Seventeen years ago, Marvel Comics introduced the Sentry, a retconned hero from the early days of the heroic age. While the Sentry was immensely powerful—one of the Earth’s mightiest heroes—he had a secret, unknown even to himself. The Sentry, it turned out, was his own worst enemy: the supervillain known as the Void. And, to defeat the Void, the Sentry ultimately had to wipe out all memory of himself and the good that he had done.
Now, life is imitating art, as Marvel, too, has become its own worst enemy. A series of missteps and unforced errors—most recently announcing then promptly cancelling a deal with weapons manufacturer Northrop Grumman—has left many wondering if the publisher has made its own face-heel turn.
The aborted Northrop Grumman deal was particularly shocking. Although not everything about the deal clear—it was cancelled roughly 15 hours before a public event at New York Comic Con that would have announced many of the details—what is known shows a remarkable lack of understanding of its audience, let alone the moral lesson of one of its most popular film franchises.
According to Marvel’s statement on the deal’s cancellation, it would have “focus[ed] on aerospace technology and exploration in a positive way,” though how exactly is unclear. What is clear, however, is that it involved a promotional comic, Avengers, Featuring N.G.E.N. – Start Your N.G.E.N.s!, written by Fabian Nicieza and drawn by Sean Chen, in which a squad of Northrop Grumman scientists help the Avengers defeat supervillain Red Ronin. (What a fairly standard superhero fight story has to do with aerospace space technology and exploration is an open question.) The comic, which was briefly made available on Marvel Unlimited, was labelled All-Ages—a designation that Marvel usually reserves for books intended for kids—and featured ads comparing the company and its employees to Marvel’s heroes.
For those unfamiliar with Northrop Grumman, it is a military contractor—and aerospace firm—that was number six on USA Today’s 2013 list of the top 10 companies profiting the most from war. (Wikipedia lists the company as #5 in its list of the Top 100 Contractors of the U.S. federal government.) Its products include the B-2 bomber, intercontinental ballistic missiles and military drones. Comparing itself to Stark Industries is not so far off the mark—and that’s part of the problem.
Stark Industries certainly started out as an arms manufacturer, but over the decades it has been reinvented as a tech firm that makes computers and operating systems, mobile phones, and a search engine, among other things. The shift from weapons was not accidental, but an intentional decision, in-universe and out.
From its earliest appearance in Tales of Suspense #40 (1963), Stark Industries manufactured weapons of war. But, by the early 1970s, Stark Industries’ portfolio no longer meshed with Marvel Comics’ increasingly college-aged, anti-war readership. Finally, in Iron Man #50 (1972), Tony announced that Stark Industries was giving up arms manufacturing, to focus on consumer goods. While Tony’s announcement was not overly moralistic—he merely stated Stark Industries was “out to help men as always, but in new ways!”—the implications of having the company withdraw from weapons manufacturing while at the height of the Vietnam War could not be clearer.
If this sounds pretty familiar, it’s because it’s also the plot of the movie that launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe nine years ago.
Lest any of you have forgotten, allow me to quickly jog your memories. In Iron Man (2008), Tony Stark was the CEO of a wildly-successful arms manufacturer, until he saw first hand just how much collateral damage his weapons had caused. Stark then shocked the world—and his company’s board of directors—by announcing Stark Industries would no longer manufacture weapons. The board then ousted Stark, replacing him with Obadiah Stane, who revealed he had been secretly selling illicit arms for years, and, oh yeah, had also built his own suit of advanced armor. Like the Vietnam War-era comics from which it drew inspiration, the film made quite clear that weapons manufacturing was something villains did, and Tony’s first step toward becoming a hero was to stop doing it.
The moral of Iron Man is not particularly difficult to understand, and one would hope that it would have been understood by the company that made it. Just in case, let me summarize: Making weapons of war is a morally-dubious endeavor, and it is far better to invest money and research into technology that will make the world a better place instead of weapons of mass destruction that could bring about its end. To partner with a military contractor—especially one that manufactures drones and ICBMs—is to utterly miss the point of the movie that launched the MCU.
The timing was also shocking, coming as it did just days after the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas. In light of the shooting, Marvel and Netflix wisely cancelled their NYCC panel that would have focused on the upcoming Punisher series, but nonetheless planned to proceed with an event launching the Northrup Grumman deal—at least until public backlash became too severe. If someone using weapons of war was deemed insensitive, why did Marvel think making them was not?
