by Ray Keating
August 31, 2018
Of all companies, few, if any, better understand the importance of storytelling than Disney. Nonetheless, a question looms: Does Disney have a Marvel Comics problem?
Given the historic success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and the expectation that this will continue for the foreseeable future, it might seem ridiculous to even briefly consider such a question.
Ever since Disney purchased Marvel Entertainment – and its library of 5,000 characters – for $4 billion in 2009, few have raised any questions about the deal. And when it comes to the silver screen, television and video games, scarcely any reasons for doubt exist. Just consider that, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, the global box office for the MCU movies tops $17.4 billion, including some $16.6 billion since Disney took the reins.
But my question isn’t directed at these endeavors, but instead is asked about the foundation upon which the MCU rests, that is, the comic publishing arm of Marvel. Interestingly, while Marvel has become a household word in the U.S. and around much of the globe, Marvel comic books have struggled.
For example, while superhero movies have soared, comic book and graphic novel sales fell in 2017, and the latest industry numbers from Comichron.com point to sales falling this year as well. And for a long-run take, comic book sales, including at Marvel, are a fraction of what they were during the 1960s and 1970s.
So, what’s the deal?
Many factors come into play. For example, a longtime criticism has plagued the industry in terms of the distribution of comic books being limited to specialty comic book shops, thereby limiting their market reach, especially in terms of gaining new readers. Others point to comic books – whether in traditional paper or a digital format – facing tough challenges from smartphones, video games, streaming services, movies, etc.
But I’m a big believer in the idea that good storytelling finds a way; it finds or attracts an audience. And given the breathtaking success of the MCU since 2008, the idea that the related comic books have failed to experience a significant improvement in sales brings us back to Disney having a Marvel comic books problem.
One analyst focused on this issue actually asserted that the problem is that while the movies are gaining fans, the comic books aren’t because they’re being written for the older comic book fans and not new ones. Sounds plausible at first, but it turns out that the reality is the exact opposite.
The Marvel movies have captured audiences because they have served up Marvel’s more classic themes, adventures, and characters on the big screen. The films have transferred some of the best of Marvel comic book storytelling to the big screen. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult – though not impossible – to find this kind of storytelling among Marvel comics in your local comic book shop. Instead, what readers in recent years have too often found are books peddling left-wing politics (often coupled with some poor artwork). And the political messages have been completely lacking in subtlety.
For good measure, it can be difficult to even find the characters loved in the movies in the comic books themselves, as Marvel has gone through a period of replacing or dramatically altering longtime characters in the name of identity politics – as opposed to the idea of simply adding interesting characters that might further expand readership (crazy, right?).
The debate between comic book readers seeking solid storytelling and some escapism versus a seemingly ever-expanding group of social justice warriors at work in the industry has been hot and heavy for at least a few years now.
I highlighted this trend in the comic book industry as part of the tale in my latest book, Heroes and Villains: A Pastor Stephen Grant Short Story, whereby one of the all-time great comic book writers and artists is confronted by a hostile segment of the comic book industry that isn’t interested in simply expanding viewpoints in comics, but instead is looking to advance a Leftist agenda to the point of excluding voices that either are not looking to make political statements or hold differing views. Here’s an excerpt from the book whereby two characters – Pastor Stephen Grant and Pastor Zack Charmichael – are heading to a local comic-con and discussing this phenomenon:
Zack then switched gears to the dinner event they were heading to now. “I’m still surprised that I was able to get tickets for tonight, not to mention Best’s Long Island Comic-Con is happening so close by.” The Suffolk Arena was only two exits away on the Long Island Expressway from St. Mary’s.
“Tell me more about the author who is receiving a lifetime achievement award tonight?”
“Wes Jenkins. He ranks as one of the great storytellers, as a writer and artist, in comic book history.”
Stephen noted that Zack was ramping up the enthusiasm to provide the Jenkins’ bio.
Zack continued, “Early on, he had great runs with some of the big DC and Marvel characters. But then he teamed up with Simon Huck to form J&H Comics Publishing. Fans and people in the industry thought Jenkins was nuts. No one predicted his subsequent burst… No, wait, ‘burst’ doesn’t capture it. No one predicted his outbreak or storm of creativity. He gave comic book fans dozens of heroes and villains, ranging from more classic, bright characters to dark, noir-ish ones. Jenkins’ creativity, coupled with Huck’s eye for bringing in complementary talent, launched J&H from nowhere to the third largest comics house.”
“You’ll appreciate the fact that Jenkins’ work is rich in biblical allegories, and Greek and Roman myths. He also likes to play with historical parallels.”
“Count me intrigued.” Grant turned onto the Long Island Expressway entrance ramp. “So, tonight’s awards dinner is, in part, a salute to an industry great.”
“Yes and no.”
“Well, Jenkins wrote a piece not too long ago in The Wall Street Journalchallenging much of the comic book industry’s hard Left turn in recent years.”
“Some of the management and a good chunk of the creators now seem more interested in being social justice warriors – or SJWs – than telling great stories. That’s meant a descent into moral relativism and ambiguity, political correctness, anti-Americanism, and an anti-Christian bent.”
“Moral relativism in superhero comics? How does that work?”
Zack nodded. “I know. The very definition of the genre is a battle between good and evil. But there’s been a big ramping up in left-wing preaching, including altering some longtime characters to fit that agenda, and a growing hostility toward political opponents, idealism and, of course, patriotism. Jenkins argued that this hasn’t been a case of expanding viewpoints in comics, but instead an SJW push to silence more conservative voices. His view is backed up by assorted social media rants from some of the newer creators. They’re not shy in making it clear that they hate anyone who disagrees with their liberal politics. In their books, assorted villains spew these bizarre political diatribes that amount to putting a murderous spin on whatever the Left disagrees with.”
