Marvel Comics has been taking bold risks with some of its hallmark characters.
A black Captain America. A female Thor. An all-women Avengers team.
Now, the publisher is shaking up the rest of its superhero roster in an effort to freshen the Marvel universe and attract new readers.
The current "Secret Wars" event -- a major plotline involving multiple Marvel universes -- is laying the groundwork for a new, single Marvel universe and a revamped roster of superheroes and villains. The publisher's fall lineup will consist of 55 to 60 titles, all starting with new issue No. 1s.
"'Secret Wars' sort of sprinkled the world with exciting new elements and is going to breathe into it new life," said Axel Alonso, Marvel's editor in chief, in a phone conversation. "We used 'Secret Wars' as our launching pad, because it gave us a nice, big, blank canvas to paint on."
And Marvel plans to paint vastly different versions of some of its most popular characters, including the Hulk, Spider-Man and Wolverine -- all while trying to stay true to the 76-year-long story continuity.
"We are not erasing Marvel's history," Alonso said. "This is not a reboot or a restart. This is just a nice jumping-on point."
In many ways, the publisher is walking a tightrope between serving longtime comics devotees and offering access points for new readers. Each of the new issue No. 1s "will be structured so it's completely accessible to new readers," Alonso said.
"We don't want to make you feel like you're coming into the middle of the story, and that you need to have read a comic before," he added. "You'll hit the ground running, you'll enjoy the experience, you might have questions, but those questions that will be things we answer for you as the story unfolds."
To maintain the careful balance between appealing to devoted and new readers, Alonso said, serial comics are taking a page from television's seasonal model.
"There's a large story told over many episodes that offers some sense of completion, but not finality -- the story continues after," he said. "Our goal is to always respect the history and the continuity we've inherited, but also build with an eye toward finding new readers."
Marvel has found success in attracting new fans by debuting a diverse array of new characters, though not without facing an initial wave of skepticism. When the publisher announced a series starring a new, female Thor, "there was no absence of people who thought the sky was falling, who thought it was sacrilege, 'This isn't my Thor,' yada, yada," Alonso said.
But the story was a hit, selling more than 200,000 copies of the first issue.
"It found not only new readers -- most of whom are female -- but we've managed to maintain the long-term Thor fans who just can't get enough of the story," Alonso said.
Thor is not alone in her popularity. "Spider-Gwen" No. 1, featuring Gwen Stacy as a new version of the arachnoid webslinger, sold more than 250,000 copies. "A-Force" No. 1, about an all-female Avengers team, sold over 125,000. And perhaps most notably, "Ms. Marvel" No. 1 was a New York Times best seller, received seven printings and was the publisher's best-selling digital comic last year.
"Without a doubt, 'Ms. Marvel' was a breakout sensation for us," Alonso said.
The Eisner-nominated title introduced Kamala Khan, a 16-year-old Pakistani American Muslim girl living in Jersey City, N.J., as the new Ms. Marvel.
Alonso said he thinks of the character as "a direct descendant of Peter Parker," the bullied Queens teenager who becomes Spider-Man.
"You know, in 2015, Peter Parker can look like Kamala Khan, and really that's what we're trying to do here -- take stock of the world around us, the issues of the day, and the vast variety of our population, and tell stories through them and for them," Alonso said.
Following in the footsteps of Ms. Marvel and Thor, Marvel's new roster will offer vastly different versions of some of its most popular characters; A new Spider-Man will swing through the streets of New York, a new version of Wolverine will return to comics after the character was killed off last year, and a character "very unlike Bruce Banner" will be introduced as the new Hulk, Alonso said.
"When people see the silhouette of the character, and when people get their first look, it'll be controversial, and it'll get talked about, and it'll ultimately be embraced, as the new Thor was," he said.
The new issue No. 1s will be released this fall over the course of three or four months, with all the stories set eight months after the events of "Secret Wars." Alonso said the comics creators were challenged to think of a significant change in each character's world.
"A changed relationship, a death, a new relationship, a new role or philosophy that they've adopted, maybe they've moved to a new place, maybe the character in tights isn't who you think it is," Alonso said. "Something that would sort of energize all readers new and old."
For all the planned changes, Marvel's underlying mission is an old one.
"Marvel Comics' driving philosophy dating back to Stan Lee is to reflect the world outside your window, and the world outside your window has changed since the early '60s," Alonso said. "We're following that mantra. Our new stories reflect the world outside your window in all its diversity."