Remember back in November 2011 when Marvel axed their two remaining female-lead superhero books, "X-23" and "Ghost Rider" (starring Alejandra Blaze, not Johnny), causing the Internet to go into a tizzy? The competitive side of me hated that Marvel could not get its act together while DC was enjoying critical and fan acclaim with "Wonder Woman," "Batgirl" and "Batwoman" (just half of their female-centric output). Especially since when it comes to female characters, Marvel can bring the goods. Storm? Black Widow? Rogue? Elektra? Black Cat? Ms. Marvel? She-Hulk? These are all characters that should be A-List. Storm should be able to headline a series the same way Wonder Woman does. If Batgirl can move copies, so should Kitty Pryde. But whereas it's become hard to imagine a month of DC Comics without an issue of "Catwoman" or "Birds of Prey," in November 2011 it was easy to imagine a month where Marvel put out books where women were only co-stars, never the star.
And the Internet outrage was justified. Now, I don't know if Marvel really listened to the Internet. I have no idea if some intern quickly printed out a stack of posts from Tumblr and plopped them on the desk of Mr. Big Executive In Charge Of Comics and said, "The Internet wants more female-driven books!" But when you look at the complete turnaround Marvel did from canceling their last two female-led in November 2011 to the reality of February 2013, I have to imagine something happened.
Marvel now publishes three ongoings with female leads: "Captain Marvel," "Red She-Hulk" and the Sif-centric "Journey Into Mystery." On top of that, the new iteration of the incredibly popular "Uncanny X-Force" title has a 4-to-1 ratio in favor of women. On top of that, today Marvel launched "Fearless Defenders," their first all-female, ongoing team book since...forever? And on top of both of those on top of thats, we're now a month and change away from an all-female "X-Men" book by Brian Wood and Olivier Coipel. Marvel did such a dramatic about-face that they're just spinning in a circle now. They are giving us what we said we wanted.
But they aren't selling.
Now before I continue, I have to make a few things clear since I know that cancellation is nothing to joke about. I have heard no rumors or rumblings of any Marvel cancellations. In fact, I was under the assumption that most of these books were doing great, judging by the positive word-of-mouth and constant presence on social media. I just made the mistake of checking out the most recently available sales figures from December 2012, and I got slapped in the face with the cold, dead fish of reality.
"Captain Marvel," "Journey Into Mystery" and "Red She-Hulk" are all selling between 20,000 and 23,000 copies a month. To put that in perspective, the company these three books were keeping on the November 2012 sales figures ("Avengers Academy," "Age of Apocalypse," "Defenders" and "X-Treme X-Men") have all been cancelled. Comparing these sales figures to their DC counterparts is even more disheartening (as a Marvel fan who wants to see these books succeed, that is. It's great for the industry!). "Batgirl" comfortably sells 50,000 a month. "Catwoman" and "Wonder Woman" are just a little behind at 40,000. "Batwoman" is leveling out in the mid-30,000 area. Objectively, I am pleased that DC has success with their female headliners. That's a step in the right direction. I just want the same thing for Marvel.
Keep in mind that these sales figures represent the physical copies sold and ignore digital. I would hope that "Cap," "JIM" and "Red" are doing well digitally. This has to be the case for "Captain Marvel," which is a book that has ignited a fan base so passionate that it regularly surprises me. The Carol Corps, so named after Cap herself (Carol Danvers), are incredibly vocal on Tumblr. There's fanart, cosplay, dog tags, craft projects and writer Kelly Sue DeConnick herself getting actively involved. Honestly, books like "Captain Marvel" and "Batgirl" and the Tumblrs of their respective authors (Kelly Sue and Gail Simone) perfectly illustrate what it means to be a fan in the year 2013. It's not enough to just read and enjoy a comic nowadays. There are now whole communities built up to keep you engaged on a daily basis, and you can even interact with the creators who make those books. I remember freaking out over the fact that Scott Lobdell did Marvel AOL chats in the late ‘90s. Tumblr's interaction level is like that times a million.