“Ah, so, the Stalinist Left has reached into the world of comic books.”
Zack whipped his head in Stephen’s direction. “Jenkins used that phrase – ‘Stalinist Left’ – in his article.”
Stephen smiled, and said, “Well, great minds…”
Zack laughed, and replied, “Yeah, right. If that’s what you need to hear.”
“The point is that there tends to be a Stalin-esque impulse on the Left to silence opposing views. Of course, Stalin took that to the most extreme. But in general, the Left is very intolerant of, well, any kind of disagreement.”
Zack said, “But this isn’t the old Soviet Union.”
“No. But a strain of this thinking has been present on college campuses since the Sixties. Many people point to the influence of Herbert Marcuse, a kind of godfather of the New Left, who claimed that since there can be no realfree speech outside a Marxian society, freedom had to be opposed, even suppressed. Turning freedom on its head, he argued against freedom of thought in the name of a freedom that actually turned out to be nothing more than despotism by so-called enlightened intellectuals.”
“Ugh. The Sixties were screwy.”
“Yeah, and we’re still paying the price today. Of course, the severity of the leftist reaction intensifies with the perceived threat, which is why Christianity gets so harshly treated.”
“Jenkins’ argued much of that. He also pointed out that comics always have had something to say about society and people, but talented storytellers did so in a way that the readers weren’t hit over the head with a two-by-four and explicitly told what they were supposed to think.”
“Sounds like Jenkins didn’t pull any punches.”
“He didn’t, but it was important for someone of his stature to say these things.”
Stephen asked, “Given his stance, what kind of reception is Jenkins going to receive tonight when he’s handed his award?”
“Not sure. My guess is that he’ll get a standing ovation from the section with fan tables where we’ll be sitting. As for the tables with industry people, who knows?”
Zack asked, “What is it?”
“I’m reminded of when director Elia Kazan received a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1999, and the reaction among Hollywood luminaries ranged from remaining seated and not applauding, to staying seated and applauding, to standing and clapping.”
“What was up with Kazan?”
“He was a great director, without a doubt. His films include On the Waterfront, Viva Zapata!, A Streetcar Named Desire,East of Eden, Gentleman’s Agreement, the list goes on. But he had the nerve, in Hollywood’s view at least, to oppose the communists infiltrating the movie business, especially labor unions, in the forties and fifties. The Left to this very day, of course, views that as an unforgiveable sin.” Stephen exited the expressway, and guided his Tahoe toward the arena’s parking lot.
Zack observed, “The comparison works. Any kind of opposition to or disagreement with the social justice warriors in comics is not tolerated and punished accordingly – again, especially online.”
“How long has this been going on?”
“Jenkins argues that it started in the mid-2000s, but it really shifted into high gear over the last eight years.”
“So, how has Jenkins continued to work?”
“His reputation still matters, to some extent. But like I said, he and Huck started up their own publishing house. And tons of fans love his stories, art, and creations, and aren’t looking to get hit over the head with lefty propaganda.”
“I hope J&H stands firm.”
“Why wouldn’t it?”
“It should. Simon Huck recently retired, and handed over his editor and publisher roles to Drake Werth. I don’t know much about Werth, but I assume he’s in line with Huck and Jenkins.”
Stephen pulled his SUV into a parking spot.
Zack continued, “As a comics fan, this entire trend has been pretty discouraging. It’s quite a change from a time not that long ago when, according to Jenkins, no one in the comics industry really knew or cared much about a creator’s politics. The focus was on good storytelling.”
“It’s not unique to comic books. So many aspects of life have been politicized, from education to sports. Remember when Americans, no matter what their political beliefs, could sit down and watch a football game together?”
“Yeah. This entire thing sucks.”
Stephen nodded. “It does, and it all has a Stalinist, or at least Marcuse, flavor.”
“But you know what?”
Zack smiled broadly. “I don’t care about any of that right now. I’m looking forward to this dinner, and seeing Wes Jenkins get his award.”
“Good. Let’s go inside,” concluded Stephen.
In the end, it sadly seems that the people running Marvel Comics publishing in recent years have little respect for what was accomplished by the many great storytellers – both writers and artists – that built Marvel, starting with greats like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and fail to understand that storytelling that attracts and keep readers is not about pandering to certain political views or trying to force those views down the throats of readers. Political and social commentary certainly can have a place in fiction. But it must take a backseat to telling an entertaining, engrossing story, with characters that interest people.
In recent years, Marvel on the big screen has entertained, presented fascinating characters, and sometimes ventured to say a few things about larger, enduring values that can cross the political divide. But Marvel comic books seem to have lost their way – again with some welcome exceptions.
Perhaps the following point made by Jack “King” Kirby should be kept in mind by those writing, drawing and editing Marvel comic books: “The only real politics I knew was that if a guy liked Hitler, I’d beat the stuffing out of him and that would be it.”
Alas, though, given the Left’s penchant for hurling the “Hitler” slur at opponents, I’m not sure this would even work.
In the end, let’s hope that Disney comes to realize that its great tradition of fine storytelling with a wide appeal is suffering in Marvel’s comic books, and that’s not good for business or for the future of the movie and television versions of their Marvel characters.
Ray Keating is the editor, publisher and economist for DisneyBizJournal.com, and author of the Pastor Stephen Grant novels, with the two latest books being Reagan Country: A Pastor Stephen Grant Noveland Heroes and Villains: A Pastor Stephen Grant Short Story. He can be contacted at email@example.com.