How NOT To Market Comic Books: A Marvelous Cautionary Tale

Let’s face it. We all make mistakes. We all do dumb things. We’re all just one “reply all” button away from humiliating ourselves and undermine our entire professional career. One time, I accidentally washed my hair with shaving cream instead of shampoo. It made me feel pretty stupid, but at least it happened in the shower and in private.

It’s only when we make mistakes that become public shit storms that we really agonize over our mistakes. For most people, that’s difficult enough, but usually manageable, provided you avoid the “reply all” button and don’t watch porn at the office.

For celebrities, it’s like walking on egg shells on top of land mines on top of hungry lions. If Taylor Swift accidentally washed her hair with shaving cream and did it on camera, it would blow up Twitter and turn into a week-long national scandal. We envy a lot of things about celebrities, but nobody should envy that circus act.

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Then, there are the non-celebrities who still find a way to make their minor mistake into a national shit storm. Taylor Swift doing something that blows up the internet is kind of an inevitability. A non-celebrity creating that kind of shit storm is an accomplishment.

A man named David Gabriel found that out the hard way last week. Who is David Gabriel, you ask? He’s not a celebrity. He’s not a pop star. He’s not even a famous internet meme. He’s the Vice President of sales at Marvel Comics, a company that’s very important to me as an admitted comic book fan.

It’s a job that’s probably much less glamorous than it sounds. He’s tasked with selling products that include iconic heroes, women dressed in skin-tight costumes, and talking raccoons. His products couldn’t sell themselves better without being laced with nicotine.

 

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Despite this advantage, Mr. Gabriel’s job has been a lot tougher recently. Overall, Marvel’s sales and overall share of the comic book market has been declining for the past couple of years. That’s somewhat odd, given how Marvel’s movies have made more money than the gross national product of some countries.

Now the reasons for this decline are too numerous and too unsexy for me to cover in a single blog post or multiple blog posts, for that matter. The real story here comes back to David Gabriel, a man whose job it is to figure out why the company he works for isn’t swimming in a fresh pile of money every year.

What’s his explanation for the sales decline? Well, if you thought you’ve ever screwed up badly at your job, take a deep breath and put your feet up. You’re about to feel a lot better about yourself because this is what Mr. Gabriel said in an interview ICv2:

Now the million-dollar question.  Why did those tastes change?

I don’t know if that’s a question for me.  I think that’s a better question for retailers who are seeing all publishers.  What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity.  They didn’t want female characters out there.  That’s what we heard, whether we believe that or not.  I don’t know that that’s really true, but that’s what we saw in sales.

We saw the sales of any character that was diverse, any character that was new, our female characters, anything that was not a core Marvel character, people were turning their nose up against.  That was difficult for us because we had a lot of fresh, new, exciting ideas that we were trying to get out and nothing new really worked.

The bold parts are my doing because it’s the bold parts that got made David Gabriel the most hated, non-politician man on the internet for a week. Comic book fans, movie fans, and fans of people who publicly screw themselves all took the time to jump in and pile on a man who probably didn’t fully realize what he was saying.

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On the surface, the words themselves don’t mean much. Marvel made a push for greater diversity in its comics. I even covered some of the issues that came up during this push. That push didn’t work as well as they’d hoped. Compared to the efforts of DC Comics with their “Rebirth” initiative, there was a lot of room for improvement.

This is where Mr. Gabriel’s internal filter failed him. He looked at the situation, tried to make sense of it, and came up with something that indirectly insulted comic book fans and non-comic book fans alike. I get what he was trying to say, pointing out that the response to their diversity push wasn’t what Marvel had hoped. He just ended up saying way more, if not way too much.

Indirect or not, we’re living in an age where anything you say can and will be misconstrued as bigoted, sexist, racist, homophobic, or anything else associated with the republican party. With Mr. Gabriel’s comments, it didn’t take much for anyone with a Twitter feed to twist his words appropriately.

The implications are as apparent as they are misguided. Comic book fans don’t want diversity. They just want to read comics about the same old white guys who save beautiful women in bikinis that they’ve been reading since the Kennedy Administration. If a character is black, female, or does any that straight white men don’t approve of, then they’re not interested.

