Institutions matter because, without them, no cultural change is possible.
Marvel Comics is caught in a dilemma. The company, which went from near-bankruptcy in 1996 to one of the most successful movie studios in the world, first became well known in the 1960s for its depiction of superheroes who had human problems. Spider-Man, the Hulk, the X-Men the Fantastic Four and others didn’t fight their battles in the fantasy world of Gotham or Metropolis, but in New York City. They dealt not only with super-villains but with racism, self-doubt, adolescence, illness, and poverty. As a new book out from Taschen, The Marvel Age of Comics 1961-1978, shows, these characters were as much a part of the 1960s as the space race, antiwar college protests, and John F. Kennedy.
Modern comic fans and creators are still celebrating Marvel’s realism, and that desire to be modern has resulted in the decision to tamper with some of the most beloved Marvel characters. The results have been poor. Beginning around 2011, Marvel’s creators altered tried and true superheroes to represent a more multicultural America. That year, Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis announced that he would be writing a “half-black, half-Hispanic Spider-Man.” In 2012, Marvel published the first gay wedding in comics in Astonishing X-Men, resulting in a lot of media coverage and a boost in sales—which promptly tanked again, leading to the eventual cancellation of the title Astonishing X-Men. More recently Thor, the Nordic God of Thunder, became a female character, as did Iron Man, who is now Iron Heart, an African American teenaged girl named Riri Williams.
These changes, at least according to David Gabriel, Marvel’s senior vice president of print, sales, and marketing, led to a sales decline. “What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity,” Gabriel told the company’s investors in March. “They didn’t want female characters out there. That’s what we heard, whether we believe that or not.” He went on to say:
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.
Of course, these remarks caused a liberal backlash, and Gabriel quickly scrambled to clarify them. There were various reasons for declining sales, he now insisted, adding: “Let me be clear, our new heroes are not going anywhere!” He expressed himself “proud and excited to keep introducing unique characters that reflect new voices and new experiences into the Marvel Universe and pair them with our iconic heroes.”
Incredibly, Marvel, the home of some of the most creative people in the world, is ignoring a very basic idea: that fans are simultaneously accepting of new and diverse characters and loath to see their old favorites tampered with. A good analogy would be the university system. No one would object to left-liberals’ starting their own schools, hiring their own faculty, and setting their own policies, but they prefer to infiltrate extant institutions. They would rather take over what is established than do the hard work of building their own schools. Marvel very easily could have started an entire new line of comics aimed at a younger, more multicultural America. Instead they made the incredible Hulk Asian, Spider-Man of mixed race, and the mighty Thor a woman. Again, there is nothing wrong with pop culture reflecting an increasingly diverse America. What is annoying is creators who shoehorn these new identifies into characters who have been around for half a century.
Comics have also lost some of the pure, pro-American joy that once made Marvel so beloved by fans. As The Marvel Age of Comics so gorgeously demonstrates, there was more than realism in The Fantastic Four and The Amazing Spider-Man and the other comics of the 1960s; there was humor, patriotism, romantic love that resulted in marriage and children, and moments of pure happiness and optimism. After all, the Marvel Universe began in early 1961, which was the forward-looking dawn of Kennedy’s New Frontier.
It was that year that comic book writer Stan Lee was given permission by his publisher Martin Goodman (who was envious of rival DC Comics’ successful Justice League comic) to create a team of superheroes. Lee, a World War II veteran, and fellow veteran Jack Kirby, a genius co-creator, came up with The Fantastic Four. This was a family whose members developed superpowers when their spaceship was blasted with gamma rays. Reed Richards, Susan and Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm argued and got irritated with each other, but their lives were also filled with humor, love, and a passionate desire to defend American ideals and freedom. Reed and Sue eventually got married and had a son.
The FF’s main nemesis, Doctor Doom, was a dictator from the Soviet bloc-sounding country of “Latveria,” in Eastern Europe. Doom’s one simple demand was that his subjects be happy—which was only attainable through following Doom’s every wish. The forced smiles of the people of Latveria was a direct commentary on the coercive evil of communism.
Kirby’s art was a celebration of the human form in action, as well as an immersion in the astonishing wonders of outer space, still a mysterious realm worth exploring back then. Peter Parker, a.k.a. the amazing Spider-Man, was constantly having money and relationship problems, but he also had Gwen Stacey, a gorgeous girlfriend who loved him. Parker struggled, but also frequently expressed exhilaration at the powers that allowed him to swing around New York City. The X-Men were outcasts, something that the modern Left loves to analogize to race and homosexuality, but they also had fun with their powers. Marvel Comics pointed up some of America’s problems, but also loved the country.
One of the main reasons the Marvel films of the last decade have been so successful is that they tap into this formula. Marvel’s modern cinema run began in 2008 with Iron Man, a film whose hero Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a brainy inventor and industrialist who had become rich manufacturing weapons. Early in the film Stark is confronted by a reporter from Vanity Fair.
“Let me guess. Berkeley?” Stark retorts to her accusation that he is a “merchant of death” and war profiteer. “The day that weapons are no longer needed to keep the peace, I’ll start making bricks and beams for baby hospitals.” He adds, “Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy,” and notes that military R and D gave rise to several technological breakthroughs that aided humanity. Yes, Stark begins to question the damage that weapons of war do to civilians, but he continues to develop and adapt his fantastic suit of armor to be able to confront threats to the country and the planet.
The exchange with the liberal reporter in that 2008 movie harkened back to the golden age of Marvel, and represents a big reason it was a runaway success that led to over a dozen successful Marvel films. It also had an interesting real-life analog. At the recent New York comic convention, Marvel Entertainment announced its intention to partner with defense giant Northrop Grumman to produce a one-shot comic book. The comic, which was to feature a team of Northrop Grumman-themed heroes, was aimed at encouraging young people to go into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields.
Marvel’s tweeted announcement elicited a flood of negative responses. Many compared this to the movie version of Iron Man, wherein a billionaire CEO of a weapons company sees the effects his weapons have on innocents and turns his company away from developing weapons. While the older Marvel fans want their heroes never to change, the younger ones who attend comic conventions want nothing to do with the pro-space and pro-military tone of classic Marvel comics.
Marvel cancelled the project. In a statement to pop-culture site Polygon.com, the company said:
The activation with Northrop Grumman at New York Comic Con was meant to focus on aerospace technology and exploration in a positive way. However, as the spirit of that intent has not come across, we will not be proceeding with this partnership including this weekend’s event programming. Marvel and Northrop Grumman continue to be committed to elevating, and introducing, STEM to a broad audience.
Score one for the social justice warriors at the New York ComicCon. Writing at Defense News, Aaron Mehta noted that ComicCon was a bad place to launch the idea, as comic conventions tend to attract more liberal and “reactive” attendees. Mehta also noted the hypocrisy of the left-wing critics of comics:
To be fair, there is some dissonance here. Marvel fans have no problem rooting on the X-Men, who famously fly around in a modified SR-71 Blackbird; one of the characters has a pet dragon literally named Lockheed. Iron Man may have renounced his defense industry profits, but he still flies around in an up-armored robotic suit and at one point served as U.S. secretary of defense.