But then I see the sales figures, and I have to pick my jaw up off the floor. How is that possible? It's proof that the Internet is just a tiny sliver of the comic buying populace, which itself is already a tiny sliver of all pop culture consumers. But then again, those sales figures are possibly just as much proof that the way sales are recorded is broken. Is "Captain Marvel" selling like gangbusters digitally? I personally know of at least four of my friends, people who do not rush out every Wednesday to get their stack and definitely don't follow comic book news sites (and will therefore never know that they were vaguely referenced here), who have paid money to read "Captain Marvel" digitally. Does their voice count? They are enjoying the comic. They are paying money. They are making it worthwhile. I have no idea if it matters. Digital is such a new medium and the sales figures for comiXology are so shrouded in mystery that it does nothing to alleviate the panic I feel when I see those sales numbers.
But again I must reiterate: I have heard no rumors of cancellation or seen anything but overwhelming support from Marvel for "Captain Marvel," so it's entirely possible that the books assumed digital success is keeping it going. But then again, there has yet to be a book that was saved from print cancellation due to digital sales, and no cancelled print book has yet made the jump to a digital exclusive. There are no examples to go buy and my crazy, frenzied guessing is all I have right now.
The only thing I can recommend is that people try these books. Characters like Spider-Man and Batman can handle passive fandom. You can wear all the t-shirts and see all the films you want and never pick up the comic. That's fine. Their comics are going nowhere. But these newer or lower-profile characters cannot survive that style of fandom. There will be no Carol Danvers wallets. There will be no Sif baseball hats. These characters have to be enjoyed in comic book form, and just reblogging cool screencaps is not enough to keep the comics that contain those screencaps in production. Marvel execs are looking at sales, not Tumblr notes. This is not meant to sound accusatory towards Tumblr fans; I would assume that everyone on Tumblr is paying for and enjoying the comics they are blogging about. That's what I assume. Please let my assumption be truth, people.
Anyone who is a fan of Jeff Parker should be reading "Red She-Hulk." It's as full of bombastic ideas and snappy dialogue as his work on "Hulk" and "Thunderbolts." Everyone who has steered clear of Betty Ross' alter-ego because you think she's a shameless rip-off of the classic green She-Hulk will find themselves sorely mistaken. Jeff Parker has taken the phenomenal work Matt Fraction did with the character in "Defenders" and added new layers to it. The art by Wellinton Alves and Carlo Pagulayan is enjoyably brutal. It's everything you want from a Hulk comic. The series started with "Red She-Hulk" #58.
If I can be convinced to read a comic book starring Sif on a monthly basis, then anyone can. I have never enjoyed Marvel's Norse shenanigans, but I love "Journey Into Mystery." Writer Kathryn Immonen is doing a bang up job of dissecting the warrior Sif, tearing her down to her most basic elements and building her back up again. It's psychologically deep while still letting the art team of penciler Valerio Schiti amd colorist Jordie Bellaire cut loose with some of the most brawl-tastic action seen in a monthly comic book. Schiti is destined for the big leagues, and you need to get on board now. The series started with "Journey Into Mystery" #646.
There's no praise I can heap upon "Captain Marvel" that it isn't already proudly carrying month in and month out. Kelly Sue Deconnick is writing this book like the blockbuster it deserves to be. The book has a rich supporting cast that is exclusively Carol's. Every issue feels complete, while still part of a larger whole. I have never left an issue of "Cap" feeling short-changed. DeConnick is also writing the most naturalistic and modern dialogue in the Marvel Universe. These characters jab and joke like human beings. All of this is present in "Captain Marvel" #9, which just so happens to be the most recent issue. It doesn't hurt that it's the most uniquely beautiful books on the stands right now. Filipe Andrade has been lurking around the edges of Marvel for a few years now, doing back-ups and low-profile minis. This is the first time that I really got who he is as an artist, and the first time I feel like his voice has come through. This is where Andrade becomes a go-to artist (being colored by the brilliantly versatile Jordie Bellaire didn't hurt either). This issue is a perfect jumping on point and it features Captain Marvel punching a dinosaur in the face. In the face, y'all.
I now reiterate for a third time that as far as I know, there are no rumblings of termination for any of these three books. I don't want to incite a panic. I just want to spotlight them and praise the tremendous work these creative teams are doing. For some insane reason, launching and sustaining a female-led comic at Marvel is hard. These three writers have taken three characters with very lengthy and complex back stories and made them immediately accessible, relatable and root-for-able. I love the Avengers and Spider-Man as much as the next guy, but I don't want to just read those comics for the rest of my life. I want new books to succeed. I want books with different types of leading characters to succeed. This is how the industry grows. This is how it survives.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre show Left Handed Radio: The Sequel Machine. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).