I was twenty-two, and I was working as a cashier at Borders. A woman approached the counter with two celebrity autobiographies in her hands. She told me a story about a daughter who was laid up and needed some reading material. She’d seen two books on our New Bio table and grabbed them, but needed help with her final choice. I don’t remember what book the first one was, but the second book was a tell all by Anne Heche. She asked me who these two people were, and I could easily explain the first one, but I was desperate to describe Anne Heche as anything other than someone’s ex.
I tried a bunch of things; she was in Six Days, Seven Nights with Harrison Ford, she was in the remake of Psycho. Nothing stuck. I had nothing left. “She was married to Ellen DeGeneres.”
I expected some homophobic remark; this was 2002, when Vermont was reeling from the civil unions debate and its divisive tone. I did not expect what happened. She threw the book at me and declared, loudly, “Ugh, no, I don’t want something about one of them.”
I’d been on my feet for 10 hours straight (figuratively), and I’d asked every single customer if they had their Borders Reward card with them. I was done with everything, and I was more glib than I’ve been in my entire life, before or since. “Okay. That’s fine. Would you be alright with one of them ringing you up? If you’d rather, the cashier down at the end is free, and as far as I know she’s one of you, but you’re welcome to ask, if you want to.”
And I stared. I stared until she said, in a very small voice, that no, it was fine, she’d be happy to have me ring her up, and actually she would buy both books, and thank you.
I watched her leave the store, and then I collapsed into tears and panic. Part of it was being absolutely sure that I was about to lose my job (I didn’t), but a bigger piece was that it was the first time I had confronted the sheer vitriol of homophobia since I’d come out.
I was one of them.
Let’s back up.
When I was 20, and I was still convinced that kissing girls was just a thing that everyone thought about sometimes, I worked at a department store, in a clothing department. I wore a pretty typical retail uniform for that time: knee length skirt, hose, some sort of blouse or sweater. And I was also desperately trying to get back into comics. As a kid, I’d been obsessed with A.L.F. and Archie and occasionally a few Disney comics. My father, however, felt very strongly that comics were for boys, and so unless I was spending my hard earned ice cream money on the newest Archie Digest, I couldn’t keep up. So after a little bit, I stopped reading comics.
But I made my own ice cream money now, and I could spend it how I wanted. That meant that during my lunch break, I’d often walk down the street to the local comic book store. I’d stumbled onto Spawn somewhere along my way, and I absolutely loved the book. I’d managed to get most of the back issues, but I was desperate to read the rest of the story. Image books couldn’t ship on time if McFarlane’s Mark McGwire baseball collection was on the line, so I never knew when to look for it. Going weekly was the best solution. But after that summer, I gave up on the store, and I gave up on comics.
A note: at the time I thought that there were shipping delays; that would hardly have been news for Image. But during the process of writing this article, I looked up the shipping schedule for Spawn, and you know what? That comic wasn’t late once that whole fucking year, and not once did the store employees ever mention the words ‘pull list.’ I don’t know why I couldn’t get copies for myself. Except that I do. And it kills me.
But I digress. Why did I quit comics overall in the summer of 2000? I was tired of being hit on, for one, but the second was more frustrating: no one would fucking recommend anything to me.
Dealing with unwanted advances and street harassment is a pretty common experience for femme and non-binary presenting folk in the world, and as much as it frustrates, annoys, and sometimes frightens me, I’m pretty used to it, and pretty good at shutting it down.
But the inability to get a recommendation was, frankly, bizarre. Nerds of any stripe love to talk about their nerd stuff. Ask a computer nerd a question, and you will learn all about hardware and software and coding, whatever their specialty is. Ask a book nerd what they’re reading, and sit back and enjoy the show. Ask a Star Wars nerd if they preferred The Last Jedi or any other Star Wars movie, and watch the sparks fly. So how the hell did I spend most of a summer in a comic book shop, asking every week if there was any news on the next issue of Spawn, without finding another book to hang my hat on?
