A few Fridays ago, the teaser trailer for the upcoming Marvel movie “Black Panther” played during Game 4 of the NBA Finals, and it set the social-media universe ablaze. Directed by African-American filmmaker Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed”), it has Chadwick Boseman, an actor usually known for playing the real-life lead in biopics (so far, he’s played Jackie Robinson, James Brown and, coming this fall, Thurgood Marshall) as the superhero who was introduced to movie audiences in “Captain America: Civil War,” a royal, hyperagile crusader from the fictional African country of Wakanda.
Slated for release next February (Black History Month!), this new installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (we still have “Spider-Man: Homecoming” next month and “Thor: Ragnarok” in November) is a black-and-proud showcase. “Panther” has a predominantly African-American cast: along with Boseman, we have Oscar winners Forest Whitaker and Lupita Nyong’o, Oscar nominee Angela Bassett and rising stars Michael B. Jordan and Danai Gurira. Needless to say, this teaser made Black Twitter’s day. The Twitterverse was overflowing with black folk ready to call in sick on opening day.
While the “Black Panther” movie has plenty of support, the same unfortunately can’t be said for “Black Panther” comic books. Two days after the teaser aired, acclaimed writer Roxane Gay tweeted that the “Panther” spinoff comic “World of Wakanda,” which Gay co-wrote with poet Yona Harvey and political writer Rembert Browne, has been canceled after six issues. (As of this writing, Marvel has yet to issue an official statement.)
This comes right after the cancellation of another “Panther” spinoff, “Black Panther and the Crew,” written by author/journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates (who won a National Book Award for his universally praised book “Between the World and Me”), after only two issues. Even though that title featured Panther and other popular, African-American Marvel characters like Luke Cage, Storm and Misty Knight, Coates told tech/media news site The Verge that the book was selling poorly, and will stop after six issues. (Coates will continue to write another run of “Panther” comics, which he began doing last year.)
The demise of those comic spinoffs only seems to solidify what Marvel’s vice president of sales David Gabriel said, in a recent interview with geek culture magazine ICv2, about why the company’s numbers are down: “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.” Gabriel also said fans were “turning their noses up against” the new, eclectic characters Marvel was bringing to the table.
Comics fans obviously voiced their displeasure with Gabriel’s comments on social media, with some pointing out that it’s simply not true. According to a report from comics site CBR, three of Marvel’s biggest sellers feature nonwhite leads: “Panther,” “The Mighty Thor” (former Thor girlfriend Dr. Jane Foster now wields his mighty hammer) and “Invincible Iron Man” (starring African-American teenager Riri Williams as Ironheart). Also, titles starring Ms. Marvel (who is a teenage, American Muslim – from Jersey!) and Squirrel Girl actually sell quite well.
So, if those diverse titles are doing well, what went wrong with the “Panther” spinoffs? A recent article from the news/culture site Vox broke down the complicated reasons for their demise, mostly citing an outdated method of distribution that measures sales by how many copies retailers are bold enough to order. When a title doesn’t sell for a retailer, they can’t send it back to the distributors, making retailers more likely to pick up already successful titles.
But there have been fans who have blamed themselves. Writer Swapna Krishna basically self-flagellated herself in a SyfyWire piece in which she said trade-paperback buyers like herself aren’t making matters easy for books that need month-to-month love. She does offer a solution: “If a comic is aimed at a newer, more diverse audience, then either put it out directly as a graphic novel or be willing to wait until trade sales come in to decide on the future of the series. So many great comics are canceled prematurely because Marvel just doesn’t seem to understand – or care – about new audiences.”
Something has to give at this point. Gay, Coates, Harvey and Browne are all African-American writers – and they’re not the only ones who want to bring more color into the comics world. So, when books fail by writers and artists of color, Marvel, D.C. and the rest of them don’t hire them for work – once again making comic books safe for all the dudebros and fanboys who aren’t down with change. As someone who doesn’t mind change in comics, it would be nice if the same people who caped for the “Black Panther” trailer would react the same way when “Black Panther” titles – or other comic books featuring more soulful superheroes – come out in the future.
Reach Craig Lindsey at firstname.lastname@example.org