Brow Beat

Marvel’s Newly Renumbered Comic Books Reveal Its Historic Disinterest in Promoting Black Superheroes

Marvel Comics
Deadpool debuted 25 years after Black Panther, but has over 100 more books?

Marvel Comics

Marvel renumbered almost all of their comic titles last month. This in and of itself is not news—in 1996, the Avengers, Iron Man, Fantastic Four, and Captain America became the first of many titles to “end” and later relaunch at No. 1. Fans have always complained about this tactic, which interrupts the consistency of the narratives and has made tracking the history of each series much more difficult for purists. Yet for all the vocal dissent, Marvel’s business hasn’t been hurt but instead has been helped by it. Senior vice president and executive editor Tom Brevoort has candidly framed it as an easy cash grab on multiple occasions, including in 2013:

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The number is there to serve a function, but it has no intrinsic value in and of itself. It’s comfort food and nostalgia at best. On this, we follow what you and your fellow readers do more than what you say. We hear complaints about renumbering every time we do it, but every time we do it, it results in higher sales, which is the whole ballgame—so if it were your time and your effort, what would you do?

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Now Brevoort and the rest of the creative team are singing a slightly different tune. In June of this year, it was announced that, in order to launch the Marvel Legacy series, and bring greater focus to their core heroes, the numbers of some titles would reset yet again, this time as if there had never been any artificial reboots. And so the most recent iteration of Invincible Iron Man, which ran as issues Nos. 1–11 in 2016, has now been reclassified as Nos. 582-592. The newest issue, published earlier this month, is No. 593. Brevoort may have seen the old way of categorizing the series as little more than “comfort food and nostalgia” in the past, but it’s impossible to deny that it matters now. Insofar as the previous numbering did not reflect the actual publication history of the book, the new numbering is explicitly meant to reflect that history and the legacy of each character. And in doing this, Marvel has unwittingly revealed how little interest it has in centering voices that aren’t white.

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Since the number of the comics reflects the length of their runs, Black Panther, who made his first appearance in the Fantastic Four in 1966 as the first black superhero in American comic books and was given his own title in January of 1977, has had a total of 166 books. Luke Cage, who starred in his first series five years before Black Panther, has had 166 solo comics as well. That may seem like no small amount, but there are disparities to glean here.

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Titles like Amazing Spider-Man currently reach 789 books, Hulk is at 709, Thor at 700, and Daredevil at 595. One could make the argument that these have higher numbers because they are older titles: Spider-Man got his own ongoing series in March of 1963 and Daredevil premiered in April of 1964. But what do we say about Deadpool, who debuted 25 years after Black Panther and 19 years after Luke Cage, having a total of 287 books to his name? Or the fact that Moon Knight, a tertiary character if ever there was one, and who first received his own ongoing series in 1980, totals at 188 issues?

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Marvel’s renumbering starkly brings to light the publisher’s complicity in white supremacy. “White supremacy” is not, as some people may believe, a phrase that applies only to crosses burning on the lawns of black homes or ‘whites only’ signs hanging ominously above water fountains and swimming pools—it’s much more expansive than that. As Bell Hooks has explained, “…white supremacy doesn’t just evoke white people, it evokes a political world that we can all frame ourselves in relationship to.” If we were to ask of Marvel, “Who were they catering to when deciding which character arc they would center?” the arrival of the Marvel Legacy series demonstrates that, clearly, they’ve only really had white readers in mind.

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While I applaud how Marvel is now centering blackness with the TV show Luke Cage, and how they have made the official film of Black History Month 2018 with the upcoming release of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, I’m concerned that it may only be interested in riding the wave of commercialized wokeness as opposed to making substantive changes in their core media. Earlier this year, vice president of sales David Gabriel explicitly claimed that fans didn’t appreciate the company’s recent attempts at inclusion: “We saw the sales of any character that was diverse, any character that was new … people were turning their nose up against.” (He later insisted that characters like Miles Morales would remain.) And while Marvel gave Ta-Nehesi Coates a platform to imagine a country untouched by white supremacy in the relaunch of the main Black Panther books, it’s already cancelled the spinoff World of Wakanda, the title written by Roxane Gay and Yona Harvey, who were the first two black women to author a series for the publisher, after only six issues. Further, it ended Black Panther and the Crew, another spinoff series (also written by Coates) that highlighted black superheroes in the universe, also after just six issues.

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Neither of these titles were given a chance to gain a readership large enough to sustain them economically, and a large part of this is a failure of marketing. When Marvel first announced that Coates was taking over the Black Panther comics in 2015, it did so within the pages of the Atlantic, Newsweek, and Time. The company did not put as much effort into trying to reach the same readers with Gay’s World of Wakanda and that is probably a big part of why that title sold so poorly. It appears that white titles like Venom and Black Bolt get more breathing room, while black titles must find an audience quickly or risk cancellation.

In light of this, it doesn’t seem promising that Marvel will attempt to expand its characters and readership, even though there’s ample opportunity to tap into the growing market of black boys and girls who could become avid readers of comics. I’m all for Marvel’s new numbering system—Black Panther and Luke Cage have a long, rich history, and how they are cataloged should reflect that. But we should not ignore what this renumbering reveals: A clear preference for white readers at the expense of black ones that doesn’t appear to be ebbing anytime soon. I hope that they will pay closer attention to their audience. Black kids deserve to have comic books that represent them.

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