Here’s how things go when you’re me, a relatively femme-appearing white person who mostly passes as straight. I’d mention in passing that I really liked that movie The Matrix, and I would immediately be quizzed on my reading history within cyberpunk. I’d say that I dug Ray Bradbury, and get questioned for hours about whether I preferred Asimov or Heinlein. And these days, if I mention that I like Wolverine, there’s hours of queries on the history of the X-Men or whether Logan or James Howlett is a more appropriate name for the character. If I was lucky, these interrogations were an awkward but well meant attempt to bring a new acolyte into the fold by slamming every volume of comics history over her head. But more often than not it was a game of keepaway, designed to make me fail and look stupid in front of the guys who thought I was intruding on their space.
I was one of them.
Every week I went into that comics store. Every week I asked, “No Spawn?” They replied: no Spawn. (The Spawn which, I know now, seems to have shipped on time all year long.) “Any news?” Alas no. “So what else is good?” Silence.
That’s not entirely true, I suppose. Occasionally the cashier – the one who wasn’t trying to get a date – would suggest maybe I’d like Archie?
Motherfucker, if I’m reading Spawn, don’t patronize me by recomming fucking Archie. Give me Preacher, give me Sandman, give me Batman Gotham Adventures, give me Ultimate Spider-Man, give me fucking anything. Try. Amazing books were available then, amazing books I could have been reading. I know they exist because people are recommending them to me now. Things they say I should have read, things they tell me I’m not an insider because I did not read. Even though they were the ones who kept me from reading them.
It was painfully clear that I wasn’t wanted in that store, and honestly? I would have been okay with it if they’d just hung the “No Girls Allowed” sign where I could see.
So after that summer, I gave up on Spawn. I gave up on comics. I read Sandman and Preacher later in college when they were given to me by friends, but I stopped trying to find books on my own for about a decade. I’ve talked in length about how I got back into comics in the early 2010s here; to recap, I started reading comics again when I read books written about women by women. This reading trend has continued; while I’ve at various points read X-Men titles, Avengers titles, and every major Marvel tie-in event since Schism, the books that kept me tuned in were, over and over, the titles that had that #ownvoices connection: books about “diverse” (not cishet [cisgendered and heterosexual] white male) characters, often by authors whose marginalizations matched their characters. My recent primary reading list, either by subscription or in trade:
- Unstoppable Wasp
- Hulk (Re-branded as She-Hulk for the trade, so the ‘real’ Hulk didn’t get cooties.)
- Hawkeye: Kate Bishop
- Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur
- All-New Wolverine
- Jessica Jones
- Captain Marvel
- Invincible Iron Man: Ironheart
And hey, for your handy reference, here’s a list of the comics that Marvel just canceled:
- Generation X, an X-Men team headed by Jubilee
- Unbelievable Gwenpool
- Hawkeye: Kate Bishop
- Luke Cage
- (Unstoppable Wasp, Mockingbird, and Patsy Walker, AKA Hellcat are female-led titles that all got canceled several months ago)
Notice some crossover? If Twitter is to be believed, the vast majority of cishet white men did not, while everyone else really, really did. Every single canceled book has a marginalized main character; Black man, women, women of color, gay man, queer women of color.
Joe Quesada was quick to claim that the cancellations had nothing to do with diversity:
If a comic finds an audience it will stick around regardless of the lead character or creator’s gender, ethnicity, sexual preference or identification. You can claim we’re tone deaf but we PUBLISHED those books but you guys ultimately decide what survives. https://t.co/Uvw9pNiaXL
— JoeQuesada (@JoeQuesada) December 21, 2017
People took issue with how the former EiC and current Chief Creative Officer were blaming them for the books being canceled (as if Marvel had nothing to do with it); he then immediately said that he wasn’t blaming the readership, just, you know, the readers.
If you’ve been reading my tweets you’d understand that I’m not blaming readership. I’ve said the issue could be on the character, editorial or creative end. However, customers decide when we get it right and when we get it wrong. That’s not blame, that’s giving you guys power! https://t.co/IOTjG0jnVz
— JoeQuesada (@JoeQuesada) December 22, 2017
Yeah…no. Just no. There’s this thing that happens when companies “diversify” their offerings. Goal posts get perpetually moved – and invisibly, at that. First, it’s the classic, “Well if the writing was good enough, those people would get published.” Then, “If those stories were good enough, they would succeed.” Then, “Well, those stories that we didn’t push and didn’t maintain and didn’t even wait to see how they’d do in trade didn’t survive, and it must be because the readership doesn’t want these titles.”
