On June 9, Marvel released the trailer for the upcoming Black Panther film.
The trailer’s been generating great buzz about the film — Variety reports the trailer topped the list of what people are talking about on social media. Even though the movie isn’t out until next February, it’s clear superhero fans on the Internet are excited. And that excitement is sure to turn into comic sales, right?
Well, maybe not — last month, Marvel cancelled one of the acclaimed Black Panther spinoffs, Black Panther & The Crew after the second issue. And just three days after the trailer came out, Marvel cancelled a second spinoff, World of Wakanda.
World of Wakanda, written by Roxane Gay, star two women of color in a queer love story. Comics critic Swapna Krishna says the book was “tailor-made for newer, more casual fans of comics who are looking for an entry point into the medium.” You’d think such a title, combined with the Black Panther buzz, would be a great tool for creating a new legion of comics fans.
Sadly for those fans, most new fans get into comics via collected trade editions — paperbacks that collect the stories from the individual issues. But, despite this, Marvel (and, to be fair, DC does this also) bases their decisions only on “direct market” sales of individual comics — and on pre-orders to boot.
This means that to succeed, comic stores need to pre-order new titles sight-unseen. In the publishing industry, it’s common for publishers and distributors to allow retailers to return unsold stock. Stores could rip off the covers of unsold magazines and return them for credit — meaning the risk was on the publisher, not the retailer.
This isn’t the case for comics, however. If a book doesn’t sell, comics shops have to eat the loss; they can’t return the books. So if a store owner thinks, for example, the newest Spider-Man title is going to do well, they’ll order a ton of copies. But if it turns out to be a bomb, the shop is stuck with all those copies. Understandably, this means that comic shops are less likely to try new titles unless they get a number of their customers requesting pre-orders. (How fans are supposed to know they want to read a brand-new title that hasn’t even published an issue is left as an exercise to the reader.)
It’s also worth noting that while comics used to be readily available on newsstands and in grocery stores, now comic books are generally only available in specialty stores. This makes it harder to hook new or casual fans. When you combine that with the fact that single issues of comic books are rather expensive — $3.99 for a book that can be read in about 20 minutes — it’s not surprising most casual readers are more interested in picking up the trade collections … if they can even find the single issues.
In short, Marvel is punishing fans for not consuming their product the way Marvel wants them to.
And, of course, it’s not the big titles that suffer most, but the smaller ones — and often the ones that are more diverse. In March, David Gabriel, Marvel’s VP of Sales, said “People didn’t want anymore diversity. … 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.”
But oddly enough, when you compare sales data of “diverse” books to its other titles, they did better. In fact, trade collections of titles like Ms. Marvel and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl have made the bestsellers lists. The Atlantic points out that the problem isn’t diversity, but the big cross-title storylines requiring fans to pick up a number of different comics to keep tabs on their favorite characters.
For example, this author adored the first collected trade volume of Kate Leth and Brittney L. Williams’ Patsy Walker: A.K.A. Hellcat! — a great comic with loads of queer representation. But when I bought the second trade collection, I found myself frustrated that the story had suddenly been taken over by the company’s big Civil War storyline … which I couldn’t care less about.
The Civil War storyline overwrote everything I loved about the first Patsy Walker collection. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the title was cancelled and ended in April. Decisions like this serve no one: As someone who wasn’t interested in Civil War, I didn’t care about the direction Patsy Walker was heading. And a Civil War fan would likely be put off by the book’s original storyline of Patsy Walker opening a new temp agency for mutants. (And that doesn’t even get into the nerdy-in-the-best-way storyline about Walker trying to reclaim the rights to the romance comic that bore her name.)
At least Patsy Walker got a couple of trades before Marvel made its decision; the first trade collection of Gay’s cancelled World of Wakanda comes out later this month. Instead of giving fans a chance to find the title — especially potential Black Panther fans energized by the trailer — Marvel threw up its hands. We’re reminded of Ned Flanders’ parents: “We’ve tried nothing, and we’re all out of ideas!”
Queer fans and fans of color deserve better. Marvel, we want to give you our money — why won’t you let us?