The hype surrounding the release of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther was immense. Several major newspapers covered the announcement of the National Book Award Winner’s first comic, and articles about him appeared in places that don’t usually pay much attention to mainstream superheroes, such as the The New York Times, The Atlantic, and New Republic. With all of that coverage, it’s not surprising that Black Panther #1 went on to become a best-seller. Coates’ literary reputation brought many people into comic book stores for the first time, but he wasn’t able to duplicate that previous success with the spin-off comic Black Panther & The Crew.
Marvel canceled the series after just two issues, citing its weak sales. It seems easy to blame the comic’s failure on diversity in light of Marvel VP of Sales David Gabriel’s remarks earlier this year, but that seems deeply at odds with the success of many, many other diverse comics. So why didn’t Black Panther & The Crew sell?
Hype: In Secret Empire’s Tentacled Shadow
Secret Empire is the culmination of a storyline that began with the reveal that Captain America is an agent of Hydra, with the former hero and his new friends taking over the United States. The event has been the subject of much controversy and has overshadowed virtually everything else going on in Marvel comics.
While Black Panther & The Crew, which is inspired by Black Lives Matter, presents a premise that at any other time might have generated a lot of conversation, it never managed to capture the power of controversy in the same way as Secret Empire. Part of the reason for that is that Secret Empire taps into one of the most pervasive contemporary topics: the President of the United States.
Commentators have pointed out the way events in the comics line up with what’s happening in the real world. For example, the post-Civil War II comic Civil War II: The Oath depicts Steve Rogers being sworn in as the new director of SHIELD, a position he inevitably uses to usurp the American government. That comic was released one week after the new U.S. president took office.
Fears surrounding the new president and the alt-right have made many deeply uncomfortable, and Secret Empire taps into that fear by presenting a vision of the future where analogous organizations take over the United States. Even if the comic might not have been intentionally topical, it has the kind of pertinence that generates conversation. A conversation about Secret Empire is fundamentally about the current state of affairs. Secret Empire might not be pulling in the same number of readers as Black Panther did, but it’s dominating the conversation enough that even a comic exploring Black Lives Matter hardly gets covered.
Market Saturation: Too Much Wakanda On The Shelf
Marvel saw that Coates’ Black Panther was tremendously successful, so it responded by producing more books featuring the title character. Trying to capitalize on a hero’s popularity is a common tactic that doesn’t necessarily equal more sales. Many of those who bought Black Panther initially have not continued to do so or have switched to buying it in trade paperback. The second issue of the comic only moved around 77,000 copies, a significant drop from its debut. First issues naturally sell better than subsequent ones, but the month Black Panther & The Crew came out, the flagship series only sold around 30,000 copies. While that’s by no means a bad number, Black Panther & The Crew was attempting to tap into a disappearing interest, which means that its target market was also shrinking. Readers are by no means obligated to read every book about a character, so even if they’re enjoying one book about Black Panther, they may not want to pick up another story with the character.
Market saturation also leads to some difficult choices for readers about what to buy. Comics are an expensive hobby, and there’s certainly such a thing as too much. When Black Panther & The Crew came out, there were three other books about T’Challa and/or Wakanda: Black Panther, Black Panther: World of Wakanda, and Ultimates 2. That means that trying to follow every book related to Coates’ run quickly became prohibitively expensive, especially when having to compete with the sheer cost of reading all of a more-hyped comic like Secret Empire. Costs like this lead readers to selectively choose what they might like to read, avoid taking on new books, and even drop books that they might not necessarily be enjoying.
Black Panther & The Crew isn’t the only comic to suffer from the proliferation of comics surrounding the title character, as Black Panther: World of Wakanda has seemingly been dropped, though, there’s still no official word about its future. Marvel tried to capitalize on the early success of Black Panther but ended up giving the market more stories than they were interested in reading or for which they felt comfortable paying.
Black Panther & The Crew Should Be a Cautionary Tale
Black Panther & The Crew‘s cancellation doesn’t mean it isn’t an excellent comic. So far, it has dealt with real-world problems with a grace and intelligence that should surprise absolutely no one who has kept up with Coates’ work on the main series. However, like so many great comics before it, Black Panther & The Crew has been the victim of a hype machine that doesn’t visit its selling power upon every comic equally. Marvel oversaturated the market with comics based around T’Challa and Wakanda, but it never really managed to generate much buzz around them after the start of Coates’ run.
If Marvel wants to truly counteract its flagging sales, it needs to avoid just rehashing what’s currently working for them until it fails; it needs to find a way to generate buzz around all-new, all-different comics rather than its events.