During my years at Borders, there was this constant tension over having segregated fiction sections such as African-American Fiction, Lesbian Fiction, and Gay Fiction. There were two sides to the argument. Side 1: Pulling these titles out makes it easier for the people who want them to find them. Side 2: Pulling these titles out is segregation and separate but equal bullshit. It made us them. I was, and remain, firmly on side #2. At every relaunch, Marvel has talked about their “diverse” titles, clearly separating them out from the rest of their books. Ostensibly, this may be to try and expand their marketing base, but the incredibly poor way these announcements are handled (always, always othered, rather than part and parcel of “the world outside your window”) and the nonexistent push these book gets makes it clear that Marvel is doing two things. They are trying to check off “diverse” on their Ally Bingo card, and they are making sure their typical customer base (an ever aging group of white male nerds) knows how to avoid them. How to avoid me.
Marvel likes to act like poor readership happens in a vacuum. They fail to acknowledge that the primary method of publicizing new books is through local comic stores adding things to customers’ pull lists. They market things in a place where I – and people like me – have been specifically made to feel unwelcome, and then wonder why we don’t buy the books.
The thing is, we do buy the books. We buy them in digital and we buy them in trade, neither of which forces us to subject ourselves to the potentially hostile environment of the LCS. I know there are some great comic stores out there – I have one near me now – but that is far, far from a universal experience. But Comixology and Amazon are on the other end of your high speed internet connection. (Which is not universally available, an outgrowth of classism that someone not me is better equipped to have.)
G. Willow Wilson’s brilliant Ms. Marvel gets held up as proof that Marvel does consider trade and digital sales when it determines which books to cancel and which to retain, but G. Willow Wilson herself has commented on the sheer number of factors that contributed to Kamala’s unexpected success – and how it moved the goalposts yet again for characters who were outside the cishet white male norm. There are also plenty of examples where it’s simply untrue that Marvel waited for trade numbers, despite seeing how important they were to Ms. Marvel’s success. To pull some numbers from this Twitter thread: Unstoppable Wasp was canceled at issue #8, a month before the first trade came out. Iceman was canceled at the end of December; the first trade came out on December 27th. I had planned to buy it for myself as a birthday present. Mockingbird was also canceled at #8, along with the digital equivalent of an Anne Heche book thrown at author Chelsea Cain’s head, for bringing girls in, bring them in. The resulting publicity from her treatment was the most the book was ever talked about on comic news sites, going so far as the Washington Post. And in light of not just her treatment, but the series’ quality, the first trade paperback became the number one selling Marvel comic during the height of the outrage – outrage from fans who were so angry at them, and from the them who saw we were being pushed out.
My ranting wasn’t a plea for affirmation. Truly. I’m just done here. I’m amazed at the cruelty comics brings out in people.
— Chelsea Cain (@ChelseaCain) October 26, 2016
If you’ve got a New York Times bestseller writing a critically acclaimed comic and most of her fans don’t hear about it until after its been canceled, that’s on you, not them. (And if you really want to hurt, click through and see how Brian Michael Bendis, that “meat and potatoes” writer who everyone loves, responded. (And Cain and Bendis are *friends*.))
Both digital comics and trades sales numbers are hard to track; you can look at best sellers lists and make some guesses, but with Diamond numbers right out there, many people latch onto these as “proof” that a book is doing well or is failing. They happily ignore that these numbers only reflect what comic book stores think they can sell, not what they can actually sell. Meanwhile, the vast majority of digital and trade numbers are almost certainly sales to them, sales to people like me, who hate their LCS but still love comics.
Most of my comics-reading friends are those outside of the typical comics demographic. They’ve read Batwoman, Wonder Woman, Ms. Marvel, but they’ve wouldn’t set foot in a local comic store. They all had a moment, earlier on, where they went to a store and were one of them; now they get their books through Comixology. It’s a safe place for them.
