While comics and graphic novels didn’t make a huge splash at this year’s BookExpo America, held last week at the Javits Convention Center in New York City, the category nevertheless held its own at the show on several panels, the Author Stages and throughout the exhibition Floor. New kids’ comics works from Lerner Graphic (Little White Duck: A Childhood In China) and Toon Books (David Nytra’s The Secret of the Stone Frog) along with adult works from NBM (Stan Mack’s Taxes, the Tea Party and those Revolting Rebels) and First Second (Mark Seigel’s Sailor Twain: The Mermaid in the Hudson) were among a bounty of impressive new graphics work launched and promoted at the annual gathering of the book publishing industry.

Much like many other publishers at BEA, many of the comics houses approached by PW seemed to be pleased with this year’s BEA. First Second marketing coordinator Gina Gagliano told PW the house participated in the Hosting Great Graphic Novel Events and Meet the 2012 Graphic Novel Authors panels—Gagliano reported the audience was about “half retailers, half librarians”—which both featured First Second’s editorial director Mark Siegel’s new web book Sailor Twain: The Mermaid in the Hudson.

Fantagraphics was set up in the booth of its distributor, W.W. Norton, showing off The Hypo: the Melancholic Young Lincoln by Noah Van Sciver, a book focused strictly on young Abraham Lincoln’s struggles with depression; as well as a slate of titles to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of Love & Rockets, the iconic indie comics series by Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, easily two of the most important cartoonists of the last 30 years. Fantagraphics only attends BEA every other year, but associate publisher Eric Reynolds said it was a good show for the house, noting that all the galleys for Van Sciver books were taken and there was “huge interest” in Fantagraphics titles, like the Flannery O’Connor: The Cartoons. “Was BEA good for us? I think so,” said Reynolds, “we had great meetings and we’re definitely looking to do more."

NBM’s Terry Nantier called the show “pretty vibrant. There were lots of librarians and they pay attention to our books,” although he said indie booksellers were “still lagging in accepting graphic novels, but they’re evolving.” NBM’s sister company Papercutz, which specializes in kids’ comics, featured new stories for Nancy Drew and Clue Crew series, and new books in the Geronimo Stilton series about a time-traveling mouse and the house’s new Three Stooges series. In addition to a revised edition of Stan Mack’s Real Life American Revolution, with a new title, Nantier showed off Magreet’s de Heer’s Philosophy: A Discovery in Comics, an eccentric primer on philosophy, and Etienne Davodeau’s The Ignorants: A story of a Cross Initiation, in which the cartoonist switches jobs with a wine-maker and makes a comics work about the process of both men learning how the other does their job.

Although admitting he has been, “cynical” about BEA in the past, IDW v-p Dirk Wood praised BEA and said he was doing “a little bit of everything, meeting retailers and distributors, talking to librarians, licensing.” Wood said “BEA used to be mandatory but not now, so you’ve got to make it work, but that’s trade shows in general. I’m getting a lot more out of BEA than I thought I would.” He also pointed to IDW’s Nevsky, a graphic novel adaptation of the classic Eisenstein film by Ben McCool and Mario Guevarra, coming out this summer, and said the book was getting a lot of attention at the booth.

The Literal Big Book At BEA: Anomaly

But for sheer ambition, the most impressive new comics work seen on the BEA floor was Anomaly, an independently produced new work scheduled for release in October co-created by Hollywood super lawyer and film dealmaker Skip Brittenham and artist/co-writer Brian Haberlin. Anomaly is an oversized (10” x 15”) 370 page full-color painted hardcover graphic novel, a sprawling science-fiction saga about a corporate space mission that goes deeply awry. The book combines an epic, richly illustrated story with action and adventure in a vivid and encyclopedically imagined world of human and alien encounter in the far future. The print work is also accompanied by equally ambitious digital releases, including an Augmented Reality app and an interactive edition of the print work that allows the user to experience the book in a variety of media.

The AR app will turn an iPhone or iPad into a AR viewer that will bring animated holographic imagery to life on pages throughout the book. The viewer will be able to see holographic alien creatures rise up from the page and respond to a user’s touch on the screen, 3D renditions of space craft and other animated technology move across the page and can be manipulated and the viewer can activate a wide variety of detailed information about the world of Anomaly. In addition Anomaly will also be released as an interactive edition that will allow the user to read the book as a straight graphic novel on iPad, or experience it as a kind of semi-movie, animated in parts and brought to life by over 16 live voice actors recreating the dialog and events of the graphic novel. And if all that weren’t enough, the book is also in development as a live action feature film by Joe Roth, director of the film Freedomland and producer of the film Alice in Wonderland with Johnny Depp.

