SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
For most of their history, superheroes were white guys. That's changing. Alongside Superman and Captain America, there are more and more superheroes who are women or people of color or both. But this week, a Marvel Comics executive seemed to suggest that this diversity might be behind a downturn in sales, and that got a lot of people talking. NPR's Glen Weldon reports.
GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Normally, the talk in a comic shop runs to who could kick whose butt. But this week, the butt in question belonged to Marvel Comics.
ERIN LISETTE: Guys, maybe this was OK in the '30s, '40s, maybe even '50s. But come on.
WELDON: That's customer Erin Lissette at Fantom Comics in Washington, D.C.
LISETTE: There are these kids with brown skin and different textured hair and all these different features reading these books, and they never see themselves represented as the good guy, and that sucks.
WELDON: Lisette was concerned when Marvel's vice president of sales told the website ICv2 that he was hearing from some comic shop owners that, quote, "people didn't want any more diversity" and that it was affecting sales. That may be true at some comic shops but not here at Fantom. Assistant manager Leah Ly says readers and retailers who reject diversity aren't the whole story.
LEAH LY: There's such a vocal minority at this point because they've had everything to themselves for so long, and now they kind of have to share it and they don't want to.
WELDON: So is there any real evidence that diversity is depressing sales?
JOHN JACKSON MILLER: I don't really see that there has been much of a slump at all.
WELDON: Not according to John Jackson Miller. He's an author of books and comic books who maintains comichron.com, a website that exhaustively tracks comic sales.
MILLER: The comics industry has seen its best stretch in many decades here over the last five or six years.
WELDON: That's because people are buying comics in more ways than ever. Comic shops, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, independent bookstores and, just in the last few years, digital downloads reach different readers and have different sales trends. Miller is a hard data guy who's happy to walk you through how something concrete like changes in price affect comics sales. But when it comes to something subjective and squishy like diversity well...
MILLER: I have always discouraged people from looking too closely at the numbers because the comic shop market only represents a certain portion of what is out there in general.
WELDON: And anyway, how do you define a slump? A year ago, Marvel released "Black Panther" No. 1 written by Ta-Nehisi Coates with art by Brian Stelfreeze. It was hugely successful, one of the year's top-selling comics. After that, anything might look like a slump. And for Ta-Nehisi Coates himself, what matters is not what executives say but what they put on the stands. Coates points to a new book out this week starring America Chavez, a lesbian Latina hero published by Marvel.
TA-NEHISI COATES: That was inconceivable (laughter), you know, 20 or 30 years ago. And so I don't think these folks are in the business of doing charity. So there must be some calculation that there's a base of people who, you know, will probably buy that.
WELDON: Given the changing demographics in comics readership, Coates doesn't think Marvel or any other comics publisher could go back to the old days of pale males in capes, even if they wanted to.
COATES: I haven't seen any evidence of that actually happening, which to me is the core issue. Are they going to abandon diversity or not? And I don't really see much evidence or much incentive, to be honest with you, to actually do that.
WELDON: Marvel wouldn't talk to us for this story, but they did later clarify to ICv2 that their commitment to their increasingly diverse roster of heroes remains firm. Glen Weldon, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE'S "ACTION HERO")