Again, that’s the implication. That’s not the actual substance of Mr. Gabriel’s words, but that doesn’t matter anymore. It doesn’t even matter if he meant something else entirely. The angry, politically correct whims of the internet and social media has spoken. David Gabriel and comic book fans are in league with the white male fascist order that’s intent on making the world one big sitcom from the 1950s.

That last part was sarcasm, by the way. I know it doesn’t take much to kick up a shit storm of outrage these days, but I feel like I have to cover my ass with an adamantium plate. There are too many people in the world who just can’t resist a good dose of whining.

Naturally, Mr. Gabriel’s remarks triggered a week-long sideshow where everyone weighed in to voice their outrage, even if they weren’t comic book fans. Most of the outrage was pretty standard. It can usually be boiled down to the following remarks:

“HOW DARE YOU ACCUSE OF US BIGOTRY!”

“HOW DARE YOU TRY TO SPEAK FOR ALL COMIC BOOK FANS!”

“HOW DARE YOU IMPLY THAT DIVERSITY IS A BAD THING!”

“HA! YOU ADMIT YOU’RE A RACIST, BIGOTED, HOMOPHOBE!”

No less than 95 percent of all reactions can be boiled down to something of that nature. One side claims the other is being a bigot/racist/insert-minority-hating-term-here. The other side claims Mr. Gabriel is wrong, stupid, and doesn’t speak for the majority of comic book fans. Somewhere in between the shit storm are just people who want to read awesome comics. They’re basically stuck smelling this stench.

I can already spoil how this is going to play out. The outrage will continue to be a controversy for a while. Then, something else will come along that’ll start another outrage-fueled shit-storm about racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. After that, David Gabriel will go back to being a nobody who wouldn’t be recognized if he had a two-foot cock plated in gold. I’m sure that day can’t come fast enough for him.

It’s not just human nature. It’s part of the system/flaws in marketing. People have very short attention spans. Unless it affects their livelihood, they get bored pretty easily. People are also very selective with their outrage. It doesn’t matter how asinine or misguided it is, even if it’s something as simple as a Halloween costume. Outrage is inherently irrational.

It’s an important, albeit bittersweet lesson for anyone looking to market anything in a day where we’re all just one offensive hashtag away from a really bad week. Since I’m trying to sell my own books and preparing to launch my first published book, it’s a lesson worth learning.

We don’t live in an age where a bad add or an off-hand remark can be swept under the rug or forgotten. We live in an age where everybody has a camera and a recorder in their pocket. We live in an age where anything you say or do can be misconstrued in any number of wholly ridiculous ways.

Whether you’re a straight white man working for Marvel or a black transgender lesbian working for BET, your words and actions can and well be skewed if you’re not careful. Professional trolls like Ann Coulter, Lena Dunham, Michael Moore, and Milo Yiannopoulos can get away with it. Most people trying to make a decent, honorable living can’t.

Now I believe that David Gabriel is as decent a person as the rest of us. I don’t think he believes that diversity is a bad thing in comic books or anything else in life. He just made the mistake of saying a certain sequence of words that evoked a knee-jerk reaction from a public that’s more and more sensitive to anything remotely bigoted, regardless of how valid that sentiment might be.

These are strange and volatile times. Today, the worst thing you can be is opposed to diversity. Marvel Comics is behind the curve, unfortunately, because so many of their iconic characters were created at a time when the market almost exclusively favored straight white men. They can’t undo that or the legacy that helped build their company, even if a new generation of politically correct hippies despise that.

If I could say one thing to David Gabriel, I would say, “Take a step back, open a cold beer, and just wait for everybody to get bored being upset with you.” Hell, I’d even buy him the beer.

Even as we forget about David Gabriel and what he said when he underestimated the internet’s capacity for outrage, there will be others like him who fall flat on their face in their effort to sell their products to a public that’ll jump at any reason to get outraged. It’s a challenge, and an annoying one at that, but it’s challenges that make us stronger.

That’s why I still have high hopes for the future of Marvel comics. It’s also why I have hopes for the future of my novels. I doubt I’ll sell anything as well as Marvel sells its comics, but if I can do that without generating misguided outrage, I’ll know I’ve done it right.

1 Comment

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One response to “How NOT To Market Comic Books: A Marvelous Cautionary Tale

  1. Pingback: Why Standardized Tests Make You (Feel) Dumber In The Long Run | Jack Fisher's Official Publishing Blog

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