Copyright Marvel Entertainment Inc.

Marvel Legacy #1 features a wraparound cover with most of Marvel’s major characters. Variants have a lenticular cover, the sort of expensive gimmick that some say is part of Marvel’s sales problem.  

Andrew A. Smith

Tribune Content Agency

Marvel Comics is suffering a historic sales slump – and it’s looking to an initiative called “Legacy” to get back on top.

It’s hard to believe, given that Marvel dominates the box office and is ubiquitous on TV. But print sales have fallen off the Bifrost, and that has not only Marvel but rival DC Comics worried, not to mention all of America’s comics retailers. When Marvel stubs its toe, the whole industry yells “Ouch!”

How did this happen? As they say, it’s complicated.

You might remember some controversial remarks by Marvel’s Vice President of Sales David Gabriel, who explained poor sales in March to by saying, “What we heard was that people didn't want any more diversity.  They didn't want female characters out there. … 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.”

There’s no doubt an element of truth in there. A casual pass over the message boards at various comics websites will find hateful comments about “SJWs” by people who are incensed by any superhero comic book not aimed squarely at a white, male audience.

But more importantly, there’s also an absolute in serial fiction that fans don’t really like change – they want, as Stan Lee used to say, the illusion of change. If a major publisher replaces a major character with someone else behind the mask, you can bet your last repulsor ray that the original will return.

And when these temporary replacements occur, there’s a very good chance a woman or person of color will be the replacer, while the replacee will almost always be a white male. That’s  because most major characters are white males, since most were created in the 1940s (DC Comics) or 1960s (Marvel), when white males dominated most entertainment media.

So when Marvel replaced Captain America, Iron Man and Thor in recent years with Sam “Falcon” Wilson, RiRi “Ironheart” Williams and Jane “Mighty Thor” Foster, it was a given that Steve Rogers, Tony Stark and the original Thunder God would return someday. That’s the illusion of change: Things happen, and then they un-happen. And in the meantime, we get a lot of (hopefully) cool stories.

Copyright Marvel Entertainment Inc.

Avengers #675, arriving in January, will kick off a a weekly, 16-issue story titled “No Surrender” in which the Earth has been stolen. 

That the Big Three of the Avengers were replaced by, respectively, a black man, a black girl and a white woman is almost beside the point. We know this to be true by judging from the last time Captain America, Iron Man and Thor were replaced.

Yes, this is literally a rerun. In the late 1980s, the originals were taken off the board, and replaced by, respectively, John “USAgent” Walker, James “War Machine” Rhodes and Eric “Thunderstrike” Masterson. In that case, three white men were replaced by two white men and a black one (Rhodey). But they didn’t last, either – and nobody really expected them to.

Meanwhile, sales don’t bear out the “diversity” charge. Sure, America (starring a lesbian Latina) isn’t doing well, but neither is Guardians of the Galaxy, led by a white guy. Marvel’s best-selling books aren’t exclusively white, nor are they primarily diverse – Amazing Spider-Man and the X-Men books are among Marvel’s better sellers on a monthly basis, but Unbeatable Squirrel Girl does well in collections, and Ms. Marvel (starring a Muslim, Pakistani-American girl) stays alive due to digital sales.

Most people attribute Marvel’s big sales slump to other factors – mainly, Marvel’s awful marketing practices. For years, Marvel has been launching new first issues of all its titles, complete with gimmicks like variant covers, then canceling the titles a year or so in and doing it all over again. Some characters would literally have two or three first issues in a calendar year. This is terribly expensive for retailers, and after a while, even the fans begin to feel jerked around.

Content-wise, Marvel has leaned on massive, line-wide “event” stories that require fans to buy books they don’t want to get the complete story. Ongoing books can’t ever work up a head of steam, as they’re always being taken over by the “events” – and then launching over with new first issues, and often new creative teams.

Sadly, event-driven stories are unlikely to stop because – well, that’s about all that really sells well for Marvel, even though poor sales of the recent "Monsters Unleashed" and “Secret Empire” events indicate they’ve reached the point of diminishing returns. Of course, some of those lost sales were to people who were revolted by the Cap storyline, which had the Living Legend of WWII re-imagined as a fascist.

But here’s the good news: All of the major changes of the last few years are heading for a reboot. We know this because of Marvel Legacy #1, a 58-page, $6.00 book that came out Sept. 27.

And it’s really pretty interesting. Legacy introduces us to the “Prehistoric Avengers” – a group that fought a Celestial a million years ago. (Celestials are a gigantic, space-faring race that tends to wipe out civilizations it deems unworthy.) This group – consisting of Odin (before Thor was born), the Phoenix Force (long before Jean Grey), the first Ghost Rider (on a flaming mammoth), and a few other concepts that are effectively immortal – defeated the Celestial, and buried it in what would become South Africa.

Leap to the present, and guess what’s getting dug up in South Africa? I imagine it’s pretty grumpy.

Oh, and we learn something’s monkeying with the timeline. A “new” Avenger named Voyager has been added to the team’s history, and nobody seems the wiser.

Copyright Marvel Entertainment Inc.

Captain America will stop its current numbering and pick up with issue #695 in December, as Steve Rogers attempts to reclaim the shield and the country’s trust after a controversial “event” in which he was turned into a fascist. 

And did I mention Valeria Richards? The pre-adolescent, genius daughter of Reed and Sue Richards (Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman) has been missing and presumed dead since the 2015 “Secret Wars” event, along with her parents and brother, Franklin. But she narrates Legacy, teasing a return of the Fantastic Four just as the remaining pair, the Human Torch and the Thing, team up in an ongoing series titled Marvel Two-In-One.  

