What Marvel Comics' new era of diversity means for sales


The Marvel Comics universe is getting more diverse these days, and while some question the recent changes to the superhero lineup, the plot thickens about what the changes could mean for the future of comics.

Over the past five months, the editors and writers at Marvel Comics have been pushing the boundaries of what mainstay characters look like. Ms. Marvel, Captain America and Thor have morphed into a Pakistani American teen who is Muslim, a black man and a woman.

Some fans have decried the changes, but industry insiders say it's helping sales and augmenting stagnant consumer bases.

The recent trend toward diversity is not a company-wide mandate, but each new success incentivizes further changes, Marvel Comics executive editor Tom Brevoort told CNBC.

"It's almost a little mercenary," Brevoort said. "It's not like it doesn't come from a place of good- heartedness, but if we didn't get the kind of response we do every time we try to introduce one of these characters, we wouldn't keep doing it."

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In October, Marvel will change two major titles: Sam Wilson (a black hero formerly known as the Falcon) will take up the title and shield of Captain America, and an unknown woman will become the new Thor. In February, Ms. Marvel was reintroduced as Kamala Khan, a Pakistani American teenager from Jersey City.

Marvel has a history of featuring "characters of the sort that you just didn't see in other comics," Brevoort said, adding that Batman (from rival DC Comics) never had to worry about paying rent.

But the faces of comics' heroes have become especially diversified in the past 10 years. The company had to rely on "more than a bunch of blond-haired guys that were invented 50 years ago," Brevoort said.

Sales for the Muslim American Ms. Marvel have far exceeded expectations, said Gerry Gladston, the co-owner and CMO of Midtown Comics—the self-described largest comics retailer in the U.S.

"Ms. Marvel has been doing very well: The first couple issues really rocked, sales were great, and they remain really good," he said.

Gladston said that he has seen an increase in women taking part in the comics community as more female characters lead major titles because "they really like it when females are treated with respect on these topics."

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Brevoort confirmed that he has seen "far, far more women" engaged in the comics community, although they may have simply been in hiding before.

"I don't wonder if there were not a significant number of female readers who felt uncomfortable being identified by [stereotypes of the medium's readership] who now feel much more comfortable in embracing it and embodying it," he said.

Either way, "it's certainly a phenomenon, and it's something we'd like to tap into from a creative and commercial standpoint," Brevoort added.

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Further commercial success may be on its way in October when Marvel's new heroes debut.

"[Character diversity] is something I care about," said Jordan M., a 22-year-old woman shopping in the Midtown Comics Times Square location Monday evening. She declined to give her full last name because she said she was worried that it could negatively affect her job in public relations if it was known she read comics.

"I would definitely buy a new title just because I support them promoting diversity," she added.

—By CNBC's Everett Rosenfeld