Although the economic recovery continues to chug along at a snail’s pace, the comics retail market, at least anecdotally, is doing much better than in recent years. Buoyed by successful events such as DC’s New 52, the reboot of its superhero comics universe last Summer, and The Avengers movie earlier this year, and sustained by savvy booksellers who’ve learned to pivot quickly no matter what the economy throws at them, the responses to this year’s annual, informal survey of comic book retailers and general bookstores leaves little doubt that sales of book format and periodical comics are up in nearly every area of the market.

This year Publishers Weekly spoke with six direct market comic book retailers (the direct market or comics shop market is a network of roughly 2,000 shops serviced by Diamond Comics Distributors that generally buy nonreturnable at wholesale) that do a brisk Wednesday (new comics day) periodical comics business, including Midtown Comics in New York City; Bergen Street Comics in Brooklyn, N.Y.; A Comic Shop in Orlando, Fla.; House of Secrets in Burbank, Calif.; the Secret Headquarters in Los Angeles; and Mission Comics in San Francisco. We also included two “hybrid” shops that sell a mix of zines, periodicals, graphic novels, and prose books, Atomic Books in Baltimore and Quimby’s in Chicago, along with two general bookstores with well-stocked graphic novel sections, Book People in Austin, Tex., and Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore.

A Stronger 2011 Continues in 2012

Nearly every retailer we spoke with had stronger sales—in book format comics or graphic novels, traditional comic book periodicals and pop culture merchandise— toward the end of 2011 that have continued through 2012. None of the stores included in our survey have had to lay off staff, and several had to hire full-time employees or bump up their part-time staff’s hours. Additionally, almost every retailer reported that every portion of their business is up, with the exception of manga titles.

Dave Pifer, co-owner of L.A.’s Secret Headquarters, says that he’s been surprised by how well 2012 is going, noting, “it’s almost like a switch went off” toward the end of 2011. Elizabeth Jordan, the book buyer for Book People in Austin, Tex., concurred, saying, “Graphic novel sales are up this year by almost 14%.” Retailers also reported having a good 2011 holiday season, with shoppers picking up copies of trade book editions of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead and Hark a Vagrant by Kate Beaton, along with graphic novel mainstays like Amulet. vol. 1. by Kazu Kibushi and Bone. vol. 1. by Jeff Smith, in healthy numbers across most of the stores we surveyed. Pifer summed up Secret Headquarters’ holiday selling season: “I wasn’t losing my mind, but it was good.” He also noted that the 2011 holiday season “started a little earlier than it has in recent years. The [decline in sales] that started a few years ago was really at its most obvious a week before Christmas.”

But while retailers were, as a whole, upbeat and positive about sales and how the market is doing, their comments on the economy and its effect on their stores also reflected the economic mood of the country at large; there was an overall weariness with the current economic uncertainty as opposed to anxiety about it. As Gerry Donaghy of Powell’s Books described the 2012 customer mindset, “I could get laid off tomorrow, but I’m really in the mood for a good book.”

However, the realities of tough economic times has also appeared to galvanize publishers and the comic book industry at large to take necessary action. Aaron Holland of Orlando, Fla.’s A Comics Shop says, “The economy kind of kicked the comics industry in the ass. The regular attrition we were having wasn’t going to survive [it],” suggesting that harsh economic realities, coupled with the rise of digital distribution through Comixology, other digital vendors, and the proliferation of digital reading devices like the iPad, forced publishers to put their best foot forward.

The New 52 and the Avengers Movie

Of the stores Publishers Weekly spoke with who carried DC Comics’ New 52 line of revamped superhero periodicals, all reported that sales increased along with the media fanfare around the event. (Book collections of the initial story arcs of the New 52 debut series have also just been released). The New 52 is considered a “reboot” of the DC Universe that eliminated significant chunks of plot continuity (and issue numbering) to start over with new issue #1s for its line of superheroes like Batman and Superman. However, opinions differ as to how much of the sales increase was due to the New 52, the success of The Avengers movie, or both. Bestselling periodicals across all stores included the New 52 titles, Animal Man by Jeff Lemire, and Batman by Scott Snyder, and Marvel’s AVX (Avengers vs. Xmen, a series that pit the two groups against each other), with many retailers also mentioning Wonder Woman, Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga, and Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead single periodical issues as top sellers.

