A new slate of officers was elected at this year’s ComicsPRO meeting, including a new president. Thomas Gaul, owner of CornerStoreComics.com and Beach Ball Comics, both in Southern California, replaces Joe Field, of Flying Colors, in the post. Now in its seventh year, ComicPRO is an organization for comic book retailers; about 120 retailers showed up to Atlanta February 21-23 for three days of publisher presentations, seminars and brainstorming sessions.

The 2013 meeting was up in both attendance and sponsorship, according to Field, reflecting a year in which comics retail sales were up in double digits. Diamond Comics Distributors, the main supplier to the non-returnable direct sales comics market, released figures for 2012 at the meeting, with total sales up 14% over 2011 in the comic specialty market, and a slim 1% growth in the number of comics shops.

As befits the growing industry, the mood among retailers was upbeat. Atom! Freeman, sales manager at Valiant Comics, said “The difference between 2012 ComicsPRO and 2013 ComicsPRO is the difference between hope and confidence. Last year, the feeling of hope that things were going to get better was palpable in the room. This year, things had gotten better and there was a confidence that we could all plan for the future. Luckily for Valiant, both of these feelings are coming at exactly the right time."

Often mentioned drivers of optimism: the incredible success of The Walking Dead, continued interest in DC’s New 52 and the more recent Marvel NOW! program, all of which are brining in new readers.

“The meeting was fantastic,” Gaul told PW, citing the above as reasons for the enthusiasm and adding, “Image Comics has been doing an outstanding job identifying new creators and tapping veterans. Overall everywhere, the output has been stronger. “

He also noted the cautiously expanding economy as a factor. “Customers were at a comfort level where they didn’t feel like they could spend any money, but that’s changing. Retailers are also getting more comfortable with the idea that digital isn’t trying to destroy them. The reports that I’ve seen are that print sales are up at a higher number than the overall total of digital sales last year. It’s got retailers feeling a lot more positive.” Areas of previous anxiety—too many variant covers and erratic shipping schedules—weren’t much discussed, he said.

Former ComicsPRO board member and current Diamond v-p of retailer services Chris Powell delivered the keynote address, pointing to the comics industry’s surprising buoyancy in a market where many other forms of printed entertainment have been sluggish, and suggesting that it’s readers and retailers engagement that sets it apart. “Look around, and you’ll see that our industry is unlike any other. We have customers who come in each week who have a real relationship with the product, the creators, their fellow fans, and the staff at what they consider ‘their shop’,” he said.

Field’s retirement as president surprised some—he was one of the main founders of the ComicsPro organization—and in a farewell speech he recalled being apart of many other retailers organizations that had failed. “The beautiful thing — and something I could never say about previous retailer orgs — is that this one is going to last,” he said.

Kids comics were also seen as an area of significant recent growth. Terry Nantier, president of Papercutz and NBM, presented a slideshow on kids comics that he felt found a welcome audience. “[Many] leading retailers clearly have been very actively growing their kids sections, many with kids furniture installed to create a space for that and they told us repeatedly that we are a prominent part of that expansion,” said Nantier. “Better retailers have been clamoring, complaining and bending publishers’ ears for some years about getting kids back into comics so those have been wanting to see it happen.” He notes the success of manga in bookstores as perhaps goading comics retailers to begin to cater to this audience. The kids market is also growing outside of the usual Wednesday rush to buy new comics—typically the busiest day at stores—with a growing number of parents coming in with their children on weekends.

Although still only on the job for a few days, Gaul has a few goals already in mind. “The first project that the board and I moving on is communication.” Currently the private retailers board is on the somewhat antiquated Delphi forums service—Gaul hopes to install more social media friendly platforms. “I think a lot more people will be inclined to participate the more retailers can see cogent conversation.”

Although numerous publishers were in attendance, public announcements were modest: DC announced several new graphic novels, including two spinning out of Vertigo properties Fables and The Unwritten, and a new series teaming up Superman and Batman. Marvel teased a new zombie series, likely to be written by Dawn of the Dead director George Romero. IDW announced a new deal with the Cartoon Network to produce comics based on such properties as Ben 10 and the Powerpuff Girls. Viz announced a new Hello Kitty graphic novel that will only be available in ComicsPRO member stores.

ComicsPRO also presented their two Industry Appreciation Award, which are given to two people—one living one dead—who have contributed to the industry behind the scenes. Cindy Fournier, vp of operations at Diamond Comic Distributors, was given one. The Memorial award was given to late Spirit creator Will Eisner, an early proponent of the graphic novel ad supporter of the comics specialty market.