The mood among retailers was generally upbeat even in the face of digital competition at the Diamond Retailer Summit in Chicago. Held April 11-13 in conjunction with the C2E2 comics/entertainment expo, the meeting drew nearly 400 retailers for several days of focus groups and presentations on the state of comics retailing.

Diamond execs kicked off the show with a presentation on the overall state of the industry. First quarter 2012 sales showed some healthy growth over the first quarter of 2011. Total sales were up 7.3%, with periodical comics up 14.8% and graphic novels up 6%. Periodical sales were led by DC's New 52 program, which saw their superhero line rebooted late last year. Graphic novels were led by Walking Dead collections which continue to be a phenomenon after the second season of the AMC TV show.

According to Diamond v-p of purchasing Bill Schanes, the number of stores was up 1% from last year—a tiny increment, but still a sign of how comics continue to resist the trend of erosion among brick and mortar stores.

Also showing growth, this year's Free Comic Book Day promotion, to be held May 5th, will be the biggest ever, with orders for over 3.5 million free books, up from 2.7 million in 2011. In the program, giveaway comics from a variety of publishers are sold to retailers for a nominal fee and given away as part of the widely promoted event.

Overall, retailers seemed upbeat about sales, despite the competition from digital sales. DC's v-p of marketing John Cunningham presented detailed results of a fall 2011 reader survey which showed that even customers who were polled through DC's digital comics program still purchased physical comics.

DC's created a stir among retailers by showing off pages from this Summer's controversial Before Watchmen line, which will see prequels to the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons classic—Moore has denounced the line in no uncertain terms. Although the press was barred from the presentation, art by Darwyn Cook, Amanda Conner, Jae Lee and Adam Hughes impressed those who saw it.

Marvel came right back teasing their current Avengers vs X-Men storyline and several big promotional events for later in the year, including a "controversial" wedding in Astonishing X-Men 51 which is rumored to be the first gay wedding for two Marvel superheroes.

The other publisher creating a buzz was Image, whose Walking Dead trade book collections remain white hot. Recent periodical launches such as Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, Fatale by Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips and America's Got Talent by Jonathan Ross and Bryan Hitch have also caught on, with multiple printings.

Other announcements included a Danger Girl/GI Joe crossover from J. Scott Campbell to be published by IDW, and two Buffy The Vampire Slayer spin-off series from Dark Horse: Willow by Jeff Parker and Brian Chingand a Spike series written by Victor Gischler with art by Paul Lee and covers by Jenny Frison.

Diamond also promoted its Diamond Digital program, which has been in beta for several months but is going live in a few weeks. The program allows retailers to sell digital comics via a variety of methods: simple downloads of codes, or a dedicated store installed on their own websites and serviced through iVerse. Although Marvel and DC have yet to sign up for the program, several beta testers have already set up digital stores on the sites with decent results. Although some retailers were predictably skeptical of how it could affect their sales—especially for comics that sell for 99 cents, instead of a cover price of $2.99—Diamond's director of digital distribution Dave Bowen assured retailers that they have a "do no harm" policy. "It's just another program we make available—if you want to use it, it's available."