Comics are seeing a battle between Social Justice Warriors and the Politically Incorrect. Though, it isn’t quite as simple as that. Comics are bigger than ever, despite a decline in Marvel’s and DC’s (The Big Two) sales. There are lots of voices, exclaiming to know how to solve the problem. But if we turn to veterans of the medium, they can offer some insight into what’s actually going on.
Open up a comic book centered forum, message board or any social media platform and you’ll see a war going on. Shots are being fired from both sides in what some would lead us to believe is a fight for the soul of the comic book medium. Social Justice Warrior is a term being used for anything that pushes against the status quo lately. Any comic with a female lead that happens to be wearing clothes or isn’t Cisgendered (people whose gender identity matches the sex that they were assigned at birth) is stuck with this moniker. Comics that change the main character away from the stereotypical straight white guy are accused of “catering to SJWs”. But if we take a hard look at the medium, the changes happening and what’s going on, it seems that the “fans” rallying against these changes could be a vocal minority. The fans at large are moving comics in a different direction with the only thing that really changes comics – their money.
Colleen Doran is a font of wise information on the subject of comic books, the industry and it’s evolution over the decades. Ms. Doran has been in comics for more than 20 years, working for numerous publishers and with the best writing talent in the business. She’s won awards, has self-published creator-owned work, and has worked on the business side of the industry as well as a cartoonist. She has the experience and has watched the vast majority of what comics have become unfold with her own eyes.
People who go on about sales in comics, knowing NOTHING about comics history, not able to grasp that once there were a few publishers making comics with a lock on the industry, now there are HUNDREDS of companies, THOUSANDS of books, THOUSANDS of choices.
— Colleen Doran (@ColleenDoran) March 3, 2018
Comics are still booming, but in different ways than what we’re used to seeing. The same measurements we used to judge comics don’t apply anymore. It’s not a rigidly controlled industry with a handful of options like it once was. It’s strongly suggested that you read the entire thread from the tweet above, Doran goes into detail of the changes made over the years and their affects on the industry. It’s a truly epic thread.
Doran goes on to explain,
Books that moved 100,000 copies in the indie press now moving less than 5000. Don’t make me name names. Those sales drops had zip to do with creator politics and everything to do with a new market paradigm.
— Colleen Doran (@ColleenDoran) March 4, 2018
There are hundreds of books being put out every Wednesday. One of the most beautiful things about the comic book medium is that it’s not a genre. It’s not limited to one kind of story to be told. Every genre is being represented now, fantasy, sci-fi, drama, mystery, horror, slice of life books… The choices in the industry now are almost endless with a comic book for everyone. And every single comic book hitting shelves, physical and digital, are fighting for the same dollar.
Marvel has put itself in a precarious position. Their movies are insanely popular, but that’s not translating into comic book sales. So they look at what the indie comics are doing that are attracting so many readers, often in demographics that haven’t been as strong when it comes to comic book purchases. Marvel sees these smaller publishers thriving. They’re thriving on books that are focusing on women-lead titles, people of color-lead titles, titles that feature non-binary characters as the main focus of the book instead of the token side character who yells “I’m different!” every other panel.
So Marvel makes some changes. We see Angela, a female, lesbian lead character with a trans significant other. We see Thor replaced with a woman. Iron Man steps aside for a young black girl. Ms. Marvel rises out of the shadow of Captain Marvel, refusing to hide her Muslim heritage. These are all huge steps in the right direction, but… is it enough?
Lots of folks shy away from (or outright boycott) Marvel for numerous reasons. One of which being Ike Perlmutter, Marvel CEO, and his close ties to the current presidential administration. When you hold a grudge against Marvel and are already getting your comics from somewhere else, it’s hard to justify supporting comics that you would otherwise jump at the chance to promote. With so many other choices out there, why support something you can get somewhere else, and feel better about doing it? There’s little incentive outside of mainstream recognition of comics that feature something other than white male characters.
