At New York Comic Con this week, Marvel announced one of its savviest moves in years: the company known for pumping out superheroes and now space operas has it sights set on the Young Adult novel business. The company has commissioned Margaret Stohl, one of the co-authors of the very successful Beautiful Creatures series, to write a Black Widow young adult novel due out in Fall 2015.
"This is the bad-assiest thing I've ever been asked to work on in my life," Stohl said during the Women of Marvel panel on Sunday. "She is the best — the very best hot mess I know."
With Stohl, Marvel gets an author who cut her teeth in superhero video games, then hit gold with her Beautiful Creatures franchise, which, as of last year, has sold 3.5 million books, according to Publisher's Weekly. But this move is more than just having a talented author at the company's disposal. Here's why Marvel's big move (the company quietly released two YA/chick-lit books last year) into YA industry (in 2009, the total sales of YA books surpassed $3 billion) sold is a no-brainer.
There's plenty of money to be made
There's a tacky little myth in the movie business that movies that feature female leads make no money. That myth and its many permutation have been proven false, most recently by the success of Maleficent and film treatments of YA novels. If you want to see movies (other than the dreaded Transformer flicks) that can hold their own with Marvel's stable of blockbusters, look no further than Twilight and The Hunger Games, the two biggest YA movie franchises in recent years:
The second installment of The Hunger Games franchise, Catching Fire, has a domestic gross that's only a few million behind the combined domestic gross of both Captain America movies and is higher than the highest grossing Iron Man movie. And the Twilight franchise stands toe to toe with Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy.
Granted, there are some stinkers — the movie adaptation of Beautiful Creatures is just one of them — but there's plenty of potential here for Marvel to tap into a movie genre that the company hasn't explored yet.
Girls read more than boys. Women read more than men.
The biggest challenge for Marvel in the past few years has been trying to grow its female audience. The industry has changed bit by bit, and the company's writing stars like Kelly Sue DeConnick (Captain Marvel) and G. Willow Wilson (Ms. Marvel) have helped grow a supportive community of female readers. Yet, for every two steps forward for DeConnick and her colleagues, there's a controversy like the Milo Manara Spider-Woman or the continued perception that comics are primarily for male nerds.
By creating a YA book, Marvel is first and foremost eliminating the overt-sexualization of women inherent in many comics because, well, there are no pictures. Young adult stories also usually revolve around teens and first love, rather than anything blatantly sexual. It's also opening up access for young women. You're far less likely to run into a comics troll at a bookstore than a comic book shop. But, what's perhaps most important to Marvel is that the company is going straight to the source when it comes to female readers.
American girls read more than boys. And they have better attitudes about reading. According to Scholastic's 2012 Kids & Family Reading Report, the percentage of girls who read books for fun levels off in their teens, while the percentage of boys drops at every age:
The study also found that the attitude that boys had toward reading actually improved from 2010 to 2012:
The study found that girls' attitudes toward reading dropped. But, even with the drop, girls still had drastically better attitudes toward reading:
This is, of course, why you see a lot of YA novels featuring themes (romance particularly) that publishers think will resonate with young women (female protagonists, love triangles, family). Black Widow could easily fit into this mold, and Marvel must be chomping at the bit to court these would-be readers.
But there's more.
For one thing, the reading gap extends into adulthood. The National Endowment for the Arts found that in 2012, 64 percent of women read at least one book over the year, compared to only 45 percent of men. And that same year, a market research study found that 55 percent of YA books are purchased by adults.
The bottom line is this: women and girls are reading more books than men and boys, and if statistics hold true, women are reading more YA novels than men. Marvel, of course, has a problem with growing its female readership. The company's new YA novel might be the best possible solution.
Marvel's biggest hit is a YA story
Marvel isn't exactly going into untested territory. In February of this year, Marvel debuted Ms. Marvel, a reboot of the classic title that now follows the story of Kamala Khan, a teenage, Muslim, Pakistani-American girl. The comic, written by Wilson, is an examination of many things — family, religion, being an outsider, bigotry, assimilation, identity — all wrapped around the story of a young girl trying find her place in the world. Kamala's story is not unlike the stories of Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games or Stohl's Beautiful Creatures protagonist Lena Dunchannes.
Ms. Marvel has become a breakout hit and has gone into its sixth reprinting (first printings in comic books are like first editions; sixth printings are virtually unheard of) and is a monster when it comes to digital purchases. As Marvel's editor-in-chief Axel Alonso pointed out on Sunday during his panel, the sales of the book are not all from "16-year-old Pakistani Muslim girls buying the book." Those sales are happening because "everyone is buying that book."
And finally, don't underestimate the power of Marvel's marketing. Everyone points to the success of Guardians of the Galaxy as a sterling example of Marvel defying obscurity and turning no-name heroes into household ones. But what gets swept under the rug is how Marvel used its comic books to coincide with the release of Guardians. The first issue of the Rocket Raccoon comic (the comic like Ms. Marvel has young reader appeal) was pushed out in July, to capitalize on the Guardians marketing push. It ended up crushing the month and selling an estimated 293,913 copies in North America.
While Marvel's upcoming YA novel will feature Black Widow, there's a possibility that the company could start spinning off its other characters or create brand new characters to help grow the company's empire. These novels could very well become the next Twilight, Hunger Games, or Divergent. Or they could be something even better.