It’s no secret that for the last few years Marvel has been pushing the Inhumans property to the forefront both in comics and in other media. Despite some bumps in the road–most notably the departure of writer Matt Fraction that delayed the Inhuman ongoing series back in 2014 – everyone involved has done an admirable job breathing new life into an admittedly esoteric corner of the Marvel Universe.
Nevertheless, the Inhumans haven’t been the runaway success that Marvel may have originally envisioned. Sure there have been some unexpected bright spots such as new characters Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel and Lunella Lafayette/Moon Girl, but the Inhumans line as a whole hasn’t really resonated with readers. Simply looking at the month-to-month sales for the main Inhumans title gives a clear picture of the erratic nature. While these figures provided by ICv2.com are only sales estimates to comic shops in the United States, combined with general observations of reader attitudes toward the Inhumans since 2014, a declining trend can be witnessed.
This leads one to wonder why exactly the Inhumans have yet to become Marvel’s “Next Big Thing.” Let’s address the elephant in the room immediately. Whether or not there’s any truth to the speculation that Marvel’s interest in the Inhumans has anything to do with replacing the X-Men/mutants due to film rights, the fact of the matter is that from an etic perspective the Inhumans and X-Men are pretty indistinguishable to anyone not fully immersed in Marvel continuity.
Yes, there are some fundamental differences, but when you get down to it, Terrigenesis (the process by which Inhumans gain their powers) can be seen as basically mutation with an extra step. Additionally, the universal social metaphor of Marvel mutants as any oppressed minority has been an integral aspect of the characters since their inception. Both in comics and in other media like the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television show, this social metaphor has been applied to the Inhumans. Comic characters with similar aesthetics and gimmicks abound–Hawkeye/Green Arrow, Moon Knight/Batman, Quicksilver/Flash, and so on. But there’s no mistaking them because they each have unique intangible characteristics. The Inhumans need to distinguish themselves as more than “the poor man’s X-Men.”
Marvel certainly didn’t help to differentiate between Inhumans and X-Men. Relaunching the main Inhuman book as Uncanny Inhumans, an adjective typically associated with the X-Men, wasn’t a particularly sound strategic move. It’s essentially changing the product to resemble an already popular one. Coca-Cola used this tactic when it created New Coke by altering the soda formula to imitate the sweetness of its primary competitor Pepsi, and nobody has to be reminded about the results of that decision.
Adding the mutant X-Men character Beast to the Inhumans team roster further added to potential reader confusion. Anyone with a casual familiarity with Marvel probably already knows who Beast is from the movies and cartoons. But if Beast is suddenly part of a group called the Inhumans instead of the X-Men, one is now forced to do some background research. Granted, it’s not that hard to do a Google search in this modern age, but compelling readers to put in more effort than they normally would, no matter how insignificant, is a surefire way to turn them away.
This leads me to another factor that plagues many businesses and likely hindered readership for the Inhumans – failure to understand the consumers. While there was clearly some buildup with the Inhumans in various Marvel titles in the years leading up to 2014, like Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four and Avengers runs, all of a sudden in late 2013/early 2014 the Inhumans launch seemed akin to being hit by a tidal wave. Sure, regular Marvel fans could follow along, but for new readers it was asking them to dive into the deep end before learning how to swim. Again, the possible brand confusion with the X-Men and lack of familiarity with the Inhumans were and still remain enormous barriers. Disney encountered nearly the identical issue when it opened Hong Kong Disneyland a decade ago. It assumed that the Disney name and characters had enough worldwide appeal that the park would do well in the Mainland Chinese market. However, even after introducing a short program at the park entrance to educate about the Disney characters, Hong Kong Disneyland still failed to connect with Chinese visitors. Relying too much on a brand name can be extremely detrimental and is important for Marvel’s Inhumans plans especially as it moves forward with its Inhumans television series.
I hate to keep going back to the X-Men, but in just a few short years the Inhumans have fallen victim to the same problem that Marvel mutants faced – there are just way too many Inhumans. It got so out of hand with the X-Men that Marvel placed a moratorium on the creation of new mutants after the 2005 House of M/Decimation event until 2012’s Avengers vs. X-Men miniseries. A very comprehensive “List of New Inhumans” Wikia database entry reveals that over 60+ new Inhumans have appeared in less than three years. Just like mutants, the increase of Inhumans dilutes the franchise and drives them further from the persecuted minority concept. When the number of new Inhuman characters is so overwhelmingly higher than that of new mutant characters, it’s no wonder that X-Men fans believe that Inhumans are replacing the mutants. The recent storyline of the Terrigen Mists (the substance that gives Inhumans their powers) killing mutants around the world was probably not the best marketing strategy if Marvel hoped to alleviate the fears of fans.
One of the biggest flaws with this Inhumans initiative was the lack of any kind of unifying logo or symbol. Every business knows the power of branding be it the McDonald’s Golden Aches, Twitter’s bird, or countless other examples. They’re heuristics that create instant recognition and foster shared communities. Superheroes are no stranger to branding and have fully embraced it as evident by the plethora of different superhero symbols you can find plastered on merchandise. In his book Pop Magic! comics writer Grant Morrison explained the societal and magical implications of corporate logos which he would explore again in his Batman Inc. book. As he writes:
“Corporate sigils are super-breeders. They attack unbranded imaginative space. They invade Red Square, they infest the cranky streets of Tibet, they etch themselves into hair-styles. They breed across clothing, turning people into advertising hoardings. They are a very powerful development in the history of sigil magic, which dates back to the first bison drawn on the first cave wall.
The logo or brand, like any sigil, is a condensation, a compressed, symbolic summing up of the world of desire which the corporation intends to represent. The logo is the only visible sign of the corporate intelligence seething behind it.”
Looking back at some of Marvel’s other properties that were previously lesser-known but have since risen to tremendous prominence and popularity, you’ll notice that logos played a role. Carol Danvers adopting the Captain Marvel mantle came with a new costume designed by Jamie McKelvie sporting the original Captain Marvel’s Hala Star chest symbol which has since become a call to arms for her fanbase dubbed the Carol Corps. The fiery emblem associated with the Guardians of the Galaxy was inspired by a similar image originally designed by Marko Djurdjević specifically for Star-Lord’s uniform but has since come to represent the entire GotG team. I could go on, but the point is that memorable iconography is essential for truly successful comic characters which unfortunately Inhumans has been lacking. The beauty of Marvel’s other properties like the “A” in Avengers or the “X” in X-Men is the elegance and simplicity of the alphabet. It’s doubtful an “I” would work for Inhumans unless it’s to try to leech off the popularity of the next Apple product. Marvel seems to have already taken the necessary steps and begun properly branding the Inhumans as indicated by a new logo atop the covers of the new wave of Inhumans related titles.
This critique isn’t meant to write off the Inhumans completely, only to note what wasn’t working and offer insights. With the announcement of the primary cast for the Inhumans television series and a September release set, the next few months are critical for the Inhumans comics.