So when Marvel says they count digital and trade sales, I flat out don’t believe them. (For the record, neither does Peter David, though I do disagree with his sideways blaming of trade readers.) Marvel is prioritizing an outdated and dying business model because they don’t know how or aren’t willing to remove themselves from a relationship that is no longer serving their needs. I’m not talking about Diamond, though it’s that too – it’s the people who have been buying their books this way for twenty years, and who fight to make sure it stays comfortable for them and only them. Their way of doing that is pushing out everyone else.
But even if I pretend to believe Marvel that these books were canceled because of low sales, canceling them all at the same time is a terrible, terrible look. Especially when your Senior VP of Sales and Marketing has gone on record saying “people didn’t want any more diversity. They didn’t want female characters out there.” When your Editor-in-Chief is a white dude who pretended to be Japanese so he could sell a comic. When there are constant, serious articles written about whether the current Marvel “diversity trend” is helping or harming the company.
So I’d like to clue you in, gentle reader, to a fun fact: diversity isn’t a fucking trend. The world outside my window involves people who encompass a spectrum of skin colors and genders and sexualities and ability levels and neurology types. Maybe Marvel’s windows have gotten smaller over the years, because all they seem to see is the same white guy customers they’ve been cultivating for decades. But reflecting the world as it is? Not a trend.
Let’s do a fun thought experiment. Imagine all the people in the world. We already know there are more people who are a shade of brown than there are white, right? Just by starting with white people, we’re already narrowing our group significantly.
Now think of just the percentage of white people who are men. We all know that more girls are born (assigned gender) than boys, and that women live longer than men. So our group here is getting smaller.
Now think of the percentage that is straight. Figure the most conservative estimate says that 1 in 10 people are gay (LGB) right? So that takes out another chunk of your pool. We don’t have any kind of accurate estimate of how many people are trans or on the ace spectrum, but just for fun, let’s say that’s another 1 in 10. Getting smaller. And not every cishet white guy is a comic book nerd. So, you’ve got a smaller and smaller buying pool.
I write about marketing quite literally every day. When you’re a micro-company, having an incredibly small and specialized niche market is the key to success. But when you’re a big-ass company with serious electric bills and major shipping costs, you need to appeal to more people. And, frankly, the population of people who are brown, queer, female, etc – or sometimes more than one at once! – is a hell of a lot bigger. Why in the world would you choose to ignore them? Even if books with more diversity aren’t selling as well as the major cishet white guy titles; there’s a concept in business called loss leaders. I went over that in a Twitter rant here:
So here’s a thing Marvel completely fails to understand as they yet again cancel a round of titles featuring characters that fall outside of the cis white straight male stereotype of superhero comic self-insert bullshit.
— K. Tilden Frost (@KTildenFrost) December 22, 2017
Loss leaders are a necessary part of successful retail. You sell certain products at a loss to bring in customers outside your base, hoping to convert a percentage of them to regulars. This is why your favorite bookstore sells new books at an absurd discount, why Amazon sells Kindles at a loss, why your cell phone company gives you great deals on new phones, why freemium software exists…this is a standard retail practice. DC, a company which lacks self-awareness to such a degree that they were surprised that a lesbian Batwoman would be a big deal to anyone, has used the concept of loss leaders to bring in younger fans, figuring they will ‘graduate’ to other titles and remain long-term customers. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Marvel would do well to take a leaf from the tobacco industry.
I love All-New Wolverine; I’ve loved Laura Kinney since her first series by Christopher Yost and Craig Kyle and the follow up by Marjorie Liu. I loved her in Uncanny X-Force, I loved her in All-New X-Men, and God help me, I even loved her in that horrible Battle Royale rip-off mini series, Avengers Arena. Wearing the mantle of Wolverine in the All-New title, Laura is coming into her own, overcoming the trigger scent that had been her major weakness up to now, making peace with old villains from her past, and developing a relationship with her clone, Gabby, which mirrored her past relationships with Gambit and Logan, while showing her deliberately trying to give Gabby more than she ever got. It’s an exceptional series, and I absolutely love it.
