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Is this the end for Marvel comic books?

Marvel Comics has been having difficulties for some time, and the situation is only likely to get worse due to Covid-19. As the virus forces closures and impacts on the comic industry’s operations, will it be the final nail in the coffin for a struggling company?

According to a report by The Guardian, Marvel has cut its editorial staff by half, putting them all on furlough. Bleeding Cool also noted that 20% of current and forthcoming titles have been paused. Although the creators will be paid, it is unknown when these titles will eventually see the light of day. This is a stark contrast to DC, which has paused very few titles, and the new publishers Bad Idea and AWA. They’ve upped their production, and are approaching many of the creators who are out of work as a result of the pandemic.

The virus has also hit the company in a different way. Comic book shops have been forced to close because of Covid-19 and, in a gesture of solidarity, most publishers are not selling new comics digitally. Shops rely on the brick-and-mortar sales to keep going, and many were struggling anyway prior to this crisis. There will undoubtedly be many more closures, and many fear that the publishers will soon go fully online as a result of the virus. If this happens, expect huge backlash from the core audience that Marvel needs to keep onside.

All of this does beg a larger question – what audience should Marvel be catering to?

With every story that comes out, there is a sense that Marvel simply doesn’t understand its audience any more. Earlier this month, I wrote about the universal derision that followed the release of Snowflake and Safespace, two new heroes in Marvel’s ongoing quest to be progressive to the hilt. 

These characters saw their heroics as “a post-ironic meditation on using violence to combat bullying” – for a lot of fans, that description was enough to write off the series. It’s the latest in a long line of appealing to identity politics, from introducing the first Muslim superhero to turning established characters gay. This results in critical acclaim from commentators, but these people aren’t actually buying the comics. Meanwhile, long-time fans feel more and more alienated.

All of this does beg a larger question – what audience should Marvel be catering to? Gerry Conway, co-creator of the Punisher and Mysterio, said that comic readers are older and prefer more complex fare. The irony of this situation is that the books are then less accessible to newcomers. 

He said: “It’s a tragedy, because the books created now are so much better in so many ways. But they’re also largely irrelevant to the wider culture. The fact that these movies and video games and TV shows have appeal shows that these stories have potential, and we haven’t been accessing it, because we’ve had this safe zone. If this goes on for the amount of time that we think it will go on, a lot of these stores are not going to come back.”

It’s the established fans who drive a large chunk of sales, and they’re a ready-made market if Marvel actually wanted to engage with them

It seems bizarre that Marvel should be struggling so much when it has become such a global cinematic brand – a Marvel film is the highest-grossing film of all time. If Marvel was smart, it would be like DC and push fanservice, because that’s the stuff the more casual fans want to read. As I reported last year, the comics that are selling well are the throwback issues and anthologies – the ones that resemble the films and the streaming shows. If I watch all the MCU films and then I pick up an Iron Man comic, I’m suddenly following the adventures of a teenage girl I don’t know – a cohesive marketing plan would make so much sense. It’s the established fans who drive a large chunk of sales, and they’re a ready-made market if Marvel actually wanted to engage with them.

According to one Iron Man writer, the future may be one without the comic industry, and that the Marvel cinematic brand will eventually subsume the comics. The publishing side is declining and, without a substantial upturn, it wouldn’t be surprising if Disney just dropped it altogether. Companies are likely to readjust their priorities after Covid-19 and, as it stands at the moment, I don’t know if Marvel Comics will be part of Disney’s future. It’s not that there’s no place for comics (just look at DC’s success), but it seems that Marvel scarcely understands where that place is anymore.

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