While crediting DC’s broad marketing of the reboot, some retailers noticed a wider demographic of readers coming into their stores for the New 52. “Having this entry point seemed to make a difference to people,” says Leef Smith of San Francisco’s Mission Comics. He also noticed many younger readers in their early 20s coming in to check out the line. Aaron Holland agreed, saying, “It was an easy sell to new people to get them into #1s for a lot of these characters. I got a lot of college students into it who [previously saw] comics and DC as impenetrable.”

Tucker Stone from Bergen Street Comics noted that “DC did a decent job of reminding people that [comics] still exist.” Secret Headquarters’ Pifer agreed, saying the New 52 titles, with “better stories that were a bit easier to jump on,” had done well for them. Asked if the New 52 attracted new readers to Atomic Books, co-owner Ben Ray, who did not carry DC or Marvel periodicals before the launch of the New 52 line, replies, “It did bring in a number of new readers,” many of whom were younger men and women. He says they’ve retained a lot of those customers even though they “tend to be doing some adjustments in what they’re reading and not reading.”

Amy Dallen, a staffer at Burbank’s House of Secrets, says she mostly saw lapsed comics readers come back, adding that she worries DC may have alienated its hardcore fans in hopes of attracting new ones. “The most heartbreaking thing about [the New 52] is that it’s not clear which aspects of DC continuity still exist,” she says. “For people who spend a long time invested in the characters, they’ve seen the universe reboot every 15 years or so. But this one felt like it wasn’t planned out carefully for those devoted fans.”

Dallen saw the opposite effect, however, with the readers that The Avengers movie brought into the store. “It’s [the first comic book movie] I’ve seen that seems to directly translate to [customers saying], ‘I want to buy a comic book with The Hulk in it for my eight-year-old.’ ” But by the midpoint of 2012, Gerry Gladston of Midtown Comics says, “Periodicals are doing significantly better. A big part of that is [the New 52] along with initiatives by Marvel, especially Avengers vs. X-Men.”

Walking Dead, Image Comics, and Manga

Every store we spoke with says that their bestselling graphic novels in both 2011 and 2012 were the various editions of The Walking Dead trade collections. Each of the comic book stores that stock direct market periodical comics says that single issues of The Walking Dead were bestsellers as well. What’s truly noteworthy, however, is how many other Image titles are not only doing well but often rivaling Marvel and DC’s sales figures.

Aaron Holland says that while “the last half of 2011 was definitely on an upswing—mainly to do with the New 52 re-launch,” he adds, “It’s the independent books from Image that have really captured people’s imagination.” Along with all of our other respondents, Tucker Stone pointed to Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples as a consistent big seller, noting that it “surpassed Batman in single issue pulls and sales with the fourth issue. He pointed to other Image books that have launched strong, including The Manhattan Project by Jonathan Hickman, Prophet by Brand Graham and Farel Dalrymple, and Ed Brubaker’s Fatale.

Which brings this survey to the area of the market that’s still clearly suffering. Sales of manga are on a continued downward slide with no signs of stopping. “Manga was through the roof up until 2006, and it just sort of ground to a halt. Teens who are reading it aren’t waiting a year for the English translation when you can go online and read everything that’s published translated by fans in an afternoon,” says graphic novel buyer Gerry Donaghy of Portland’s Powell’s Books. He points to another possible reason for the decline: “Cartoon Network used to show a lot of Japanese animation [such as Bleach and YuYu Hakusho] that tied into manga properties. I think somewhere along the line they figured out it was cheaper to program things [they] don’t have to pay the license for.”

Stone adds that Bergen Street was “going to expand the manga section—not kids’ manga, adults—but then it pretty much immediately became clear that what we needed to expand was the kids’ section. The whole front of the store is dedicated to all ages books [now].” Elizabeth Jordan of Book People in Austin has seen a similar jump in sales of kids’ graphic novels: “We expanded the footprint of our children’s department in 2011 to capitalize on the increase in sales in that department.” So while stores may be losing manga readers in their teens and early 20s, they are gaining younger kids in droves. In edition to Amulet and Bone, other strong sellers include children’s periodicals like Adventure Time and The Simpsons.

