First, a correction: I wrote last week that the new Black Widow figure came with three pieces differentiating it from the prior release; a new head, a new left hand, and a lower torso reused from the Maria Hill figure. I was, in fact, incorrect about the head. It’s the exact same sculpt as the alternate head for the prior Widow release, which means that the only actual new part on the entire figure is the left hand. I gave Hasbro too much credit.
That said, I wrote last week that I’d be talking about the line’s 2016 offerings in this post, and what the path of the future looks like. I’m actually saving that for next week, as this weekend is the New York Comic Con. I’m not sure whether Hasbro intends on announcing more product there, but if they do, saving the 2016 piece for next week makes a lot more sense, as I’ll then be able to include that information.
Right Hand, Meet Left Hand
I said earlier that I gave Hasbro too much credit, but in actuality, I’ve given them a hard time for what may not entirely be their fault. Sure, they have control over things like the above; what parts are made for each figure, when to reuse vs when to create a new sculpt, but when it comes to character selection, Marvel itself is involved. I don’t pretend to know the organizational chain which defines what characters are made and when, but I do know that Marvel has controlling input; permutations of this arrangement have existed for decades now. Mattel similarly has a master license for DC Comics toys, but still requires approval from DC for product they put out. It’s an obvious and thoughtful measure; Marvel has a necessity to protect their brand, and so of course they would want to approve whatever product another company puts out with their license.
The trouble with this, of course, is that Marvel as an entity is not always as sensitive to these issues as it could be. It does feel like they’re getting better, at least on their publishing front. There’s been a large push lately of heroines who are front and center, who get their own space, their own books, etcetera. Kelly Sue DeConnick’s take on Carol Danvers revitalized her character, and Jamie McKelvie’s design sense gave her the long-needed makeover she deserved. Sana Amanat, G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona then filled the Ms. Marvel-shaped hole in the character roster with a new creation: Kamala Khan, a 16 year old Pakistani-American turned Inhuman. Dan Slott’s Spider-Verse led to breakout hit Spider-Gwen, from an alternate universe where Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy’s roles were reversed. Gwen’s design was done by Robbi Rodriguez, and is a truly original tweak of the classic Spider-costume design.
Similarly, Kris Anka took the old Spider-Woman design, which could best be characterized as “body paint with a crotch arrow,” and turned it into something modern, fashionable and functional. What we’re left with is a wealth of new designs that are begging for more exposure.
The thing is, I know the Marvel offices aren’t that populated. Marvel editorial understands that these are changes that need to happen. The folks they answer to must also at least understand that these changes stand to earn them a decent amount of money as well. It’s widely reported that Ms. Marvel has been a huge digital hit for them, although numbers have not been released, and Spider-Gwen has also been immensely successful, earning a second #1, despite being born of a crossover, existing as a solo title for five issues, then heading into another crossover (because comics). So, if the money handlers understand that these pushes for representation and diversity enable them to handle more money, then why is that policy not applied to their other merchandizing lines?
There’s an argument to be made for turnaround; it may be possible that these figures are planned! The design, creation, production, and distribution of a toy takes more time than the process of a comic book, and it costs more too. Comics are able to recoup some of their print production costs in digital release; while those releases are typically cheaper over time, they’re generally the same price at release (some will cite the cost of server space and bandwidth fees, but I assure you as someone with an IT background that those are nothing compared to the cost of print production and distribution). A notable example of this is the Mattel production of Blackest Night figures for their DCUC line a full two years after that story occurred in the comics. Mattel claims that fans clamored for them while the story was ongoing, only to ignore them on shelves when they were released.
That turnaround argument falls flat though, in the face of details; first, it’s entirely possible to plan ahead of time. It can be risky, sure, but if the design process for figures is begun in advance of the character’s first appearance in fiction, then it’s possible to mitigate some of the delay time between that appearance and the existence of a figure in stores. The other risk of this is that, if design changes occur late in the character process (as they frequently do), the eventual figure may not accurately reflect the character.
The argument for turnaround falls especially flat in one specific instance, though: Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel. By all accounts a very successful book with a wide audience and a ton of reach, Ms. Marvel has still inspired almost zero merchandising, despite her initial appearance being in 2013 and an ongoing series that began in early 2014. By contrast, Spider-Gwen, the other recent breakout character, didn’t appear until late 2014, didn’t get a series until 2015. Guess which of those two characters is getting a figure in 2016?
If you guessed the blonde girl, you win a prize. It’s troubling because, in a situation where there already aren’t enough women being featured, the inclusion characters of color ends up even more of a secondary choice. This year, Hasbro released a Misty Knight figure. That figure is one of only two women of color to be released under the Marvel Legends banner in 2015–the other, White Tiger, is dressed head to toe, her ethnicity completely hidden. Now, as I said, NYCC is this coming weekend, and it’s possible that Hasbro may announce information that will render this point invalid (I really, really hope they do), but as it stands, in an industry where women, and women of color specifically, are sidelined, to see the way that carries down to merchandising is troubling.
There are, as of this writing, no women of color yet announced for 2016. Again, Ms. Marvel is a hugely popular character and title. People want more of her. So why has this not happened? Why is there no Colleen Wing to go along with Misty Knight? Why do masked women of color not get variant heads that show off their faces, as is planned for Spider-Gwen? Of the men of color that have appeared this past year, why first are there only three, and why are two of those the likenesses of actors? Why is the only other one a limited exclusive, away from general retail?
I feel like I’ve asked that last question before.
Part Seven wraps up the series.