It's the comic book wedding of the century! Star-crossed lovers Storm and Black Panther are tying the knot, after years - well, months - of courting. Paul O'Brien asks, what's behind Marvel's latest publicity stunt? Is it because they're black?
30 January 2006

Everyone loves a wedding. And so, in a year when superhero comics are lumbering awkwardly from one event to the next, Marvel has decided to have a wedding all of their own. Yes, it's the unlikely duo of Storm and the Black Panther. And it's getting the full-on publicity drive.

Marvel do a lot of things that baffle me, and this is one of them. They seem quite convinced that this is going to be a big deal. Or, at the very least, they hope that if they tell us often enough, we'll believe it. I have my doubts.

Of course, there have been some highly successful superhero weddings in the past. Superman and Lois Lane are the most obvious example. That got a ton of mainstream publicity. Spider-Man didn't do so badly either - his marriage to Mary Jane Watson was a very big deal at the time. The X-books got reasonable mileage out of Cyclops and Jean Grey.

But these were rather different weddings. If anything, they seemed rather overdue. Lois and Clark had been a couple since before most of the readers were born. Scott and Jean were an obvious couple almost from the moment of their creation. Peter and Mary Jane were a rock solid couple. It's sometimes argued that letting Spider-Man get married was a terrible mistake, but that really misses the point. Getting married didn't drag Peter from his 'boy next door' roots. Marrying him to an incredibly rich supermodel was the error.

I digress. The point is that when this stunt has worked in the past, it's because it wasn't really a stunt. It was a sensible development of a well-established relationship between characters in which the audience already had a strong investment. The superhero audience, after all, is not exactly known for its love of romance stories. They really have to care about the couple if you're going to persuade them they want to read a wedding story.

'There have been successful superhero weddings, but they seemed overdue.' Marvel are at pains to stress that there is indeed a background for this relationship. Specifically, it's a 10-page back-up strip in MARVEL TEAM-UP #100, cover date December 1980. Basically, it involves the characters bumping into one another as teenagers, fighting some South African racists, and then heading their separate ways. It's certainly clear that they're meant to be attracted to one another - a point which, to be fair, was also followed up in Christopher Priest's BLACK PANTHER #26. But those two issues form a perilous basis for the proposition that they're suddenly going to get married, let alone that anyone reading is likely to care.

Which leaves me wondering: who on earth is this supposed to be aimed at? Do Marvel have some inspired plan that I'm missing, or is this just a catastrophic misreading of the market? Time will tell, but I strongly suspect it's option two.

For one thing, this is a Reginald Hudlin story. Marvel plainly consider him a major talent, and they've pushed his BLACK PANTHER series heavily from the outset. It's clearly a book in which they have considerable faith. But the sales figures are decidedly mixed. The book launched last February with around 70,000 orders. By December, the most recent available chart, sales had dropped to 29,000. That's over 40,000 readers gone by issue #11.

Now, true enough, the book's still doing an awful lot better than the previous BLACK PANTHER series by Christopher Priest. During its last couple of years, that title consistently sold around 19,000 copies. Hudlin is indisputably doing better. But the problem is that he's still shedding around 2,000 readers with every issue. At that rate, he'll be down at Priest's sales levels by the summer. Subject, of course, to whatever crossovers Marvel throw at the book - but those rarely lead to any longer-term increase in sales.

'Marvel plainly consider Reginald Hudlin a major talent.' To be fair, while I don't think Hudlin is particularly good, I can understand what Marvel see in Hudlin. He's a very variable writer, but there are certainly some good stories amongst his output. But even if you consider him a great talent, it's extremely doubtful that he's producing comics that Marvel's readers particularly want to buy. Over the last few years, Marvel has displayed a periodic tendency to fixate on a writer who isn't really that popular outside their own offices, and then shove them down the readers' throats until the evidence of total indifference becomes undeniable. Chuck Austen and Ron Zimmerman spring to mind. Hudlin's much better than Austen, but he might well be another Zimmerman.

The other apparent motive here is to target the black audience. Marvel were pretty open about that in their press conference. They promise interviews in "the larger black-targeted publications". Plus, there will be coverage on the Black Entertainment Network - which doesn't have much of a choice, because Hudlin is its director of programming.

Now, on one level, this is a very sensible motivation. The comics audience is overwhelmingly white. Since there is nothing white-specific about the medium, it is reasonable to assume that there is a vast, untapped black audience just itching to spend their money. Targeting them is thoroughly logical.

We've been here before, though. ARA√ĎA: HEART OF THE SPIDER was an unabashed attempt to target the Hispanic audience. We were told, repeatedly, about the wonderful publicity the book was garnering from the media. It was quite clearly calculated to appeal to these audiences by virtue of featuring a lead character who was (a) Hispanic, and (b) a girl. She was consistently promoted as "Marvel's first Latina superhero" - which, incidentally, wasn't true. For all that, the book has just been cancelled. What went wrong?

'It's reasonable to assume that there's an untapped black audience.' First and foremost, the comic was total crap. Yes, the character was dutifully non-white and non-male, but ultimately these were purely incidental elements of the series. The actual comic was just a generic series assembled by crossbreeding J Michael Straczynski's spider-totem concept from AMAZING SPIDER-MAN with a dash of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, minus anything remotely resembling wit or intelligence. It was a truly bad product whose unique selling point was that the character was Hispanic. Not surprisingly, it didn't sell. This didn't stop Marvel sticking with it for a year and a half, even though the sales were embarrassing almost from the start.

Even if the execution had been better - and god knows there was massive room for improvement - Marvel were never going to connect with that audience simply by doing the same old stuff with a character who could have been from any background in New York. Hudlin won't fall into quite the same trap, but there's a looming implication to the whole thing that this story is supposed to be of interest to black people because, er, it features other black people. It can't hurt, obviously, but one suspects there must be more to it than that.

Indeed, the whole thing seems to be premised on the idea that a marriage between Storm and the Black Panther is inherently plausible simply because... well, they're both African, aren't they? And they must have so much in common, what with Africa being a continent of 840 million people spread across almost twelve million square miles. It's an attitude that suggests a very American way of looking at Africa - not a real place, so much as a source of ethnic identity for Americans. To an extent that sort of attitude isn't a commercial problem, because it's shared by many of the readers they're targeting. But when the characters are slung together as suddenly as this, it can't help but feel like an arbitrary exercise in pairing up the black people.

Marvel may well be targeting the right audience. But they're doing it with a very blunt instrument wielded by a debatably marketable writer.

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