On July 14, Walt Disney's (NYSE: DIS ) Marvel Entertainment teased that a "thundering" new title would be announced the following day on "The View." The show and its primarily female audience seemed to be an odd venue for such an announcement, especially with Comic-Con going on in San Diego. But when the news finally broke, it was obvious why the House of Ideas had chosen that particular show. The "new title" is a new comic starring Thor, God of Thunder -- except in this comic, Thor is a woman.
While some long-term comic fans have already dismissed this new Thor as "pandering" to the female crowd, targeting the female demographic is just good business for Marvel. While comics are traditionally seen as being intended for "boys" and are often accused of catering to male power fantasies, there's a growing segment of "girl-friendly" comics in the industry that is seeing significant success. Trying to increase the appeal of its mainstream titles to the growing female demographic is simply Marvel's way of trying to stay on top of shifts in the comics industry.
The fastest-growing demographic
According to the Publisher's Weekly Annual Comics Retailer Survey, comic shops and other polled retailers noticed a trend among shoppers: Young women, aged 17-33, were the fastest-growing group.
This was only an informal survey, and by no means covered the entirety of the comic book retail landscape. But books like "Saga," "Pretty Deadly," and even "The Walking Dead" are popular with this growing demographic, and this is notable because none of these titles are published by Marvel or its "Big Two" rival, DC.
Marvel has been making a push to correct this and draw in more female readers by shifting certain female characters to the forefront. Both Captain Marvel and Black Widow have their own solo books at the moment, one of the current "X-Men" titles focuses primarily on a portion of the team made up of female members, and the new "Ms. Marvel" title features a young Pakistani-American girl who is coming to terms with newly unleashed powers. The new "Thor" title will be a continuation on this theme, giving Marvel yet another title that might appeal to female readers who otherwise wouldn't be likely to pick up the comics.
How important is this demographic?
As of June, Marvel is the No. 1 comics company in the world in terms of units sold, dollars earned, and titles in the top 300, according to Diamond Comic Distributors. The titles that are seeing the biggest interest from the growing female demographic are largely distributed by Image Comics, which trails in the No. 3 spot in those same categories.
Marvel captured 33.7% of overall comics spending in June, as compared to Image's 8.9%. Obviously, Image isn't going to grow enough from a single demographic to be a threat to Marvel's position. Given that overall spending for the month came out to around $41.7 million, however, it's easy to see why Marvel wants additional growth.
While June's overall earnings are largely unchanged from June 2013, comics spending has seen a 13% increase over the last five years -- and an impressive 91% increase over the last decade. This is due in part to price increases, but it can also be attributed to the increased interest in comics characters brought about by the superhero movie craze and the proliferation of digital comics. Digital comics alone brought in $90 million in sales in 2013, a 29% increase from the previous year. Appealing to broader demographics could help Marvel to bring in more from both its print and digital offerings.
The larger Marvel ecosystem
Bringing in more female readers may help Marvel -- and Disney -- in other ways as well. The company's comics sales pale in comparison to the $1 billion-plus that Marvel Studios films bring in each year, but they still play an important part in the company's overall business strategy. Characters and teams often cross over and interact more in the lead-up to film releases; the Guardians of the Galaxy, for instance, have recently showed up in both select "X-Men" titles and the Captain Marvel solo book.
Female readers who have become interested in Captain Marvel, for example, would have gotten a sampling of the characters and may take a larger interest in the Guardians of the Galaxy film when it hits theaters next month. This could convert new readers into new moviegoers, allowing Disney to benefit from the same push twice.
Likewise, the new Thor could increase interest in the eventual third film in the franchise. While it's unlikely that the female version of the character will appear onscreen, supporting characters and villains will likely appear in the book to increase interest in the overall Thor universe.
The female take on the character may also introduce members of the main Avengers team -- who will be returning to the big screen next year in Avengers: Age of Ultron -- to new readers who might otherwise have been uninterested.
In the end, the announcement of a new Thor isn't about pandering to female readers, it's about maneuvering Marvel's business to stay on top of trends in the comic-book industry. More important, it could help Disney to better leverage its Marvel properties as a whole to demographics that some would write off.
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