Comics and American politics: Life imitates (the business of) art

Written by Russ Dobler

America is a fractured place. I should know, I live there. This month’s presidential election shocked many, and illustrated that views of the nation and where it is and should be headed are much more divided than previously thought, more than a cursory scan of mainstream and popular media would indicate.

But maybe we the nerdy should have seen it coming. It’s a struggle that’s also played out in the Big Two comic publishers this year.

I don’t mean to trivialize real-life politics by comparing it to the sales strategies of four-color funny books, but if you want to see them, the parallels are there. Marvel Comics’ continuing “NOW!” initiatives, featuring a female Thor, black Captain America, and Korean-American Hulk were progressive steps away from the whitewashed comics of yore, which almost unavoidably reflected the attitudes of their time. And while there were the expected grumbles and gripes from the stereotypical old boys’ club of regular comic buyers, Marvel’s recent drive toward diversity has been, for the most part, critically and commercially successful.

So successful, in fact, that the competition took notice. DC Comics’ monthly market share victories over Marvel didn’t last for long after their line-wide “New 52” relaunch in 2011, so in 2015, taking further cues from their surprise, off-kilter hit, Batgirl, DC promoted another refresh dubbed “DC You.” The effort brought in more pop-artists, a hallmark of Marvel NOW! DC You also delivered the first ongoing series for the most notable black member of the Justice League, Cyborg, and the gay vigilante, Midnighter.

“With the New DC Universe, there’s a story for every kind of DC Comics fan. There’s a story for YOU,” DC senior vice president of marketing Amit Desai said in a May 2015 press release.

It was a spectacular failure. In April 2015, two months before the beginning of DC You, Marvel led DC in the market share of Diamond Comics, the exclusive distributor to comic book specialty stores in the U.S., by the slim margin of 36% to 34%. A year later, that gap had widened to a whopping 23 percentage points, with Marvel gobbling up almost half of all comic sales in April 2016.

While a hit critically, it seemed that the old-school lovers of DC’s Golden Age just weren’t biting, and the other audiences the campaign targeted didn’t come out in large enough numbers to compensate. “DC Rebirth” quickly replaced the doomed experiment in May of this year, promising a return to traditional superheroics and a concentration on the classic characters we all know and love.

“At DC we believe in superheroes, and what makes them great,” co-publisher of DC, Dan DiDio, told a comics retailers conference this February. “And, we also believe in the direct market and the core comics fan.” Translation:  “Make DC Great Again”?

Whatever the pitch, the concept sold, as the first month of Rebirth turned the market completely upside down, with DC’s and Marvel’s numbers almost exactly flipping, a trend that would continue for months. However, perhaps counterintuitively, Marvel wasn’t losing sales.

As Comic Book Resources contributor John Mayo pointed out, Rebirth had grown the overall market to an unprecedented size, apparently bringing back a boatload of disenfranchised readers that had previously felt like comics had passed them by.

If so inclined, one could liken the result to Donald Trump’s record-setting turnout numbers in the Republican primary race.  But just as Trump won the Electoral College while losing the national popular vote, the readers Marvel have cultivated are still influential and aren’t going away. Marvel regained the market share crown in October thanks to the debut issue of Champions, featuring a teenage team comprised of the Muslim Ms. Marvel, mixed-race Miles Morales and Nova, and the aforementioned Totally Awesome Hulk.

While the comics market can now clearly support buyers of all types and reading desires, it’s starting to feel like the United States isn’t big enough for all of us. A split-focus Big Two can be good for business, but a nation divided makes us all nervous.


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