As with many things, the answer likely comes down to money. Although Marvel’s public statements have been limited, it seems that the deal was negotiated without the knowledge of Marvel’s editorial staff. Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada, for instance, claimed during his “Cup O’ Joe” panel that he “saw it for the first time as you guys.” The deal appears to have been arranged with Marvel’s Custom Solutions division, which has partnered with numerous companies over the years for both bespoke comics and for ads featuring Marvel characters drawn by Marvel artists (the recent Booking.com ads featuring Rocket and Groot come to mind). In some ways, this was but the most recent in a long line of corporate deals that are done without editorial oversight. And yet, the audacity of this particular deal is such to bring this entire model into question.
Marvel has been structured in such a way that its management and corporate parents always have some level of plausible deniability. While Marvel Entertainment, LLC, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, it is not fully-integrated into Disney’s corporate structure. Instead, it largely remains the fiefdom of secretive CEO Ike Perlmutter, a billionaire most known for his ties to Donald Trump. (Disney’s corporate “About” page makes no reference to either Perlmutter or Marvel Entertainment, though it does references Marvel Studios, which was spun off from Marvel Entertainment in 2015 to remove Marvel’s lucrative film business from Perlmutter’s control.) Meanwhile, within Marvel Entertainment, publishing, licensing, and custom comics are all handled by different people, with information flowing up to Perlmutter, but not necessarily sideways. The result is Joe Quesada, one of the most important people at Marvel, can claim plausible deniability and wash his hands of the Northrop Grumman imbroglio, tacitly acknowledging the deal was a horrible idea from the outset, but without anyone ever actually apologizing.
It would be easier to accept the Northrop Grumman deal as just one poor decision, were it not merely the latest in a long line of bad decisions by Marvel. Only a few days prior, Marvel released an NYCC teaser video in which writer Frank Tieri played a cab driver harassing a Captain Marvel cosplayer.
The ad was in extremely poor taste, given the harassment female cosplayers often face at conventions. Marvel’s decision to run the ad after a rival publisher, Action Lab, faced criticism for contributing to a culture of harassment with its NYCC-exclusive cover of Ivan the Pervy Ghost, is simply incomprehensible. (Action Lab later pulled the comic, but only after going on a strange twitter tirade—later blamed on “being hacked”—against Women Write About Comics’ own Chief Comics Editor, Claire Napier.)
In fact, the past year has been one public relations fiasco after another for Marvel. In March, for instance, Marvel’s Senior Vice President of Sales, David Gabriel, blamed the company’s faltering sales on “diversity,” a comment which was demonstrably wrong and rightly ridiculed by the international press. Or in April, when Marvel announced a “Hydra takeover” of comic shops to coincide with the launch of Secret Empire, which many comics retailers (let alone readers) saw as ill-conceived and insensitive. I could go on.
Admittedly, it could be the case that these have merely been a string of bad PR decisions, and that Marvel has simply had the bad luck of them all coming in quick succession. And yet, the sheer volume of unforced errors, all of which seem to share a common worldview that prioritizes white men and the things they think are cool (such as big guns and bombs) over women and people of color, makes the case against a coincidence particularly strong. More and more, there seems to be an Ike Perlmutter-shaped thumb pressing down on the scales.
As a lifelong Marvel fan, this has been disheartening to say the least. I never expected Marvel to be perfect—just as I never expect any work of art or product to be perfect—but there is something rotten in the state of Marvel, and the Northrop Grumman deal is merely the most recent evidence of it.
Many—including some prominent comics critics and creators—have seen this as the last straw and have stated that they will no longer purchase from, write about, or work for Marvel. Others, such as Black Bolt writer Saladin Ahmed, have emphasized that while they are unhappy with Marvel’s actions, they still hope to shape the publisher, and its corporate culture, from the inside.
this is a platform I don't want to cede to dark forces. esp when it reaches so far and so few of 'us' get to help shape it. hard to explain.
— Saladin Ahmed (@saladinahmed) October 7, 2017
I understand and respect this sort of decision, and I see the draw of it. I worry that if I stopped writing about Marvel comics that my call for positive change, as quiet as it is, would not be replaced. And yet …
I’m reminded of former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun’s famous dissent in Callins v. James. Blackmun, appointed to the Court by President Nixon, had been part of the majority that reinstated the death penalty in the mid-1970s, and for 20 years consistently voted to uphold the death penalty as constitutional, while occasionally seeking to limit what he saw as its worst excesses. In 1994, however, Blackmun finally hit his breaking point, writing, “From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.”
How long, I wonder, until I, and other comics journalists, decide the day has finally come when we, too, shall no longer tinker with the machinery of death that is Marvel Comics.