Meanwhile, Legacy checks in on most of Marvel’s major characters. And as you’d guess, the status quo and the original characters made famous by the movies are in process of returning – even Wolverine, who’s been dead for three years. But we’ll also have the new kids, and with luck, the best of both worlds.

Will that be enough to get readers excited about Marvel Comics again? Legacy is a sharp-looking package with some interesting ideas, but fans have already registered fatigue with constant events and re-inventions. Worse, Legacy will affect every book in the Marvel line, returning some long-running characters to “legacy” numbering (Avengers will re-launch at #672, for example), but quite a few others will start over with new first issues.

Can Marvel go to that well again?

That comes down to execution. Marvel has to decide if its true legacy is imagination and adventure … or events and sales gimmicks. A whole industry is hoping for the former.

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I'm sort of amazed that no changes have been made at the top.

They must be serious about bringing back older versions of the characters -- that Captain America above is without the completely unnecessary web belt and pouches he's been sporting since Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting were on the title.

There's a Back To The Future joke in here somewhere,

I'm all for unusual characters, but not in Iron Man's suit or carrying Cap's shield. Where are the unknown new heroines that have nothing to do with existing heroes hanging out?

This is the problem they really need to be working on, how to get people to keep buying comics as they keep going up in price. If stores are really being hit hard, this could be what throws many of them out of business. The old stores that built up so much respect among fans years ago went down fast and there was nothing that could be done for them.

Oh, here's a shock: Ron Morgan and Mark Ogilvie don't like Marvel Comics, and they will never read any more Marvel Comics, and they want everyone else to join them in hating Marvel Comics.

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You must see there are problems that aren't going to be easily beaten. But keep saying Marvel's fine and we'll see what happens.

One thing Marvel is doing right, I think, is to cut the superfluous Avengers titles and make Avengers weekly for 16 weeks. DC did a little of that streamlining and speeding-up with Rebirth, and it worked out well for them. My gut feeling says bi-weekly might have been a better call -- it's easier to work two comics a month into your budget if you're curious about the title than four)  but that remains to be seen. Regardless, people who want to read Avengers but aren't sure which title to choose now have that choice made for them. That's not always a good thing, but I think in Marvel's case, it is. 

(I think they could also stand to try DC's Detective Comics tactics with the Spider titles, lumping a bunch of the Spider-themed characters into one book and having them interact with each other. I was unlikely to read a Tim Drake/Cass Cain/Clayface/Batwing/Spoiler/Batwoman title, having given most of them a chance in the past. But all together and teamed with Batman, they  made a fascinating combo. Spidey could use some similar grouping and streamlining, I suspect.)

I feel this has more to do with the movies than the actual characters. Because we had, one after another, Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming, the comics could get creative with the core Avengers but now we have Thor: Ragnarok in November and we get the first "Legacy" storyline titled "The Death of Thor" but focusing on the Jane Foster Thor/Lady Thor.

And with Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 next year, we now have "Classic" Cap back, "The Search for Tony Stark", hints that the Black Widow might not be dead and Bruce Banner not-that-surprisingly not-that-dead.

Then again, The All-New Captain America was relaunched as Sam Wilson: Captain America because they were going to have a Steve Rogers: Captain America soon after.

And if Marvel had long term faith in RiRi Williams, why was her book named Invincible Iron Man and not Ironheart

I think it's possible that Marvel might have long-term faith in a character, but not necessarily short-term faith. I think if they named the book Ironheart, the sales would have plummeted. Most new characters need a bit of a leg up in today's marketplace. But after a year of starring in the Iron Man title, if Marvel were to launch Ironheart now, it might have a bit more of a chance; retailers have an idea of what her fanbase is now. 

The most analogous situation I can think of is when Batwoman launched in Detective Comics. That was a great place for her -- she could make the book her own, but retailers could still order Detective Comics numbers until they got a handle on how she'd sell. Marvel might do well to keep Amazing Fantasy and Tales of Suspense and Strange Adventures around, and build them up as a second title for Iron Man or Spider Man, etc... and then, when numbers are established, use them to introduce promising new characters,

The problem is, by starring in Iron Man, Riri was replacing Iron Man -- something Batwoman never pretended to do.

Ronald Morgan said:

You must see there are problems that aren't going to be easily beaten. But keep saying Marvel's fine and we'll see what happens.

I never said "Marvel's fine." Nor have I ever said "Marvel sucks." I never have said those things, nor will ever say those things, because I'm not a simpleton. In fact, the conversation I'm having with Detective 445about Legacy is one that examines what's good and what's bad about Marvel's current product, one that is rewarding and interesting to be in, or to read, and anticipates the future -- where we will all "see what happens." But mainly, it's fun right here and now, with the hobby we all love.This is a forum, and we're talking.

So instead of challenging me, Ron, challenge yourself. Try to find a post of yours on this board -- anywhere, any time -- that adds to the conversation. One where a disinterested observer would think, "There's an interesting idea -- I'd like to talk to that fellow."

Because that's what the rest of us are shooting for -- a conversation.

But not you. Your posts are all, "Marvel sucks, I'm right, you're all wrong, and I can't understand why nobody likes me."

Let me know when you have an answer for that, and then we'll "see what happens."

My answer to the simple question (the one asked in the subject line, “Can a return to the past improve Marvel’s future?”) is no. We’ve seen this before (in the ‘90s) and it didn’t work. Remember when Marvel did an abrupt “about face” and suddenly Eric Masterson was out of Thor and Don Blake was back in? When Crystal and Sharon Ventura were out of the FF and Reed and Sue were back? When the “house style” became Kirby-like?

If Marvel heard that fans didn’t want diversity I think they heard the wrong message. Success has more to do with the approach, but that’s not an easy objective to define or achieve. But a return to the past is never a good plan for the future. Stan Lee’s old catch phrase means “onward and upward,” after all. (Either that or wood chips, I forget which.)

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