the death of the character in 'The Death Of The Mighty Thor', with fans assuming that Thor Odinson will re-take the title once Jane is no more. X-23 as Wolverine may also be on the way out, or at least, may be losing the Wolverine title as the original Wolverine is coming back to the Marvel universe.
Executives at Marvel have given some conflicting reasons for these cancellations and changes, which has raised eyebrows as fans wonder if there is really something so rotten at the publisher that they would intentionally ditch diverse comics. Responding to the backlash over the March 2018 solicitations, Marvel chief creative officer Joe Quesada took to Twitter to try and reassure fans that the cancellations were based purely on sales figures.
If a comic finds an audience it will stick around regardless of the lead character or creator’s gender, ethnicity, sexual preference or identification. You can claim we’re tone deaf but we PUBLISHED those books but you guys ultimately decide what survives. https://t.co/Uvw9pNiaXL
— JoeQuesada (@JoeQuesada) December 21, 2017
Marvel VP of Sales, David Gabriel, has also previously claimed that fans just don't want to buy these titles, saying 'What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity. They didn’t want female characters out there. I don’t know that that’s really true, but that’s what we saw in sales'. His statement was seemingly backed up in a retailer-only panel at NYCC, too, where several comic sellers allegedly complained that the newer titles including 'men kissing men' or gender-swapped heroes weren't selling as well as their other titles. It's increasingly clear that comic publishers and sellers are starting to believe that diversity doesn't sell - but which figures are they looking at, and are those figures reliable indicators of what fans really want?
The Sales Figures Paint A Different Picture
On the surface, it may seem that the top comic sales back up the idea that 'diverse' titles aren't selling. Diamond Comic Distributors' data is most commonly used to see which titles are selling, and their single-issue figures show a trend toward less diverse titles doing well. Overall in 2017, the top sellers included Marvel Legacy #1, Peter Parker: Spectacular Spider-Man #1, Secret Empire and Doomsday, with only one female-fronted title making it into the top ten (Phoenix Resurrection: The Return Of Jean Grey #1). Month to month throughout the year, a similar trend emerges. Over the past twelve months, Diamond's data shows only and handful of 'diverse' titles in the top ten sellers; The Mighty Thor #700, Harley Quinn 25th Anniversary Special, and The Return of Jean Grey.
However, there are two major issues with considering only the top single-issue sellers when making decisions on what fans want to see. First of all, the majority of top-selling comics are always the true heavy hitters: Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men, Justice League, Avengers, etc. Expecting any newer title with a lesser-known hero at the helm to do as well as these goliaths is simply unrealistic - and were that the expectation for all titles, a much wider range would be getting the chop. In addition, these sales figures only take into account one thing: single issue sales. Trades and digital subscribers are not included in this data, and the sales of trade paperbacks paint a very different story.
For the year as a whole, the top sellers in trade paperback format are overwhelmingly more diverse titles; three of the top sellers are volumes of Saga, with Paper Girls and Monstress also making an appearance. Of the titles that traditionally sell well in single issue format, only Batman is found on the top ten list for the year, and only one trade makes it into that list. Throughout the year, trade sales continue to support the idea that diverse comics do well, appearing in the top ten every month; Wonder Woman, Captain Phasma, Rat Queens, Harley Quinn, DC SuperHero Girls, Paper Girls, Thor... compared to the single issue sales, trade paperbacks are killing it when it comes to diversity. This isn't a secret, either - it has long been accepted that titles like The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and Ms Marvel (which has even made it to the coveted top-seller spot and onto the New York Times bestseller lists) find the majority of their success in the form of trade sales. The deeper that we delve into the figures, the clearer it becomes: diversity sells, but in trade format, not single issue.