Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso may no longer be doing his weekly Axel-in-Charge column at CBR, but he did stop by the Eisner award winning website for an end-of-the-year interview to look back at Marvel’s 2016 and forward to 2017. Interviews with comics execs on major websites are always delicate, fluff-oriented affairs, but if you get a comic book executive comfortable enough with lots of softball questions about what they’re “super excited” about, they will sometimes reveal interesting tidbits of information. One of the things that stood out in Axel’s interview was what he said about Marvel’s “classic” characters, a word which here means the white male versions of characters that have been replaced by non-white or non-male legacy characters in recent years.
We never had any decree to change everything. All of these changes came naturally from the stories and there was just something in the air. Rick Remender was writing “Captain America” when he proposed Sam Wilson take the shield. Jason Aaron was writing a very popular “Thor” book when he came up with the game-changing idea of making Jane Foster the new Thor and made it even more popular. When [Editor] Mark Paniccia faced a new volume of Hulk, he pitched the idea of Amadeus Cho taking over the mantle as someone who didn’t view the Hulk as a curse. And when we decided to kill Wolverine, there were a lot of candidates on the table to replace him — Sabretooth, Daken, X-23 — and landed on the latter.
All of these moves happened separately and organically and we didn’t want any of them to be a short-term thing. That said, while we hoped and prayed these characters would connect with fans, we never lost sight of our classic characters. We always had a plan for each of them. In 2017, a lot of those plans will be revealed. Keep your eyes peeled for teasers and clues.
Later in the interview, answering a question about the ResurrXion books, Alonso said:
You walk a line. You want to be evocative of the past without being a Xerox machine, you know? You have to move forward. But I think there’s something to be said of stories and art styles that echo or reference what we loved as kids, and I think you’re going to see that throughout the books.
Is Alonso hinting that Marvel could be looking toward a “meat and potatoes” strategy in the future? “Meat and potatoes” was the code word DC Comics used when they announced plans to drop their progressive DC You initiative and focus on their own “classic” characters with DC Rebirth. Rebirth was a sales success for DC, at least briefly, even leading them to defeat Marvel in Diamond sales charts for a couple months, something that rarely happens. Marvel, on the other hand, has seemingly struggled with individual book sales lately, despite the protests of Tom Brevoort, with the comics industry as a whole facing potential tough times and multiple stores closing around the country. Could the publisher, with Donald Trump — a personal friend of Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter — about to take office, be looking to a similar approach to DC’s in the near future?
We don’t want to speculate or read too much into this. It’s too early to say anything like that is going to happen, though Alonso did recently stress at New York Comic Con that he is “the last thing from a social justice warrior,” a pejorative term often used to describe anyone who advocates openly for better representation in comics, despite the company’s constant quest for recognition over providing just that.
And Marvel has received a lot mainstream media praise over the last several years for its commitment to diversity, which Marvel touts repeatedly to any mainstream media publication or TV show that will give them the time of day, though its top executives become quite defensive when challenged about their failings in that area (don’t dare ask about a bi-sexual Hercules). But Marvel’s boasting about its commitment to diversity has always been much louder than that commitment’s actual physical manifestation in real life. After all, the most recent round of gendercrunching for October 2016 shows just 16% of Marvel’s creators are women, less than DC, Image, IDW, and Dark Horse (though none of them are doing spectacularly, with the highest, DC, under 20%). For comparison’s sake, roughly half of all humans are women. Marvel’s racial diversity doesn’t fare much better, with the company hiring its first black women writers – EVER – just this past year. Marvel’s fictional universe may be more diverse than ever before, but its hiring decisions lag behind.
Still, a quick glance at the Twitter feeds of some of Marvel’s top superstar writers – and seriously, we mean any time, day or night, because they’re always tweeting – will show that the creative staff, at least, remains firmly committed to progressive ideals (though not quite so committed as to stop taking a paycheck from Marvel when learning that the CEO of their company, who receives profits from their work for it, donates those profits to Donald Trump – rationalization is a beautiful thing).
Ultimately, for fans of Marvel’s recent creative direction and commitment, however shallow, to diversity, it’s important to remember that this commitment falls firmly behind making a profit in Marvel’s order of priorities, and always will. As long as those two goals coincide, Marvel will continue down that path. But if they are at odds, there will be little hesitation about which to make. If Marvel discovered that it would be more profitable than anything they’re doing to produce comics starring Donald Trump as a superhero who makes the Marvel Universe great again with his giant hands and power of making deals, they would absolutely do that as a super-mega-crossover event that would change the Marvel Universe forever!!!!, and most of their creators would probably contribute to it, while simultaneously defending or excusing Marvel’s actions on social media.
But we digress. We’ve gone and done what we said we wouldn’t, and started speculating. Oops! No, it’s too early to judge what Marvel will do in 2017, and there’s plenty else in Axel Alonso’s interview that can be read as a continued support for Marvel’s recent strategies. We’re probably worried about nothing. But as we all look wearily ahead at 2017, it never hurts to keep a critical eye on things, just in case.