I’d like to apologise in advance for the scattershot nature of this essay – I still don’t have my thoughts entirely together on this subject, so I’ll be trying to work them out in the piece itself. Join me, won’t you?
Thor: God of Thunder #25 in now available in fine comic shops and digital distributors everywhere; and with it, we see the end of the Thor’s run as the God of Thunder (Editor's note: AHEM). When the book relaunches next month with a bright, shiny new #1, the much ballyhooed female Thor will star within its pages. The Falcon is also getting a promotion, taking over as Captain America not just in comic of the same name, but also headlining the newly re-launched Captain America and the Mighty Avengers. I have both of these comics on my pull list, and was strongly considering dropping them with the respective final volumes of the current volumes – both books have a $3.99 price point. But now I don’t want too, because I don’t want to send the wrong message to Marvel – that female or minority leads are of no interest to me as a comics reader.
First off, I’d like to take a moment to discuss how poorly overall Marvel has handled the announcements of these new characters. I still remember a couple of years ago, when Peter Parker “died”, Marvel’s stance was very “This is it. Peter’s dead, that’s the status quo, deal with it.” We all knew it was just a story – a tentpole of Slott’s run on the character, sure, but still a story. But Marvel still had the balls to stick with their narrative, to push the illusion of change that is so vital to maintaining a viable superhero continuity. I feel it’s telling, then, that the press releases in advance of both of these changes were very clear that this was "only in the comics" and that the originals "would still be around." Why is having your protagonist’s mind wiped and replaced by his greatest adversary so business-as-usual that you can pretend it’s a permanent alteration, but a black man in Cap’s costume is so scary that you have to reassure fans Chris Evans is still contracted to the role?
Not only that, but Sam Wilson’s credit has never been higher than it was after Anthony Mackie’s brilliant turn as the character in this year’s block buster Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I said in my review at the time that I thought Mackie’s portrayal merited a shot at a solo film – I also feel like Marvel could have launched a high profile Falcon series to a lot of acclaim. This would have let the character keep his own history and identity instead of making it seem like the only way to give him a shot at the brass ring was under someone else’s uniform.
Even for all that, I would still have happily gobbled up these comics – Jason Aaron and Al Ewing are two of my favorite writers going today, and both of them have told compelling, fun stories based strongly in character dynamic and relationships over the current volumes of these titles. And despite the ham fistedness of the books initial press releases, Marvel has a pretty great track record with these kinds of projects. They continue to put a lot of juice behind Captain Marvel, She-Hulk is so good it’s almost physically painful, and Ms. Marvel – the sixteen year old Muslim girl with superpowers – is one of the best comics on the stands (and the first book to nail the Spider-Man formula since…well, Spider-Man, really). But there have been more than a couple of disturbingly gluttonous trends coming from the House of Ideas regarding price point that give me pause.
Let me be frank: I think $3.99 is too much money to pay for a corporate superhero comic. I know writers and artists have to get paid, and that the price of printing a comic continues to rise; but when I can get the same amount or more of (arguably stronger) content from an Image book for $3.50 or even $2.99, that fifty cent difference really starts to look like greed. I can plunk down four bucks for a book from a Boom! or an Oni, because those are the little fish trying to stay competitive in a cutthroat marketplace. But dropping the same amount for twenty pages of superhero melodrama, however entertaining that melodrama is and however invested in those characters I may be, makes me feel a tad foolish.
(Quick sidebar: this is also why I’m not buying DC’s Superman. They took the opportunity of an all-star creative team crafting a perfect jumping on point for lapsed readers of the biggest, most important character in comics to raise the price point a buck.)
Add to that the fact that a number of their $3.99 books ship every two or three weeks, and that their biggest franchises require following more than one book to keep up with the whole story – All-New and Uncanny X-Men, adjective-less and New Avengers – and the cost of reading about Marvel comics on a monthly basis becomes almost untenable. Which is what makes the next trend so ominous.
Over the last couple of years, Marvel has been releasing Annuals at a $4.99 price point. They’ve mostly been throwaway stories, loosely connected across three different “specials”, or one-shots meant to flesh out a certain character in the main book, a la New Avengers Annual #1. I haven’t been thrilled by the idea, but I didn’t complain – they were supplemental material, meant to embellish and enrich the experience of a shared universe but were not, on the whole, required reading.
Then, two weeks in a row, Marvel released Avengers #34.1 and #35 – both “numbered” Avengers stories, meant to tie in to the overarching narrative of the current Avengers run, and both price pointed at $4.99. #34.1 was arguably another throwaway tale, much in the vein of the aforementioned New Avengers Annual – except, by adding in the “.1” numbering, Marvel surreptitiously goaded their notoriously completion-obsessed audience into picking up a book they might otherwise avoided. And adding a dollar onto an issue just because it kicks off a new storyline? That’s a practice that leads somewhere very dangerous for comics as an industry.
The best way to combat these practices, we’re told, is with our wallets. If we stop paying overinflated prices, the argument goes, then Marvel (or DC, or whoever) will curb those practices. But in this particular case, a dip in the numbers will most likely be read as it always has – that comics readers aren’t interested in a protagonist who isn’t a specimen of the white, male standard.
Look, I’m Whitey McWhitebread. I have blonde hair, blue eyes, no rhythm, and a complete inability to tan on any level. I’m not scared or threatened because Thor (one of my top five favorite comic characters) is now a woman; as long as the new Cap gets to keep those kick-ass wings, I’m on board. But it’s unfortunate that Marvel wants to take these steps, tentative as they may be, at the same time that they continue to drive prices out of the means of casual readers who might actually benefit from these comics. It’s a recipe for disaster, and no matter what happens, everyone will lose.
By the way – both She-Hulk and Ms. Marvel, the two books that best prove there’s a viable market for female superheroes and heroes of color? Both retail for $2.99 monthly, and are available right now.