The anti-feminists, SJW-hating ‘comicsgate’ crowd rally against changes away from characters that look like them. If you’re not drawing from the indie crowd, and you lose interest from folks who disagree with them, then as a publisher you can’t support a title. Numbers drop, titles are canceled, and the folks that can’t handle female and/or POC characters cheer “Look! We were right! No one actually likes it when you cater to SJWs!” Meanwhile, Vault comic’s lesbian Viking book Heathen has been nominated for numerous awards, winning one from the Young Adult Library Services Association to date and got picked up for a movie.
But even the outrage isn’t what it seems. The few books that rail against equality and true diversity get moderate success do so because it’s a niche market. Kickstarters for books that we’ve seen done a million times over the decades garner support from the anti-SJW crowd because these books are so few and far between. They can get every dollar from like-minded individuals which make it seem like it’s popular, but in the grand scheme of things, it makes little impact on the industry. The money is still going to flow to publishers the way the larger group of comic fans spend it. When fans shy away from Marvel and DC and support more “SJW” comics, the publishers will and are adjusting accordingly. The tantrums the anti-equality crowd throw don’t affect those sales.
Others have theories as to why the immense popularity of the movies doesn’t translate into comic sales. There’s still a social stigma around comic books. We still see comics as something a certain type of person reads. Comics are for the socially awkward who’d rather stay home on a Friday night and organize their collection than to socialize. You think ‘comic nerd’ and you conjure the image of The Simpson’s ‘Comic Book Guy’. The movies are fun, fast-paced, single serving and easy to consume. Walking into a comic book store for the first time, especially with the idea that it’s a “nerd space” can be daunting for the uninitiated. You can be ‘cool’ and still like the movies. This mentality has helped digital comic sales. It’s easier to feel comfortable browsing and buying comic books from the societal safety of your home. People who feel awkward or unwelcome in a comic book store can shop online.
So a change in the industry is happening. It’s been happening. With indie publishers, more creators self-publishing, and the ease of collaboration via the internet, the comic book industry is and has been undergoing major changes. You only have to know where to pay attention to see it. Marvel and DC comic sales aren’t indicative of any kind of trend in comic books anymore. They’re almost separate from what the rest of the industry is doing, trapped in a box, unable to please anyone no matter what direction they move towards.
Part of the problem with Marvel and DC’s moves towards pleasing reasonable folk to want representation in comics (read: Social Justice Warriors) is that it comes off as insincere. A lot of people want The Big Two to continue books even when they don’t sell as well as they would like. It would be seen as a good-faith gesture, proving that Marvel and DC want this change in comics even if it means taking a hit to the pocketbook. Changing lead characters, while a step, isn’t enough for a lot of people when they already hold a grudge. Changing characters without also adding female and/or POC creators behind them seems disingenuous. Even when they do it’s hard for it not to come across as a cash-grab. Marvel and DC show they’re willing, but the fans want to see more than the bare minimum. And that’s hard for The Big Two to justify when they look at sales.
Marvel and DC still produce great super-hero stories and when they let their creators off the leash they can produce awesome works. There are still stories to be told and creators still have messages to tell through the super-hero genre. But as DC and Marvel find a new normal and do the never-ending tap dance to find that sweet spot where they sell the most comics while alienating the least amount of fans, Image, Top Cow, Dark Horse, Vault, Dynamite, Alterna, and an army of smaller publishers and independent creators are driving the comic book industry.
Social justice, equality, and the creator’s own personal morals and messages have been there throughout comics history. Political commentary has been there from the beginning. If you’re not seeing politics in your comics it’s because you’re seeing politics that fit with your worldview. And while comics have never been perfect, Social Justice Warriors continue to use the medium to express themselves through their art, expanding the industry to include everyone and every vision. SJWs have changed comics and continue to do so in creative and innovative ways that include representation from every walk of life. Social Justice Warriors aren’t ruining comics. Social Justice Warriors are making comics and making comics better than ever.