This Saturday is Free Comic Book Day. That's when dozens of comic companies offer free comics — either special edition reprints or all new stories — at comic book shops around the world, including numerous shops around the greater Los Angeles area.
It also comes as comic books, and their audiences, are becoming increasingly diverse.
The event is one of the biggest days of the year for comic book retailers. The owner of North Hollywood's Blastoff Comics, Jud Meyers, told KPCC that while comic book readership has historically been male, that's begun to change as comics extend deeper into pop culture. Meyers said his customer base is now 46 percent female.
"I don't go after the guys anymore — I already have the guys. I create an environment for the teen girl, the women — clean, bright, female employees, stocking product that is a little bit more on the literate side," Meyers said.
Why are more women coming to comics? Meyers attributed it to comic books being taken more seriously, the books becoming more accessible and more female creators making comics behind the scenes.
"I also think that content-wise, when you get to a point where it's not just about guys in their underwear hitting each other, and it's about relationships, it starts to become about the people in these books," Meyers said.
Meyers said that the culture is making it safe for women to read comics.
"Guys just take whatever they get," Meyers said, adding that men look for more of what they've always enjoyed. Female fans tend to find something more specific that they like and then seek out more books like that, Meyers said, asking "What else?"
Making Marvel Comics more diverse
Free Comic Book Day tends to align with the announcements of big superhero movies, and this year is no exception with the release of "Captain America: Civil War." The movie is inspired by Marvel's "Civil War" comic, so Marvel decided that now would be the perfect time for "Civil War II." Marvel is one of many publishers offering free comics this weekend, so you can pick up a book leading in to that for free this Saturday, as well as a new Captain America story and more.
"When people are talking about 'Civil War,' we want to be able to offer them something to buy and read," Marvel Editor-In-Chief Axel Alonso told KPCC. "We're looking for an entry point into our universe and how we tell stories."
Marvel's also trying to diversify their lineup as they look to grow a more diverse readership.
"We think that it's very important that our characters reflect everybody, you know? That superheroes peel back their masks to reveal faces that anyone can find their reflection in," Alonso said.
Alonso noted that the current version of the character Ms. Marvel is Pakistani, while the current comic book Hulk is Korean-American.
"The Marvel Universe doesn't quite look like it does on the silver screen on the comic book page," Alonso said. "We're clearly seeing new readers coming to stores, going to conventions thirsty for new material. You've seen the influx of female readers who have supported our titles, and the success of our female-led titles now."
Alonso said the company now has 17 comics that include female lead characters.
When will some of the growing diversity seen in Marvel comics show up in the movies? Alonso said he has no insider knowledge, but expects to see more at some point — though it may not be immediate. Still, Marvel has added more diverse characters on screen, including its first female-led film "Captain Marvel" currently scheduled for 2019. They'll be two years behind their rivals at DC Comics, whose "Wonder Woman" hits theaters next year.
Another book that's bringing in new readers with a diverse lead — "Black Panther," written by acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who's known for his writing on race. The character also shows up in the new "Captain America" movie.
"['Black Panther'] has brought new foot traffic into stores. It is by far the number 1 book of the month, maybe a top 5 to 10 book of the year," Alonso said.
The "Black Panther" movie is set for a 2018 release, which will be Marvel's first solo film with a minority main character.
Both Marvel and DC are also looking to appeal to female readers, with Marvel debuting a new version of the hero the Wasp in one of its stories, while DC releases "DC Super Hero Girls," a book targeted at girls.
If you want to check out some of these comics for yourself, Meyers would be happy to have you — Blastoff's doing a full-day neighborhood festival with comic book creators, panels, signings, live music, food trucks, a beer garden and more. He said that last year's Free Comic Book Day event drew between 3,000 and 4,000 people, a lot to pack into his 1,000-square-foot store. This year they're taking over the space outside North Hollywood's The Federal Bar for the event.