Although dedicated graphic novel publishers showed up in smaller numbers than in the past, plenty of graphic novels could still be found on the floor of this year's Book Expo America. However, some of the biggest graphic titles weren't even mentioned as such.

Craig Thompson's Habibi (Pantheon) was undoubtedly the book of show among graphic novels. The follow-up to his much loved Blankets took six years to complete, a lingering, poetic story of two disparate lovers filled with Islamic imagery and religious allusions. In an Author Insight Stage interview Tuesday with PW senior news editor Calvin Reid, Thompson talked about the making of the book, mentioning that with all the anticipation for the title, it had been much less fun to work on than Blankets. The first chapter was given away as an arc.

In addition, cartoonist Shannon Wheeler interviewed New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast on the Insight stages on the BEA exhibition floor. Wheeler mentioned his forthcoming graphic novel, Grandpa Won’t Wake Up (Boom!), while Chast discussed her latest book, What I Hate (Bloomsbury).

Despite the loss this year of at least two publisher clients, Diamond Book Distributors’ Kuo-yu Liang was typically upbeat about BEA. Liang was not only pleased with business contacts and meetings at BEA, but made the point that, from his view, the graphic novel market place in general and the manga market was doing well despite a tough economy. And he was even more optimistic about the growth of sales of English language graphic novels on the international market. Pointing to data from Bookscan, which represents about 60% to 70% of the total book market, Liang says DBD has averaged 40% growth annually since 2006 and that international sales represent about 50% of DBD revenues. And speaking to the U.S. manga market specifically, Liang said, “manga is not dead,” and said DBD manga and graphic novel sales in the U.S. (as measured through BookScan) have averaged 19% growth in recent years, topping off at nearly $40 million. Liang said manga sales at DBD publishers like Dark Horse, Udon and Bandai were growing.

Liang acknowledged that the manga market has changed and that publishers have been dealing with a recession economy by cutting back on marketing. “Manga needs more marketing and branding to a new generation of young readers,” Liang said. “Everyone has been cutting back, but we can work collectively as an industry to do some of the things publishers like Viz, Tokyopop used to do to market manga during the boom years,” he said. He sketched possible strategies, among them, special market sales (“we need to find new places to sell manga”); suggested a free manga day and even a free e-manga day, emphasizing these are “just ideas” but also that he plans to work toward implementing them.

Meeting international partners is a big part of BEA for DBD, Liang said. “I always said we planned to have 50% international sales, but now I think the figure is too low. It can be bigger,” he said. He also said DBD was working on a digital strategy, although he was not prepared to announce it just yet. “The digital comics market will be even bigger and the U.S. won’t even be the biggest e-comics market,” said Liang, who said that even with all the hassles and obstacles to shipping physical comics, “international sales are still growing. With digital will have none of those hassles and we can reach a billion English speakers around the world.”

He pointed to big books coming from IDW (The Book of Extreme Facts and the True Blood hardcover), Dark Horse (Gate 7 CLAMP’s first new original work in years; and Jeff Jensen’s The Green River Killer), Image (Morning Glories and Robert Kirkman's new Walking Dead collection). “There’s a lot of great material coming,” said Liang.

Elsewhere, comics content was scattered among regular offerings. Riverhead announced a graphic novel version of The Kite Runner, the blockbuster about two boys growing up in Afghanistan. Illustrated by Fabio Celoni and Mirka Andolfo, the adaptation comes out in September.

Two of the biggest graphic novels ever are coming out this year, although in the children's book segment. Dav Pikey's Super Diaper Baby 2: The Invasion of the Potty Snatchers is told entirely in comics format, and has a one million copy first printing. (Last year's Ook and Gluk by Pikey was the best selling GN of 2010.)

Brian Selznick's Wonderstruck is a graphic novel in the truest sense – it tells two stories, set 50 years apart, about two teenagers named Ben and Rose; Ben's story is told in words while Rose's is told entirely in pictures. Selznick is continuing his exploration of the hybrid form he used in The Invention of Hugo Cabret—at least half of Wonderstruck is in illustrated form. With a 500,000 copy laydown, this is another big book.

Among comics publishers, the turnout was spare –Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Top Shelf, Viz, Marvel, DC and Viz were all absent from the floor although a few were represented in meeting rooms. That left Dark Hose and Image as the biggest publishers.

Elsewhere, several GN publishers have found new homes at other distributors. NBM, publisher of European comics and original graphic novels, was thrilled with its new home at IPG. Upcoming highlights include Inner Sacntum, a chilling adaptation of the '40 radio mystery show by veteran Ernie Colón, and later this year from Papercutz , Monster Christmas by Lewis Trondheim, the latest in a series of books by the French star.

NBM publisher Terry Nantier announced their first manga, as well: Stargazing Dog by Takashi Murakami, who is not the same person as the renowned artist, but a very successful manga-ka in his own right. Stargazing Dog follows the journey of a lonely man who can only depend on his dog for company; the Japanese original has sold 400,000 copies.

Set up in the booth of its new distributor PGW, Archaia founder and chief creative officer Mark Smylie was giving our posters promoting many of its big fall titles, including Jim Henson’s A Tale of Sand, a graphic novel adaptation of a newly discovered Henson feature-length screenplay, that will be published in October. Smylie also mentioned Achaia’s Black Label imprint, a line of comics published in collaboration with other media companies, with 6 titles in the marketplace (among them Days Missing, a joint venture with Roddenberry Productions) and a new Black Label title, Immortals: Gods and Heroes, created with the film studio, Relativity Media, to tie-in with the forthcoming feature length film. (Relativity is holding a contest to find 5 fans who will be portrayed as gods in the comic and flown to Comic Con.).

Smylie also talked about Archaia’s new publisher, Mike Kennedy, noting both his experience both in comics (writing for Dark Horse, Marvel and DC among others) and in the videogame industry, and citing Archaia’s plans to transform its properties into digital media and games. Archaia plans to publish about 60 hardcover graphic novels this year and will launch a paperback line in August—starting with the Awakening Omnibus, a collection of the popular horror comic series created by Nick Tapalansky and Alex Eckman-Lawn—that will publish Archia hardcovers in paperback six month to year after the hardcover release. In addition the house is publishing a sequel to Jim McCann and Janet Lee’s original graphic novel, Return of the Dapper Men, which has sold 10,000 copies. Time of the Dappermen is coming in November and launching with a 10,000 copy first printing. “We got a phenomenal response to the book,” said Smylie.

Boom! Studios had the most interest in their Peanuts GN, Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown, according to marketing coordinator Ivan Salazar. Shannon Wheeler's I Thought You Would Be Funnier, a collection of rejected New Yorker cartoons also got a lot of attention. The entire book has been put online for free while a new printing is en route and to support it’s Eisner nomination.

Although there was much positive energy for graphic novels at BEA among booksellers and librarians, there was also a lot of looking forward to other events. Almost everyone was looking forward to this year's American Library Association show in New Orleans, where graphic novels will have a much bigger presence, and, for the first time, an artist's alley. And of course the inevitable monster, Comic-Con is increasingly a key spot in the marketing year even for traditional publishers.