This fall, Marvel’s releasing a series of variant covers to a number of its newly re-launched titles like Spider-Man/Deadpool, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and Amazing Spider-Man. You’ll notice that each of the covers is styled after a different hip-hop album from the past 30 years or so.
“For years, Marvel Comics and Hip-Hop culture have been engaged in an ongoing dialog,” Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso explained in a widely shared press release. “Beginning this October, we will shine a spotlight on the seamless relationship between those two unique forces.”
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While the covers are undoubtedly eye-catching, a number of Marvel’s fan’s felt as if the company’s decision to use hip-hop to promote its new books was tone-deaf considering that none of the writers for its new series appear to actually be black people. Rap and hip-hop, two art forms born out of the black American experience, have long-since become integral parts of the larger pop cultural conversation.
To some, however, Marvel’s variant covers were an attempt at appealing to their black readers, something that could have been done just as effectively by featuring more voices of color in its editorial staff.
“One issue with Marvel publishing hip-hop-themed covers in the wake of not hiring black creators is that…a dialogue goes two ways,” David Brothers, former journalist turned staffer for Image Comics, wrote in a Tumblr post. “Axel Alonso said Marvel has been in a long dialogue with rap music, but that isn’t true. It’s a long monologue, from rap to Marvel, with Marvel never really giving back like it should or could.”
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Brothers was speaking in direct response to a flippant post made by Marvel editor Tom Brevoort, who dismissed a fan’s question about Marvel’s decision to mine hip-hop culture for a little artistic flair.
“Can you explain why Marvel thinks that doing hip hop variants is a good idea, when absolutely no announced writers or artists on the new Marvel titles, as of now, are black,” the fan asked. Wouldn't correcting the latter be a much better idea than the former?”
“What does one have to do with the other, really?” Brevoort asked in response.
Hours later, Brevoort returned to his blog to elaborate on his previous statement, insisting that there was plenty more to be seen of the All-New, All-Different Marvel that could address some fans' concerns.
"Doing the Hip-Hop covers (many of which were illustrated by creators of color) has no direct bearing on the state of African-American representation among our creative teams," Brevoort wrote. "What it does do, hopefully, is to showcase an appreciation for this respected art form, and by extension create an environment that’s maybe a little bit more welcoming to prospective creators."
Neither Brevoort nor Brothers could be reached for comment.
It isn't hard to see why Marvel chose this specific theme to work into the limited edition covers. While the company may have the world of superhero movies on lock, it's not often that a publisher's able to generate this much buzz around a series of covers that most people will never see in person.
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After years of declining revenue throughout the entire market, comic book sales saw a distinct uptick last year and Marvel's doing its job to make sure that its titles continue to tops sales lists.
J.A. Micheline a contributor at Women Write About Comics, still thinks that there are still better options if Marvel's goal is to court a more diverse readership. For all the supposed good will the publisher might have gained from a black audience by evoking the spectre of Biggie's, Marvel's art fell short of actually bridging a cultural gap.
"Because in the face of these variants [covers], in the face of this very one-sided dialogue, in the face of this horrendously imbalanced relationship, one thing is crystalline," she wrote. "My 'swag' is welcome. My voice is not."
Editor's note: Fusion is a joint venture between Univision and ABC; ABC is owned by the Walt Disney Company, which also owns Marvel Entertainment.