Spider-Man! The Incredible Hulk! Iron Man! The Avengers! The X-Men! The Mighty Thor!
Are there characters anywhere better known than these icons of the tentpole action-adventure movies of the past decade?
So when it was announced this week that the most macho of superheroes, The Mighty Thor—created in 1962’s Journey Into Mystery comics #83 by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby—was going to become a female this fall in a Marvel comic book series, the media were all over the story. The very Internet itself shook with simultaneous rage and rejoicing at the very idea. (On top of that, on Wednesday it was announced that Captain America would, come this fall, be a black man.)
This is the strange contradiction of the best-known superheroes. Today, Marvel’s characters—its intellectual properties—are better known than ever. Director Joss Whedon’s Avengers was one of the top grossing movies of all time. People who have never heard of the Guardians of the Galaxy are waiting with bated breath for the team’s August movie debut. (That one includes Vin Diesel playing a sentient tree named Groot, who was conceived as the most marginal of throwaway characters in a 1960 Marvel comic.) Marvel’s character-branded videogames, t-shirts and plastic dinner plates are ubiquitous. Every schoolkid and her parents and grandparents know that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. Marvel’s intellectual property isn’t just doing well, it’s doing great. Except in one medium: the one where the characters were first seen—comic books.
Comic books haven’t by any means disappeared, but they’re nowhere near as widely read as they were decades ago. Rare is the newsstand or drug store that carries them. To find a comic book, one must go to a comic book specialty shop or to various legal and not-so-legal websites that carry the characters’ latest adventures. Comics both recent and from over the past hundred years are also regularly collected in hard and soft cover editions. (Besides superhero comics, there is also a wide, wide world of graphic novels such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home that are the “indy film” counterparts to Marvel and DC’s blockbuster entertainments.)
But the nostalgic image some have of a kid stopping off at the malt shop on the way home from school to buy a candy bar and a comic book is mostly a relic of the past. Superhero comics are today largely consumed by middle-aged men who have read every permutation of their beloved characters that has appeared over the decades. In DC’s case, the characters have appeared since Superman’s 1938 debut in Action Comics #1. Marvel’s universe started a year later, with its modern incarnation first appearing in 1961’s Fantastic Four #1.
In the 1950s, it was not unusual for an issue of a Superman comic book to sell a million copies. Today, a superhero comic that sells 100,000 copies is considered a runaway smash hit, and most sell a third that many or less, even those that feature (literally) marquee characters such as Thor, Captain America and the Hulk. In some ways the comic book—not the characters, but the magazine-format delivery system—has gone the way of jazz, opera and poetry: something created for a devoted but small audience.
So the challenge for comics is how to retain the existing audience and also grow new readers. How do you keep the attention of someone who has read thousands of stories and also take advantage of the visibility and familiarity that the movies and TV shows have brought to the characters? (Interestingly, in recent years, more girls and women have started reading superhero comics again, perhaps lured to the comics by the popular movies and TV series.)
One of the answers is to make seemingly radical changes in a character, such as having Thor become a female (or to have a black man become Captain America). The Internet buzz indicates that as many fans are outraged by the gender switch as there are those who are intrigued. And the very fact that The View and many other media outlets that generally don’t cover comics have picked up the story means that people who may have forgotten about comic books, or who never knew much about them to begin with, now know that to read about how Thor becomes a woman, they will have to go to a brick-and-mortar or online comic book store in order to find out the inside scoop.
So Marvel’s comics division—the source of the much-better-known media versions of the characters—has scored a major publicity coup. Outraged longtime Thor readers—and many lapsed ones—will buy the comic to see if their worst fears or best hopes for the storyline will come true. New readers, who otherwise would never have ventured into a comics shop, will go out of their way to find the issue, and may be induced to try some other comics they find there, as well. Thor comics sales will temporarily rise, and perhaps some of the sales increase will become permanent if readers enjoy what’s in the comic’s pages.
Now the cynics among you may say, “By the time Avengers: Age of Ultron opens in May 2015, starring hunky Chris Hemsworth as Thor, the comics will no doubt have Thor back to being a guy so that the comics and movies are in sync.” That may well be true. But by that time, the female Thor will be established as part of Marvel’s pantheon of heroes and—“if she be worthy” (to paraphrase the inscription on Thor’s hammer)—may one day have her own movie, TV series, video game and lunchbox. So in the end, Marvel and its followers will have one more—hopefully—cool character.
And, after all, as the original Thor said way back in The Avengers comic’s 1963 issue #4, “Was that not my intention?”
Comics expert Danny Fingeroth was a longtime writer and editor at Marvel Comics. He’s the author of Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society (Bloomsbury) and the co-editor (with Roy Thomas) of The Stan Lee Universe (TwoMorrows Publishing). Find out more about him at http://www.dannyfingeroth.com.