Saturday, November 09, 2013

My Thoughts On the New Ms Marvel

For those of you that may not already know about this, Marvel Comics is launching a new 'Ms Marvel' series, creating a legacy hero to fill the shoes of Carol Danvers (who has in turn decided to become a legacy hero filling the shoes of Captain Marvel, because Marvel has to publish a comic called "Captain Marvel" once every so often or DC will swoop in on the trademark like a turkey vulture that happens on a wrecked tour bus). The new hero will be Kamala Khan, a Muslim teenager from New Jersey who learns that she has shapeshifting powers and decides to follow in the footsteps of her favorite Avenger. Her parents, who are first-generation immigrants from Pakistan, aren't sure if being a superhero is a good career move for her; and her brother, who has picked up some strongly conservative views about the role of women, is very sure it's not.

My initial thought is that this sounds like great stuff. The editor of the book, Sana Amanat, helped to create the character by drawing on her own experiences growing up as the child of Muslim immigrants, and I feel like this could be a real, authentic character with something fresh to say about the superhero genre. All too often, even the earnest attempts at getting more diversity into comics come across as ham-fisted box-checking (as opposed to ham-fisted bun-vending) and descend into stereotypes, because as well-meaning as they are, it's still the same old bunch of white guys writing them. (The ultimate example of this, by the way, would have to be the New Guardians. It had a Japanese businessman with technology controlling abilities, a Chinese woman who could manipulate ley lines, an aboriginal Australian with "dreamtime" powers, and Extrano, who was gay. Only they couldn't say that, because of DC's publication standards at the time, so they hinted it by having him lisp and mince until audiences got the point. Suffice to say that the road to unintentionally hilarious gifs circulated on the Internet among gay comics fans is paved with good intentions.)

So this is great. It's an attempt to get a fresh perspective on comics that isn't out of the Straight White Male Club, to give representation to a lot of people who look at the comics shelves and don't see themselves, and as such don't read comic books. One of the things that's very invisible to most straight white male comics fans is how much of their fandom is based on audience identification; because just about every comic book character out there falls into at least two if not all three of those categories, they're so used to having someone they can identify with that they don't even need to examine why they tend to like some characters more than others. They don't even notice, "Hey, this superhero is just like me," because they're all just like them. (I remember having a half-hour long conversation with a comic-shop employee on why it was a bad thing to get rid of Oracle. I think it was the first time it had ever occurred to him that every single superhero he liked was a straight white able-bodied male.)

But as always, I run smack-dab into the brick wall of my cynicism here, which is best summed up by the 'Dilbert' quote, "You know, if you put a little hat on a snowball, it can last longer in Hell." Because the unfortunate reality of the marketplace is, Marvel and DC have already done a pretty damned good job of marginalizing non-straight white male able-bodied fans to the point where most of the target audience for the new Ms Marvel probably won't even know it exists. Title after title for decade after decade aimed squarely at the "white teenage boy" market, combined with a marketing strategy that has made comics virtually invisible to anyone outside of a tiny, dedicated fanbase that actively seeks them out, has self-selected Marvel's market down to the point where launching a book like this might as well have a blurb on the cover that says, "The New Ms Marvel! She's Not For You!"

Yes, there are some fans who will seek it out even though they don't personally identify with the character. There are also some fans who do personally identify with the character, either in terms of race, religion or ethnicity, who haven't been burned out on the hobby despite the worst efforts of fans and professionals alike, who will pick it up. But experience has taught me the lesson that these fans aren't enough to sustain a book. Marvel needs to reach out to a different audience on this one, and I don't think they're going to do it. They're just going to put the book on the rack next to 'Spider-Man' and 'Captain America', in the store that has all the cheesecake posters up behind the counter and the clerk who gives the stink-eye to anyone who looks vaguely ethnic because "they might be shoplifters", and then wonder why it fails. And inevitably come to the conclusion that it's just because nobody wants to read about superheroes who aren't white guys like them.

And from there, it's about five years to the point where Kamala Khan dies in the next crossover so they can introduce the NEW Ms Marvel, who will coincidentally be white. And then someone will write another article like this lamenting the fact that Marvel and DC always kill off their ethnically-diverse legacy characters so they can bring in whiter versions, and the company will placate these concerns by introducing a NEW ethnically-diverse legacy character in a different role, but without having learned any of the marketing lessons involved so that hero won't do any better because they're still marketing them hardcore at the same audience that rejected all the previous ones...and who have learned that if they just act pissy enough, Marvel and DC will back down from ethnic diversity every single time and give them back the comforting whiteboy fantasy world they got used to as a child. (I swear, sometimes I think that fans have gotten less tolerant over the years, simply because they know that at least when dealing with comics companies, xenophobia is rewarded.)

Obviously, I hope I'm being cynical. I'm certainly willing to put my money where my mouth is, and to go back into comics stores come January to actually pick up a copy of the new 'Ms Marvel', because as much as I think it's an effort that comes pre-doomed for your convenience, that doesn't mean I won't support it. But I do wish that one of these times, Marvel or DC might realize that there has to be more to reaching a new audience than just putting the book in the store and expecting teenage girls to have a sudden flash of telepathic insight that the industry that's been semi-overtly hostile to them for generations is making another half-assed attempt at getting them interested in the medium.*

*Post #7,352 in the "Why Marvel's Entire Marketing Department Should Be Lined Up Against the Wall and Shot" series. Collect them all!


Michael Healy said...

Sometimes I want to see what would have happened if the internet was around back when the "All New, All Different" X-Men book came out.

Tony Laplume said...

The first thing I thought when I heard about the new character was that it seemed like only yesterday that the last new Ms. Marvel was introduced. Couldn't they just come up with a new character already? But the idea is good, and it's also very, very bad as you outline. It's doomed to failure, unfortunately.

Anonymous said...

To counterpoint some of the cynicism in this post, I think we're definitely at a point in time when, as Michael Healy pointed out, the internet can allow for a lot more unpredictability.

Don't get me wrong, the title is an extremely risky one, and Marvel knows it and has admitted it, but there's a vocal minority out there who's spreading the news about this title as much as they can. Not only that, but media outlets have put it on the public's radar, and hopefully will again around February of next year when it comes out. The people who will buy the book to support diversity and everything else are the same kinds who will grab more than one copy to try to hook their friends; they're aware this has every chance of failing hard.

I also blogged about this just last Friday, and one of my teacher friends was interested in getting issues for her students to supplement their learning about both comic books and other cultures and races.

That's all to say that I will also be picking up a copy come next year, and am hoping, with less cynicism, that this will all work out for the best. Heck, I'd be happy with 12 issues.

Chris said...

Another way the internet might help this book succeed is the fact that, should the ideal target audience for this book actually find out about it, they don't have to step foot in their local fanboy dungeon to buy it. They can just go to Comixology and download it, bypassing the usual barriers to entry. Not a guarantee of success, but at least it increases the book's chances.

mrjl said...

anyone else mostly like character who are the opposite of them?

Marionette said...

@Tony Laplume: the last Ms. Marvel debuted in the 1970s. That's like enough time for half the DC heroes to become legacy characters and then get reverted back to straight white guys.

And if you read the current (and excellent) Captain Marvel, you'd see how having the one character inspired by the other works in story terms.

Tony Laplume said...

What's with all these comment conversations I keep having here, anyway?

There was a new Ms. Marvel in 1985, and again in 2009, and Carol Danvers has bounced around the role almost as often as Hal Jordan with the Green Lantern franchise.