The problem with Marvel’s diversity problems (Part 7 of 6,182)

This piece is an elaboration of a thread on twitter found here.

DArZikRXgAEyyHO.jpgOn March 31st, Marvel’s Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing, David Gabriel intimated that diversity was responsible for Marvel’s declining comics sales. A clarifying note was added to the interview after a swift backlash. The note explained that Gabriel was drawing from disgruntled retailers and not an official evaluation of the success or failure of certain kinds of comics by the institution. However, both the original comments and the apologetic explanation reveal inherent pitfalls in the way Marvel thinks about its characters who are not straight white men. Euphemisms and code words lubricate Marvel’s messages, as the company tries to appeal to fans without seriously challenging its institutional racism.

We can leave aside the issue of what exactly has led to Marvel’s declining sales (much of which is outlined in this Atlantic article by Asher Elbein), but it’s illuminating to trace the shape, as much as the content, of Marvel’s diversity discussions. In his initial statements, Gabriel responded to a question of how tastes had changed in a way that had impacted the company’s revenues:

“I don’t know if that’s a question for me.  I think that’s a better question for retailers who are seeing all publishers.  What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity.  They didn’t want female characters out there.  That’s what we heard, whether we believe that or not.  I don’t know that that’s really true, but that’s what we saw in sales.

We saw the sales of any character that was diverse, any character that was new, our female characters, anything that was not a core Marvel character, people were turning their nose up against.  That was difficult for us because we had a lot of fresh, new, exciting ideas that we were trying to get out and nothing new really worked.”

A glance at the phrasing, separate from the qualitative assessments they accompany, is instructive: Gabriel identifies two kinds of comic book titles, the ones about “any character that was diverse” which are defined by contrast as “anything that was not a core Marvel character.” But diversity is a feature of a set, not of an individual (a handful of skittles can be diverse, but a single skittle cannot). In the first phrase, we can identify “diverse” as used to describe a character, it stands in for more explicit characteristics that cannot be articulated without trouble. It doesn’t make sense to say that, for example, Kamala Khan is diverse; she’s just not a white man. As Sara Ahmed summarizes in the introduction of her 2007 paper “The Language of Diversity,” when attached to individuals, diversity inscribes difference onto bodies. [Differently] raced and [differently] gendered, those bodies become delineated by that difference. Defined in juxtaposition from the unspoken not-different — whiteness.

In the same paper, Ahmed works through bell hooks to identify how diversity becomes something to be owned and a boon for multicultural institutions. Diversity is “celebrated,” “consumed,” and “embraced” when it adds “spice and colour” without disturbing institutional power. For Marvel, non-whiteness primarily exists at the fictional level. Characters and coloring obscure the white hands that draw them and the white minds that think them. Diversity, for Marvel, is not achieved by the inclusion of staff and artists of color, as it might in another industry. Comics diversity is not fostering underrepresented creative voices, but a tailoring at the level of product. When artists and writers of color are brought in for those characters, it is an externality, not the aim. Diversity is a mandate that flows from the bottom line through to the institution’s internal machinations. Consuming the Other is just good business.

The addendum, which came soon after the interview was published, was an attempt to realign the business model. It is a message aimed to pacify comic fans of color, but also include those distressed by diversity. A sort of mea culpa for Gabriel’s interview response, the explanatory note is more measured and slick than the initial response. As with the original comments, sensitivity to the language’s shapes registers a dichotomy around diversity:

Note:  Marvel’s David Gabriel reached out to correct the statement above:  “Discussed candidly by some of the retailers at the summit, we heard that some were not happy with the false abandonment of the core Marvel heroes and, contrary to what some said about characters “not working,” the sticking factor and popularity for a majority of these new titles and characters like Squirrel Girl, Ms. Marvel, The Mighty Thor, Spider-Gwen, Miles Morales, and Moon Girl, continue to prove that our fans and retailers ARE excited about these new heroes. And let me be clear, our new heroes are not going anywhere! We are proud and excited to keep introducing unique characters that reflect new voices and new experiences into the Marvel Universe and pair them with our iconic heroes.

“We have also been hearing from stores that welcome and champion our new characters and titles and want more!  They’ve invigorated their own customer base and helped them grow their stores because of it.  So we’re getting both sides of the story and the only upcoming change we’re making is to ensure we don’t lose focus of our core heroes.”

Characters that are not white men are called “new heroes” and “unique characters” that “reflect new voices and new experiences.” While the note’s content expresses enthusiasm for these titles, they are again defined in juxtaposition to “our iconic heroes”/“our core heroes.”  The new/unique/diverse characters are not organic; they need to be introduced and integrated “into the Marvel Universe” and paired with those iconic/core heroes. Marvel never loses sight of the necessity of reassuring readers that it will not “lose focus” on those iconic/core heroes. Gabriel does not need to articulate that the introduction of characters of color threaten the iconic/core, even as he promises that Marvel will handle the integration in ways do not shift the company’s focus. Otherness is defined not just in contrast but as threat to the core/iconic Marvel identity.

The dichotomy that’s felt even when Marvel is celebrating diversity is not accidental. Euphemism and code are used to send multiple messages simultaneously. We can identify core/iconic as terms that shroud what is rendered unspeakable.

The prospect of articulating and calling attention to the hegemonic whiteness of Marvel as a corporation (and comic books as an industry) generates anxiety in Gabriel. It also generates anxiety in the retailers who express fear that white male characters are being sidelined for titles that appeal to “unique” fans with “new experiences.” Therefore, the language gestures but doesn’t name the qualities that define core/iconic. To name whiteness would upend institutional innocence. Core/iconic, then, is not just a shroud, it’s also an alibi. It is a retrofitted rationale for the continued centering (or “focus”) of white male narratives and perspectives.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, the risk of the shroud’s falling generates anxiety in the those with institutional power (both in Marvel and the comics industry as a whole). Naming whiteness would reveal the shallowness of white supremacy in the comics industry as not accident, meritocracy, or just business, but built and upheld through a monopoly of resources and publishing capital. This anxiety generates the language that is used to discuss new titles that center heroes of color. Euphemisms such as diverse/unique or core/iconic pass as harmless to undiscerning comic fans, but are decoded by white male retailers in specific ways. They offer reassurance that the hegemonic whiteness of Marvel storytelling will not be challenged.