Turns out Han Solo in Star Wars had a secret wife while he was romancing Princess Leia, and Sana Solo is none too pleased to learn she has a rival. Spider-Woman is pregnant. How will she balance her heroics with pending motherhood? When he's not out saving the world, superhero Midnighter hangs out on Grindr, a dating app for gay and bisexual men.

That's just a taste of some of the story lines that have comic book fans riveted these days and waiting in anticipation for the next installment in their favorite serial to drop. Comic books sure aren't what they used to be. Once the province mostly of young male nerds, the fan base has expanded to become more reflective of the mainstream population. That's meant more diversity in the race, gender and sexual orientation of the characters. Sana Solo is Star Wars' first African-American female character. The new Thor and Wolverine are women. Midnighter is openly gay and was married to fellow superhero Apollo before they broke up.

"The geek culture is way more diverse than anybody gives it credit for," says Eitan Manhoff, who owns Cape and Cowl, a comic book store that opened earlier this month in Oakland. "People picture a bunch of old, fat, bald white guys sitting around and eating snacks but that's just not what it is."

The increasingly diverse readership is a big reason why Manhoff opened Cape and Cowl in Oakland, one of the most diverse cities in the country. The shop is at 16th and Clay streets, a stone's throw from City Hall. On Dec. 12th, the comic book store is partnering with the Museum of Children's Arts for "Superhero Saturday," a free event for kids to promote art and literacy. (10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at MOCHA, 1625 Clay St.)


Manhoff's customers have ranged from hard-core collectors to people shopping for gifts.

One recent afternoon, Craig Strunk, who works at City Hall, popped in and bought "My Little Pony" comic books and "My Little Pony Mystery Minis" figurines for his three young daughters. "I think this is a good location and there will be a lot of interest," Strunk said.

Comic book titles for sale at Cape & Cowl Comics in the Uptown neighborhood of Oakland, Calif., are  photographed Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015. (D. Ross
Comic book titles for sale at Cape & Cowl Comics in the Uptown neighborhood of Oakland, Calif., are photographed Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015. (D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group) ( D. ROSS CAMERON )

Cape and Cowl is the fulfillment of a boyhood dream for Manhoff, a 32-year-old El Cerrito resident who was bitten by the comic book bug at age 10. On his 18th birthday, he got a Superman tattoo on his arm. He is an avid collector, a passion he shares with his dad.

The shop includes boxes of comics from Manhoff's personal collection as well as weekly shipments of new stories that are sold Wednesdays -- known as "New Comic Day." That's when the die-hard flock to comic shops around the country to pick up the latest issues of their favorites.

The popularity of comic books has ebbed and flowed over the years, and are now enjoying a resurgence which has been helped along by Hollywood and digital technology.

The horror drama "The Walking Dead," which has the highest viewership of any television show in cable history, is based on a comic book series. A comic book store also features prominently in "The Big Bang Theory." Blockbuster films like Superman and the Avengers were based on comic books and have helped bring new readers to the genre. Star Wars by contrast started with the movie in 1977, which later spawned the hugely successful comic book series.

Star Wars comics have been flying off the shelves as giddy fans await the Dec. 18 release of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," the latest installment from the space epic.

Meanwhile, many people are using their mobile devices to read comic books. In response, Google Play Books recently created an update to make smart phones more user friendly for comic book readers.

Manhoff isn't worried digital readership will hurt sales at brick-and-mortar shops like his, which is what's happened to traditional booksellers. "In my opinion, however people read comics, the better it is for all us," he said.

Tammerlin Drummond is a columnist for the Bay Area News Group. Her column runs Thursday and Sunday. Contact her at tdrummond@bayareanewsgroup.com or follow her at Twitter.com/tammerlin.