The comic book industry doesn’t care if you’re a New York Times best-selling author or the winner of a National Book Award — it has no problem canceling books, even great ones, even ones featuring Black Panther, the star of Marvel’s next big movie after Thor: Ragnarok.
New York Times best-selling author Roxane Gay confirmed on Twitter this week that Marvel has canceled Black Panther: World of Wakanda, after publishing only six issues.
Gay was co-writing the book with National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates and Yona Harvey, while Alitha Martinez and Afua Richardson provided the art. It centers on exploring the stories of the other, intriguing characters who live in Black Panther’s fictional country of Wakanda.
The book’s cancellation comes as a surprise to many, since Gay and Coates are well-known and critically acclaimed authors. And its timing, to an outside observer, might seem shocking: Coates announced that Marvel canceled his Black Panther and Crew comic in May, and both cancellations have come just as Marvel Studios is kicking off its marketing campaign for its 2018 Black Panther movie, whose first teaser trailer was released earlier this month.
The decision to cancel both of these titles will no doubt ignite the perpetual debate over Marvel’s commitment to diversity in its stories and comic books. Canning two books that feature black characters seems egregious, especially when there are plenty of marquee superhero titles that bumble along in mediocrity. But the cancellations also represent a deeper struggle of the comic book industry, simply because the industry is built in a way that makes it hard for newer, lesser-known comics to succeed.
The comic book industry’s sales structure is killing good comic books
The blunt reason why Marvel canceled Coates’s and Gay’s comic books, or any other comic book, is that they weren’t selling. Gay’s World of Wakanda debuted in November and sold an estimated 57,073 issues according to Comichron, a site that catalogs the yearly and monthly sales of comic books. Its last issue, the sixth in the series, was published in April and sold 14,547 copies. That’s a major drop; a “good” sales figure for a typical comic book is around 30,000 to 35,000 copies.
Quite simply, World of Wakanda wasn’t selling well enough — but the solution isn’t as simple as going to your local comic store and buying more copies of Gay’s books.
That’s because, in Marvel’s eyes, the number of copies of World of Wakanda that were sold in comic book stores was decided months ago.
Considering the numerous ways and formats in which we are now able consume different kinds of pop culture, from books to music to television shows to movies, the comic book industry is unique in that it still relies on an outdated method of distribution.
Every major US comic book company — Marvel, DC, Image, etc. — relies on one company, Diamond Comic Distributors, to print and ship their books to independent retailers, a.k.a. the owners of comic book shops. Diamond sells comics to comic book shops as final sale, meaning owners aren’t allowed to return or exchange books that didn’t sell. This is in contrast to traditional book retailers, which can sell back the books they weren’t able to sell.
Further, these orders are tallied three months in advance of a comic book’s release, based on what the industry calls “solicitations.” Solicitations are a couple of pages’ worth of unlettered previews that show off the issue and give retailers a gauge of how many copies to order.
Faced with this system, retailers will hedge their bets. They want to pick the comic books they can sell the most copies of, since they’re taking that final sale hit, which means titles focused on A-list superheroes like Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man are favored over titles that feature newer characters, and big events and crossovers like Secret Empire take priority over regular stories.
Marvel, in turn, tends to lean into what those retailers want, producing more titles that feature A-list superheroes or that involve big events and crossovers, and culling titles featuring lesser-known characters that might not sell as well. As a result, lots of new books and stories don’t have much of a chance to succeed or a margin for error.
It’s a system that rewards the status quo, instead of taking risks and breaking new ground.
It’s easy to get mad about Gay’s and Coates’s comic books being canceled. It’s harder to support them.
Back in April, one of Marvel’s vice presidents said in an interview that Marvel had learned from retailers that diversity hasn’t been selling. It caused a massive, angry backlash against the company and was widely covered by news outlets.
Clearly, fans and critics were upset by the statement, and feel passionate about the importance of diverse comic books. But turning that passion and anger into something tangible is difficult.
The comic book industry isn’t going to magically change its distribution system overnight, and in order to flourish within the system, comic books must be preordered. Since comic books are sold to retailers as final sale and are ordered three months in advance, walking into your local comic book shop and buying a book off the shelf does nothing to directly support the book in the eyes of the publisher or Diamond’s sales.
The only real way around this is to preorder a book from your local shop in advance of its release, which alerts the shop owner that there’s interest in a title, and that they should stock it in on their shelves. Comic book writer Kelly Sue DeConnick explained the importance and effect of readers’ preorders on her Tumblr:
If the shop knows you’re going to buy, well then, that’s a no-brainer sale for them, isn’t it? Most stores will reward a guaranteed purchase with a discount. And at some stores the discounts get deeper if you subscribe to (or “pull”) a title, and deeper still if you pull multiple titles. If they get enough pre-orders on a book, the book has “buzz” and they may take a chance and order a few extra copies for the shelf as well. Orders numbers go up, customer is happy, publisher is happy, book exists for at least another month.
Truth be told, that’s a lot of work and money to invest into comic books — let alone books with no guarantee, due to the limitations of solicitations system, that they’ll be great or have staying power — but it’s the nature of the industry.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that digital copies of comics that you can buy and read online don’t have the same clout with publishers as sales of physical copies from traditional retailers — comic book companies like Marvel don’t release the digital sales of their individual comic books, making it hard to know how much of a difference they make. And waiting for collected editions of comic books to be published so that you have multiple issues in one volume — which comics fans do because of convenience and because it allows a whole story to be told — doesn’t really do much to support a comic whose fate is determined by how well it sells month to month.
What makes the situation even trickier is that more casual Marvel fans who don’t follow lots of comic books may not be privy to how the system works.
Since its release last week, the teaser trailer for Black Panther, the Marvel studios blockbuster based on the comics, has been viewed more than 22 million times. If 1 percent of the people who watched the teaser trailer had also preordered Gay’s or Coates’s comic books, the books would be Marvel’s best-sellers by a long shot.
There’s no question that Marvel could do a better job of promoting its lesser-known, more diverse comic books, and of educating its massive fan base about the existence and importance of preorders. Perhaps the company could also experiment with different publishing strategies when it’s launching new titles that might not sell at first — perhaps by making them digital-first, or by releasing books like World of Wakanda in the same style that Netflix uses for its TV shows, as a bingeable collection. But there’s also a responsibility for fans to support the art they say they want to see.