One afternoon in late January, Howard Flysher, an avuncular 67-year-old with a neatly trimmed white short-boxed beard, walked the length of the towering bookcase in the back of a popular Manhattan comic book store called Forbidden Planet. He paused every now and again, peering out from his black wire-framed glasses to scrutinize a title or two, the way an art critic might appraise a painting.
The first installment of “Silk,” a new Marvel comic book derived from the Spider-Man series, was not yet on shelves. But Flysher, who buys and sells comic books for a living, said he plans to purchase “Silk” when it appears in stores February 18.
After all, he acknowledged, it’s not everyday that a superhero from Queens becomes the first, female, Asian American to get her own series.“Isn’t it about time?” Flysher quipped.
The series, which tells the story of Cindy Moon and her crime-fighting, alter-ego named Silk, comes a year after another superhero, Kamala Khan, became the first Muslim character to headline one of Marvel's comic books. Like Khan, a character created by writer G. Willow Wilson and Marvel editor Sana Amanat, Moon possesses certain powers that allow her to fight evil in the Marvel universe - powers she gained after being bitten by the same irradiated spider that turned Peter Parker into Spider-Man.
“It’s funny that this is 2015, and these are still firsts,” said Jeff Ayers, who has been the manager of Forbidden Planet for 20 years.
“If you go to any comic book convention, the entire audience is so diverse, almost 50-50 men women...It's everybody from different ethnic backgrounds.”
Not so long ago, it used to be that males dominated the ranks of American comic book superheroes. But by the 1970s, comic book publishers began featuring more female and ethnic characters in supporting roles, said Joseph Taraborrelli Sr., a Marvel spokesman.
For its part, Marvel has introduced such characters as Khan, a superhero from New Jersey known as Ms. Marvel, and Anya Corazon, a Latina teenager from Brooklyn who made her debut in 2004. The creation of these female leads, as well as the hundreds of Asian superheroes in comic books today, collectively mirrors a shift in the demographics of comic book enthusiasts across the United States.
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“If you go to any comic book convention, the entire audience is so diverse, almost 50-50 men women,” Taraborrelli said. “There are all walks of life. It's everybody from different ethnic backgrounds.”
Bringing more Asian-American characters into the Spider-Man series was one of Dan Slott’s goals when he signed on as its writer in 2008.
“In 50 plus years of Spider-Man comics, one of the things that stood out to me was that there had only really been one prominent Asian-American character in the cast, Flash Thompson's on-again-off-again girlfriend, Sha Shan Nguyen,” Slott told NBC News. “Being six degrees away from Peter Parker, that meant she didn't even really show up that often.”
As a result, Slott said he introduced two new Asian-American characters: Martin Li, a philanthropist who turns into a crime lord at night, and Yuri Watanabe, a New York Police Department captain who doubles as a vigilante and helps Spider-Man fight crime. He also created Moon, who, after gaining her superpowers, had been locked away in a bunker for a decade, separated from her family, to be kept safe from Spider-Man’s deadliest foes, the Inheritors.
“For someone originally part of a tight knit Asian-American family, knowing that they're all right, searching for them, and being together with them again is the most important thing in Cindy's life,” Slott said.
“People have to be able to identify with the character, even if they are not like the character.”
Moon’s character now has a new writer -- Robbie Thompson, a self-described “huge comic book nerd” and a writer for the CW’s television series “Supernatural.” The key to further developing her character, Thompson explained, was to make Moon universally appealing to all readers, regardless of their gender or ethnicity.
“I think the thing that inspired me about her character was her inner strength, the unwillingness to ever give up,” Thompson told NBC News in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, California.
Thompson, who was born and raised in suburban Detroit, said he consulted his wife, originally from Manhattan’s Washington Heights, to help capture the nuances of what it was like for Moon to grow up in a New York City borough. But, he added, what was most important for him was gaining an understanding of how it feels to be locked away from civilization.
“I read about isolation, what it’s like to be separated from people for so long, and how it affects her psychologically,” said Thompson, referring to the research he did before he wrote the series.
It is, of course, too early to tell whether Silk will enjoy the same popularity as Ms. Marvel, whose story centers on a Muslim-American teenager born in Jersey City. That series has already garnered a sizeable fan base over the past year, said Ayers, the manager of Forbidden Planet. For “Silk,” Ayers’ store has received positive feedback from a subscription program that asks readers which books they would like to see on their shelves, he said. Forbidden Planet, he added, also plans to offer coupons for Silk on the day it debuts.
But the key to being as successful as Ms. Marvel, Ayers said, ultimately rests on the book’s content.
“Ms. Marvel is successful because the quality is good and it’s a fun, fun book,” he said. “It has a lot of fresh ideas, and it’s written by someone who is close to the character.”
And just as Thompson pointed out, Ayers explained that there also has to be something in the series for everyone.
“Once you get a character like this who is outside the framework of the Marvel universe, or superhero comics in general, it has to be written and drawn close to home to a certain extent,” Ayers said. “People have to be able to identify with the character, even if they are not like the character.”
Flysher, a lifelong comic book reader who rattles off superheroes’ names as if talking about extended family, said he plans to return to Forbidden Planet the day Silk goes on sale. For a comic book seller, he said, it’s always worth buying the first issue of a series. But he was equally excited about delving into the story.
“She’ll do really well -- I think so,” Flysher said. “I mean, why not.”