In what will likely be seen as a case study for business and marketing majors in the years to come, Marvel recently announced a joint venture with defense contractor Northrop Grumman, only to quickly cancel their plans to partner with the corporation after receiving a significantly negative response on social media, accusing the comic book company of joining forces with a war profiteer.
This backlash couldn’t have come at a more difficult time for the company that has turned into a television and cinema powerhouse but has seen consistent drops in sales for their namesake comic books. A combination of things can be blamed for Marvel’s lost revenue on the printed side of the house: their clunky efforts toward adopting digital distribution methods, their shift toward releasing multiple special edition cover variants of single issues for collectors instead of good stories for readers, or just the gradual shift in the way the American public chooses to spend its time… but Marvel has responded to the lower numbers with a series of controversial decisions that have drawn the ire of groups on both the right and left side of the American political divide.
Heroes and stories have been changed to match what some on the right consider to be “liberal leaning” views, and attempts to grab headlines by doing things like making Captain America a secret Nazi, unsurprisingly to us normal people, didn’t result in a huge influx of sales past the initial issue that first drew the world’s attention.
Which brings us to their latest scandal – the short-lived partnership of Marvel Comics and the company that built America’s B-2 stealth bomber, which was intended to help drive a focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects for younger readers, while certainly buying Northrop some good press and shining a light on Marvel’s comic books.
While Northrop Grumman doesn’t only trade on defense contracts, they were worth an estimated $20 billion in profits for fiscal year 2016, drawing comparisons from many on social media to “Stark Industries,” which according to Marvel lore, saw a transition away from producing weapons once Tony Stark realized how much suffering his work had caused the world. Of course, the irony that Stark continues to fly around the world in a weaponized, bullet proof suit, or that he equips the Avengers, Shield, and teenage kids with powerful weapon systems inside the comic world they’re defending, seemed lost to many of those complaining.
Nonetheless, the backlash proved effective, as Marvel rapidly announced that they would be ending the partnership they had just begun, and in even more dramatic fashion, they canceled it just before a scheduled joint event at New York Comic Con.
The activation with Northrop Grumman at New York Comic Con was meant to focus on aerospace technology and exploration in a positive way. However, as the spirit of that intent has not come across, we will not be proceeding with this partnership including this weekend’s event programming. Marvel and Northrop Grumman continue to be committed to elevating, and introducing, STEM to a broad audience.” Marvel wrote in an official statement.
One could argue that this is a great example of how quickly companies can respond to an outpouring of rejection from their fan base, and if that was what had happened, it would make sense. The thing is, to people who have been reading comic books, the outrage seems just a little out-of-place. Anyone who picked up a comic book in the nineties will likely recall the combination of giant muscles, giant breasts, and even bigger guns that covered every page. The X-Men’s famed “Blackbird” jet is clearly a modified SR-71. Hell, one of the X-Men (Kitty Pride) used to fly in that SR-71 with her pet dragon named “Lockheed” for a while.
Comics and warfare are nothing new, just ask Captain America, so it seems far more likely that the response on social media came less from actual comic book readers, and more from the ever-growing number of people who spend their free time jumping on the bandwagon of whatever social media outrage is trending this week. After all, what could be worse than featuring Northrop Grumman infused science into a medium already famous for its depictions of brutal physical combat, domestic violence, and murder, just to name a few. If anything, a three-page reprieve, in which the scantily clad super heroines talk aerodynamics instead of doing airborne splits, would probably tone down the violence depicted in the book.
Politics aren’t a new thing for comic books either, as many comics, including Marvel’s Luke Cage that went on to become a hit show, have focused on progressive themes all along. In many ways, the creative process and the marketing strategy behind Marvel Comics, and their decision to partner with companies like Northrop, are the same as they ever were … it’s their response to the backlash that’s new.
“The backlash against Marvel’s planned project with Northrop Grumman was immediate and I have never seen them reverse themselves ― or do anything, for that matter―as fast as they just did.” Jesse Farrell, a retailer with the Massachusetts-based Hub Comics, said. He’s not wrong. Marvel’s immediate willingness to kick Northrop Grumman to the curb as soon as they became a trending topic depicts a shift in strategy toward simply yielding to public outcry.
What does that mean for the big picture? It seems likely that Marvel’s fear of public reprisal will result in further limiting of the content within the comics, as decided by those who never purchase or read them, and eventually, this may contribute to the end of the printed medium for stories about our favorite heroes all together. As a comic book reader would likely try to argue, good stories and good artwork sell comic books, not trying to stay right with Twitter.
Images courtesy of Marvel and Marvel’s Twitter account