And it had made me start thinking that it would be worth it to get back into the X-Men again. I had been hardcore in for a little while, reading all the team books as Scott Summers and Wolverine fought about whose school would survive, as Emma Frost and Magneto tried to recover their powers after they had been broken by their encounter with the Phoenix Force, and as the time-displaced X-men tried to figure out where they belonged in this new world. (I quit over “full gay,” one of the many, many times that Bendis was tone-deaf writing outside his lane, and a classic example of what happens when someone who is not marginalized tries to write about someone who is) If I started reading one X-Men title, I was going to have to read them all; it’s almost impossible to read just one and know what’s going on.
But now? No. No way.
Let’s back up again. Because on top of the cancellations, in a one-two punch that reduced me to absolute tears, Marvel just announced a Create Your Own Comic website which, apart from being a blatant rights grab like all “we’ll totally publish your fanfic about our worlds” sites, won’t accept submissions that include:
- “Content that could frighten or upset young children or the parents of young children.”
- Prescription drugs or over-the-counter medication, vitamins, and dietary supplements.
- “Suggestive or revealing images,” including “bare midriffs”
- “Sensationalism,” which is not defined but elucidated with the examples “killer bees, gossip, aliens, scandal, etc.”
- “Obscenity, bad or offensive language” or “proxies for bad or offensive language.” E.g. no “X@#%!”
- “Noises related to bodily functions.”
- No politics, including “alternative lifestyle advocacies”
- “Misleading language”
- “A copy or parody of current or past Marvel advertising creative”
- Any “controversial topics,” including “social issues”
- Double entendres
- Any amusement parks that aren’t Disney amusement parks
- Any movie studios that aren’t “affiliated with Marvel”
I mean, I guess my first question is, has Marvel read their own comics?
But look closer. I bolded it to make it easy. Social issues. Alternative lifestyle “advocacies,” which is as clear a code for “social degenerates” as “ungrateful” is for “uppity.” Yet more evidence that Marvel thinks of diversity as a trend, a social justice warrior checkbox to move on from, not real live breathing people who were, until recently, featured in their own damn comics. Who were providing real, honest portrayals of ways that people who looked or felt like them could be superheroes in a world that, more than ever, seems out to destroy them. Out to destroy me, a queer, autistic, enby who just wants to read some good comics without feeling like there’s no happy endings in them for someone like me.
So I quit Marvel. I canceled my digital single issues. I canceled all my trade pre-orders. People assume that this sort of move is a “boycott,” an organized attempt to get a company to change policy. I get why there’s pushback against that, and why people point out that boycotting hurts creators, not the company itself. I really do understand. But.
First, it’s my money, I will do exactly what I goddamn well want with it, and if my choice is to support indie creators and companies who value my existence, then that’s what I’m going to do.
Second, these arguments are predicated on the notion that I’m taking my business elsewhere like some bitch in a huff because I think it’ll get me what I want. I appreciate – and personally, know very well – the pain that comes when a creative something barely makes a ripple when you were hoping for a splash. But there are so few places I can turn for representation that when I lose a piece of that, I end up losing a piece of myself. I still remember how it felt when Joss killed Tara all those years ago; more recently, I remember when I quit The 100 after hearing that the lesbian love interest was being killed off to make way for the cute male hero all the fans shipped. And I remember how I felt, one morning in December, when I woke up to find that virtually all the books I love were being canceled because I wasn’t enough.
Excuse me. Because the sales weren’t enough. That’s what I meant. Right?
Maybe Marvel doesn’t even hate me. Maybe Marvel is indifferent to me, my existence, even my money. Maybe Marvel just thinks that to keep the readers they have, they have to agree with those readers who hate me. Marvel didn’t see me there before, trying to get my foot in the door and continually ignored, interrogated, and sometimes just pushed out of the way. Why would they care about me now?
After all, Marvel only loves what it can commodify. That’s a business model doomed to fail in the modern age. Successful companies now operate on passion products, items that they love so much they need to share them with like-minded customers. That model makes crowdfunding work, that makes social media work, that makes our modern digital commerce work.