Another trend is the increased fracturing and disparity between the distribution and sales of literary and underground comics and the sales of other kinds of comics. While most stores report that sales for titles such as Are You My Mother? by Allison Bechdel, Athos in America by Jason, and My Friend Dahmer by John “Derf” Backderf are doing well, successes for literary, eccentric or indie publisher comics that aren’t distributed by Diamond Comics Distributors or by digital comics vendor Comixology tend to be few and far between. A couple of stores mentioned that while Microcosm’s underground hit, Henry & Glen by Tom Neely, Scot Nobles, and Igloo Tornado, and anything by U.K. indie comics house Nobrow Press sells really well, anything that’s not by such modern masters as Dan Clowes, Charles Burns, or Chris Ware is lost in the shuffle.

Publishers, Promotion and the Power of Social Media

All the retailers in the survey indicated that social media along with their own digital storefronts have become a vital part of their business with several stores mentioning that that, combined with in store events, are helping to keep the doors open. Dave Pifer says that “Social media and physical attendance (at Secret Headquarters events) means more people coming in, and that, “people will come to our webstore and pick up that thing we were promoting for the night.” Many of the retailers surveyed also mentioned robust customer interactions through social media tools like Facebook and Twitter and say that publishers could help them more if they would provide stores with more content to populate their often highly trafficked digital promotion channels. “We could use links,” says Gerry Gladston of Midtown Comics, “We do a ton of social media and we could share those links and promote them.”

Pifer, along with every other retailers surveyed, also said that comics publishers need to “dedicate more of their budgets to PR and marketing outside of regular comics venues and try to make their best stuff known to more of a general audience." As a whole the retailers agreed that publishers needed to be smarter and more consistent about their marketing efforts and often had complaints along the lines of not receiving promotional materials for books until after they ship. Liz Mason of Quimby’s Books said that “publicists need to be more engaged with promoting the events they're setting up for their authors,” adding that often they fail to properly research local “newspapers and alternative weeklies,” or “send out their own press releases” or respond to “inquiries bookstores have” in a timely manner.

Retailers would also like more PDF's or advance copies of books so they can properly assess how much to order and whether or not their customers will like it. “If I can read it ahead of time and experience it [I can sell it]. A lot of times I have to get that from the creators themselves,” says Aaron Holland of A Comics Shop.

According to Tucker Stone it would also help stores like Bergen Street if, publishers didn't have “a lot of lag time between first and second printings.” While Mission Comics' Leef Smith said that, “overships are helpful when people are conservative in their ordering,” [overship programs in the comics shop market allow stores to get additional returnable stock, in addition to the nonreturnable book they have ordered]. Smith says he would see more sales if publishers worked harder to get books that customers want into the storesp. To that end, Amy Dallen notes that while “Watchmen is a classic,” at least part of the book’s perrenial is, “ because they've had to keep it in print. It's because you've consistently been able to get a hold of it for the last 20 years.”

The Digital Apocalypse Never Happened

In a stark contrast to 2010, both the general bookstores and comics stores in this year’s survey say they no longer fear an impending exodus from their stores by digital customers. “A few years ago, my feelings about digital downloads and e-content would be a little different than they are now,” says Ben Ray of Atomic Books. “The best case scenario is that both of those kinds of formats are going to exist in the marketplace.”

Comixology, a vendor that has grown to be the dominant digital distributor in comics, has also been aggressive in tying its digital delivery to a program that allows consumers to buy physical comics and download digital ones from physical comics shops. Many of the retailers surveyed said that Comixology is not the same curated experience of a physical bookstore or comics shops and only half of the direct market comic book stores Publishers Weekly spoke to participate in the Comixology Retailer Program. Some participating retailers complained about Comixology's Retailer Interface and technical problems, particularly the fact that it runs on Flash, which is incompatible with most tablets, making it difficult for customers to purchase through retailers' Comixology storefronts.

Most retailers reported seeing no discernable effect of same-day release for digital and print (called “day and date” in the comics industry), which was widely initiated throughout the comics market with the launch of DC’s New 52, although many concede that there is no way to really tell if they are missing out on sales. “Maybe some new readers are going to go digital, but I don’t really know. I haven’t really seen people leave,” says A Comic Shop’s Holland. One retailer even indicated that Comixology and publishers could actually do more to attract readers to the comics medium and grow the marketplace by lowering the price of single-issue digital comics.

“It technically still costs more for [customers] to buy books from Comixology than from our store. How are comics ever going to go mass market if you’re charging people $4 for a tiny piece of electronic content when I could watch an hourlong drama for $1.99?” says House of Secrets’ Dallen, adding, “Digital is something that I think will save comics—not the thing that will kill comics.”