The 3 Biggest Stories From NYCC Involved Marvel, And They Were All Terrible – Forbes
New York Comic Con, which wrapped up on Sunday, produced a raft of news and announcements from publishers and media companies in the geek culture space. Three of the biggest stories involved the industry leader, Marvel Entertainment (a division of Disney), but none are likely to put a smile on the face of the company’s PR team.
Crime and Punishment
On Thursday, Marvel announced it was canceling a panel on its upcoming Netflix series The Punisher, featuring a gun-toting vigilante on a vengeance-fueled quest for justice, in response to the mass shooting in Las Vegas. “We are stunned and saddened by this week’s senseless act in Las Vegas,” Netflix and Marvel said in a joint statement October 4. “After careful consideration, Netflix and Marvel have decided it wouldn’t be appropriate for Marvel’s The Punisher to participate in New York Comic-Con.”
The panel, set to feature series star Jon Bernthal and head of Marvel’s TV division Jeph Loeb, was scheduled for the prime slot of 5:15 pm on Saturday at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden, an offsite venue that NYCC was using for its largest events. Instead, fans were treated to an exclusive screening of a new film featuring current Marvel Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada in conversation with legendary Marvel patriarch Stan Lee, with Quesada on hand in person.
Marvel generally drew plaudits from the press for its move. Unfortunately, it also cements a connection between The Punisher property and the largest act of gun violence in U.S. history and further complicates a character brand that is already controversial within fandom for its emphasis on firearms and gun culture.
Drama at Daybreak
Marvel took another black eye on Thursday morning at a closed-door breakfast meeting that the company hosted for retailers to catch them up with the company’s plans for titles and storylines. These events typically feature a few fireworks between perennially disgruntled comic shop owners, representing the interests of the diehard fans who keep their stores in business, and a Marvel editorial staff trying to sell stories that expand beyond familiar tropes and themes to bring in new audiences.
Marvel editors Tom Brevoort, Nick Lowe, Christina Hanigan and Charles Soule were present and fielded the usual complaints about ordering, overly complex stories and various gimmicks the company has been using to appeal to collectors.
Things turned ugly when one retailer began challenging Marvel’s current editorial direction of updating older white and male characters with younger, more diverse versions, as has happened with Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Spider-Man, the Hulk and others. This issue has been a flashpoint for conflict between fans online and led to some confusing utterances from Marvel on the subject earlier this year.
The tabloid site Bleeding Cool reported that “Two older retailers started raising their voices arguing about diversity and how it does not work. The words ‘black,’ ‘homo’ and ‘freaking females’ were used multiple times, at which point other retailers started to boo those retailers and the room started to turn on itself.”
After failing to restore order, Marvel officials abruptly ended the event, but confrontations between retailers and editors continued in the hallway.
Word of the proceedings filtered out to press and fans throughout the day, reigniting a controversy that has divided readers along political lines and leaves Marvel with few options to satisfy both sides.
The Best Defense Is a Good Offense
Marvel got embroiled in yet another controversy when it was reported that the company’s Custom Edition department, which creates comics for corporate clients and brands, was working with military contractor Northrop Grumman in a storyline involving the Avengers.
Northrop Grumman produces the B2 Stealth Bomber, a big part of America’s nuclear strike capability, as well as other lethal military hardware for the Pentagon. The comic project with Marvel was intended to promote STEM education, featuring a team-up between the Avengers and a new supergroup, “Northrop Grumman’s Elite Nexus Team… scientists who specialize in cutting-edge, high-tech adventures.”
But where the brand and Marvel marketing saw an innocuous effort to encourage kids to get into science and technology, critics saw propaganda to indoctrinate young minds into the values of the military-industrial complex.
Negative fan reaction to a tweet announcing the promotion caught the company flatfooted since the Custom Solutions group generally works independently from the mainstream editorial division. Marvel hastily canceled the promotion and removed the titles from their digital streaming service. At his spotlight panel at NYCC, Marvel CCO Joe Quesada admitted that he had not had advance warning about the project and told the audience “I think there were some messaging issues.”
No Escape for Escapists
None of these three controversies were entirely Marvel’s fault, but they demonstrate the peril for highly visible entertainment brands in the current era of intense polarization and politicization of everything.
In the case of the Punisher, the timing left the company with few options, and going ahead with the panel would have been in questionable taste. If that had been the only Marvel story out of the weekend, it would have left the company looking relatively good in the face of a crisis they did not cause.
Same with the retailer kerfuffle. That’s mostly a matter internal to comics fandom, as traditionalists try to protect their nostalgic attachments to characters in the face of changing social mores and changing market demographics. Marvel only has so many iconic characters in its portfolio, and almost all of them date from an era where diversity was not on anyone’s agenda. Over the last few years, efforts to broaden the appeal of superheroes by representing women, people of color, and people across the continuum of gender and sexuality have gotten drawn into the larger identity politics of the culture at large, turning provincial fan fights into clickbait for sites that profit by poking at partisan sore points. Marvel is walking a tightrope on this, same as any other company in their position.
The Northrop Grumman situation was more of an unforced error, but again, this one should be laid at the feet of upper management rather than editorial. If part of Marvel’s business model is pimping its marquee characters out to corporate clients for various brand-building vanity projects, then there should probably be some coordination between the sales side and the people who maintain the greater value of those properties to the public at large. When a misguided side deal ends up tarnishing the company brand at a major public event, those processes should get a longer look.
Unfortunately for Marvel, all three of these mid-level PR problems concatenated at the moment when the gaze of the media was focused on the industry at an enormous trade/consumer show in its own backyard. Marvel definitely dominated the coverage, but not in a way that is going to be helpful.