But then, there’s plenty of work out there – Ava DuVernay, Shonda Rhimes, Angie Thomas, Roxane Gay, I can keep going – which demonstrates that you can commodify products tailored to an audience outside of cishet white men and be incredibly successful. So maybe the problem is that Marvel only loves what it already knows how to sell. It loves white Captain America and white guy Thor and their rapidly aging white guy audience that is here for their white guy characters who tell them they can be better than they are, or will ever be. The rest of us are welcome to enjoy these characters if we want – as long as we don’t mind that they don’t share any aspect of our perspective or identity, and as long as we show proper gratitude for being allowed in in the first place.
According to Marvel, only cishet white men get the recognition of themselves as valid. Queer Puerto Ricans and gay men and Black men and even just girls who want to be superhero detectives and get to hang out with Jessica Jones (a non-traditional, alcoholic, PTSD-ridden woman who was, it turns out, sellable enough to get her own television show) don’t get a chance to see themselves saving the world, making mistakes, falling in love, having broken hearts, picking themselves up and moving on. Why don’t they want there be room for all of us?
Far too many of us know the answer to that question.
I’m not quitting comics in general. I’m still going to buy the Marvel comics I love, but I’m going to buy them second hand so Marvel gets absolutely none of my goddamn money. I’m not going to quit DC or Image or other well-known companies. I like those books, and I want them to see that I’m here – and right now they’ve shown more than Marvel that they want me to be seen. I’m going to seek out and support indie creators who want me to get my happy ending as much as I do. I’m going to look for creators who are more marginalized than me, or who are differently marginalized, and I’m going to support their work because even someone who doesn’t look or act like me is still a reflection of humanity that has value – emotionally and monetarily. I’m going to recommend the hell out of these books, and instead of focusing on them as “diverse,” I’m just going to tell people that they’re goddamn good. Man, if you haven’t read Issue #9 of theRebirth run of Batwoman I just don’t even know what you’re doing with your life.
But let’s back up one more time. Because I did something important before I made the call to cancel all my Marvel books. I called my 10 year old into the room. She’s the one, after all, who lives for Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur and was ecstatic about the new Spider-Girl collection, two preorders on my personal chopping block. I explained what Marvel had done, how they kept canceling comics about people who looked and felt even a little bit differently from the people who ran the company.
She had some questions. She asked why Disney didn’t make Marvel stop it. I explained that Marvel movies and Marvel comics don’t actually have a hell of a lot to do with each other, and that Disney didn’t really have much to do with Marvel comics. I talked about how the Marvel movies are doing some really cool things, in fact, talking about the appreciation of Thor: Ragnarok and its indictment of colonialism from the point of view of indigenous people.
She was grateful that the movies hadn’t been tainted for her, but she was shocked that Marvel would cancel all these books in this way. She’s still at an age where she believes that adults are inherently kind and just. After all, we condition kids pretty hard to trust the adults around them. The entire world is committed to teaching my daughter to be kind, loving, empathetic; I’m here to teach her how to be angry – why she should be, and that it’s okay, even right. I have to teach her how to see those tricky little “No Girls Allowed” signs, the ones that are hidden behind sideways comments and fake geek girl memes and comics that just never happen to be in stock when you’re there. I have to teach her to see the signs that warn off all the other members of the great them and teach her to tear them all the way the fuck down, and promise her that she doesn’t have to be sweet while she does it.
So after explaining the situation and getting her reactions, I asked her what she thought we should do. She asked what choices we had; after all, she wanted to read about the characters she loves, but she didn’t think these people sounded very nice, and she didn’t think they should get paid. When I talked about buying the books used, she said she thought that was the very best idea. Marvel doesn’t really understand that it lost two customers instead of one, because it doesn’t seem to care very much about her either.
And you know, maybe they shouldn’t. After all, Boom! Box and Viz and even DC are doing a vastly better job of catering to her interests and welcoming her through the door of comics. I’d rather have Marvel be honest that we’re not welcome than lie about it. Because I don’t want my daughter to feel like them in a comic book store. And if I do my job right, she won’t see a them. Just the many flavors of us, and the people who try to divide us.
I’m disappointed in Marvel. Their characters taught me to love comics again after years and years of not giving a shit. But it turns out they have no use for me; in turn, I have no use for them. I don’t love Marvel any more than I love Kleenex; they are a means to an end, a distribution method that used to help me explore a medium that I love.
But I can’t support someone who hates me anymore. I won’t.