In an interview on the exhibition floor at BEA, Haberlin, known his work at Top Cow, Marvel and DC, said he and Brittenham, who is co-writer on the book and said to be a big comics fan, have worked on the project for three years. The book is published by newly created firm, also called Anomaly, created by Brittenham with the help of former Random House trade book president Bruce Harris, who is acting as publishing consultant to the project. Haberlin acknowledged that traditional publishers were wary of the book’s scale and ambitious production plans. Retailers look to be enthusiastic over the work and Haberlin reports it got a great reception from retailers at C2E2 in Chicago. The book will be priced at $75 and will have an 18,000 copy first printing along with a 1,000 copy deluxe hardcover collectors edition. Distribution will be by Ingram Publisher Services. Haberlin said the book will feature “strong female characters,” that it was “deeply researched” and the interactive features and special effects will be “in service to the book’s story.”

Although Viz Media did not have a booth at the show, the manga publisher and anime distributor was nevertheless at the show and taking meetings. Newly appointed Viz Media CEO Ken Sasaki was walking the floor along with a small posse of Viz editorial staff that included Viz v-p, publishing Leyla Aker, Vizkids publisher Beth Kawasaki and Masumi Washington, editor in chief of Haikasoru, Viz’s prose science fiction imprint.

In an interview on the floor of BEA, Sasaki told PW that over the last few years Viz has been aggressive in moving toward digital distribution in manga and anime and he said the transition to digital will continue. About 1/3 of Viz’s animation business is digital (streaming and downloads) and Sasaki expects digital to be 2/3 of its animation business by the end of the year. While he said print consumers may not behave quite the same way as anime fans, digital releases of Viz manga titles through its Vizmanga.com website and its Viz apps for iPhone and iPad continue to grow. Viz offers about 600 manga titles through its Viz app and expects to offer a 1000 titles by the fall, according to Aker. Sasaki said they are finding, “no digital cannibalization of print sales. Print manga sales are up, people are buying both.” And after ending its print monthly anthology to launch the Weekly Shonen Jump Alpha, a weekly digital anthology, Sasaki said that the push toward simultaneous release of its properties in Japanese and English—a key strategy for combating manga piracy and scanlation sites—was the driving factor in U.S. manga/anime distribution and Viz will be working to get closer to that ideal all the time.

Kids’ Comics and International

The trend towards kids graphic novels, continued with Andrews McMeel debuting their AMP! line, and creators Bill Amend (Foxtrot) and Mark Tatulli (Lio) were on hand signing books. Elsewhere Candlewick’s Toon Books imprint (directed by its founder Francoise Mouly) has several impressive books for the fall and Scholastic Graphix is promoting the fifth volume of Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet, which they expect to do well. Lerner Graphics, Capstone and Egmont are also continuing their kids graphic novel lines. Among traditional comics publishers, Boom! Studios was showcasing a big line of licensed material, including their popular Adventure Time adaptation; individual issues have seen multiple reprints and the collection is coming out this fall.

Although not actually involved in a comics project, the cartoonist with the most exposure at BEA was probably the Canadian artist Seth whose illustrations for Lemony Snicket’s new All the Wrong Questions series were showcased at the Hachette booth and on a much sought after giveaway mini-suitcase.

While hanging out in the Diamond Comics Distributors booth, PW Comics World also had the good fortune to meet Miguel S. Ramos and Lousella Tumaneng, managing director and book buyer, respectively, at the National Book Store, a 150 store book chain in the Phillipines. National Book Store had the good fortune of getting comics writer Mark Millar to visit the Phillipines—NBS won a retailer contest by ordering the most copies of Super Crooks—and really they showed a presention about just how much they love comics in the Phillipines. The store put displays up on 30 billboards around Manila for the in-store event; there was saturation ad campaigns in what seemed like every newspaper and magazine and Millar did 20 interviews, back to back to back, for print, TV and blogs, leading up to a surprise appearance at the Manila comic-con in front of about a 1000 delirious fans. Oh, and there was a 4 ½ hour signing at one of the NBS stores.

Ramos and Lousella were meeting with publishers at BEA and Kuo-yu liang, Diamond Book Distributors v-p, sales and marketing, was using their visit as an example to highlight what he believes is a strong market for comics as well as strong BEA. Liang, called by Ku by virtually everyone, said he was “seeing all the people I need to see,” at the show, calling it one of the most positive BEAs since 2009. “No dark clouds over the business, there’s not even much Amazon-bashing. Borders is gone, the industry has direction and now it’s just, let’s compete.”

He acknowledged that indie retailers continue to lag, but said, “some indies get graphic novels, some don’t. The movie studios get it and there’s even more international demand.” He used the Brazilian bookstore chain Livraria Cultura as an example, noting that the 13-store traditional book chain recently let enthusiastic staffers open a “geek” outlet, a specialty unit devoted to comics, toys, sci-fi and related pop culture stuff. “The store has been swamped,” he said and now they plan to open two more, “this repeats itself all around the world.”

“The problem with comics and pop culture stuff is not demand, it’s the supply chain, censorship and that kind of stuff. It’s not the comics. We’ve won the graphic novel revolution,” Ku said, “graphic novels are established. Now we have to do an even better job of selling them.”