Sales of periodical comics and graphic novels may not have been as robust throughout 2014 as they were in recent years, but an exceptional holiday shopping season ended the year on a high note for comics retailers. That trend continued into the first quarter of 2015, during which print units of graphic novels rose 18% over the first quarter of 2014, according to Nielsen BookScan. Those trends were also reflected in PW’s Annual Comics Retailer Survey, which found an increase in sales in 2014 (11 stores had increases, two had sales on par with 2013) that has only grown stronger heading into 2015.

The survey is an informal poll of the North American comics retail market’s performance, using a small sample of stores across the U.S. This year we queried 13 stores. Nine of those stores traffic in both periodical comics and graphic novels, and include Earth 2 and The Secret Headquarters in Los Angeles, California, Laughing Ogre in Columbus, Ohio, New York City’s Forbidden Planet, Austin Books & Comics of Austin, Texas, Pittsburgh’s Phantom of the Attic, Challenger Comics in Chicago, Ill., Portland, Oregon’s Floating World and Escape Pod Comics in Huntington Village, NY. These stories traditionally rely on the “Direct Market” for a significant portion of their stock (Direct Market comics stores are served by Diamond Comics Distributors, the largest North American comics distributor, which sells mostly nonreturnable product at wholesale prices to a network of about 2,000 comics shops).

The remaining four stores we surveyed sell both prose books and graphic novels. Two of those four shops, The Strand Bookstore in New York City and Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon are general bookstores with well-stocked graphic novel sections that make up 2.5% and 3 – 3.5% of their total inventory, respectively. The survey’s two remaining stores, Chicago’s Quimbys Books and Cupertino, California’s Wow Cool, are “hybrid” stores which carry a mix of prose books, graphic novels, and independently published mini-comics and zines.

Retailers cited an extremely strong holiday season, leading into a strong early 2015. Liz Mason, of Chicago’s Quimbys Books, said, “With a few exceptions, the holidays are basically the rest of the year on steroids; things that do well the rest of the year often do well around the holidays.”

That was certainly true for Image Comics’ runaway bestselling series, Saga, by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples. Both Doug Chase, a graphic novel buyer at Powell’s Books in Portland, Or., and Wayne Wise, of Phantom of the Attic in Pittsburgh, Pa., said the title was one of the biggest sellers in their stores. Other books frequently described as solid holiday sellers included Bryan Lee O’Malley’s hardcover bestseller Seconds (Ballantine), The Walking Dead, Vol. 1 (Image) trade paperback, the hardcover compendium Sex Criminals, Vol. 1 (Image), and the trade paperback This One Summer, by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki (First Second).

There is now little to no doubt among the stores we queried that independent publisher Image Comics has secured the number-three position in comics publishing behind the so-called Big Two, Marvel and DC. “I could say Image is definitely number three in our store,” said Jeff Ayers from New York’s Forbidden Planet, while Patrick Brower, owner of Challengers Comics in Chicago, said that at his store, the big two are Marvel and Image.

All the direct-market stores surveyed report that their 2014 bestselling periodical lists were topped by various single-issues of Saga, with assorted issues of Batman and Grant Morrison’s Multiversity series for DC also showing up frequently in their top three spots. Saga’s strong performance carried over to both general bookstores’ and direct-market stores’ 2014 graphic novel bestseller lists, with all four of the trade paperback collections taking turns at the top.

The series’s trade paperback momentum shows no signs of stopping in 2015, but many stores also reported sales of Scott McCloud’s critically acclaimed graphic novel The Sculptor (First Second); Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals, Vol. 1 and Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked and the Divine, Vol. 1 (both from Image); Richard McGuire’s Here (Pantheon); and Scott Snyer and Greg Capullo’s The Court of Owls and Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween (both Batman backlist titles at DC).

Marvel did not fare as well in 2014 on our survey, in both book formats and in periodical comics sales. “What doesn’t sell for us,” said Phantom of the Attic’s Wayne White, “are Marvel trade paperbacks. Ms. Marvel and Hawkeye are notable exceptions to this... both consistently sell well.” Carson Moss, at The Strand in New York City said, “Interest [in Marvel’s books] seems to wane even while the movie hype blooms, [with] one exception: Ms. Marvel.” Ms. Marvel was a media sensation. The character, originally a white woman named Carol Danvers, was revamped and turned into Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American Muslim teenager, by writer G. Willow Wilson and artist Adrian Alphona.

However, in 2015, that trend may be poised for change. “Marvel always finds ways to dominate,” Earth 2’s Carr D’Angelo said, citing Marvel’s Star Wars comics. After many years of being published by Dark Horse, Star Wars comics are now being produced by Marvel—Disney, of course, owns both Marvel and the Star Wars franchises. Preorders for Star Wars Issue #1 reached one million. The single-issue comics are performing well and benefiting from word of mouth, D’Angelo said, and fan interest in the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VII movie is high.

Things don’t appear to be going as well for DC so far in 2015. Jeff Stang, co-owner of Laughing Ogre Comics in Columbus, Ohio, specifically complained about Convergence, DC’s current series crossover event, which brings together past and present superheroes from the DC universe. “People don’t care [about Convergence] and aren’t buying it,” he said.

When customers shift their dollars away from the Big Three—Marvel, DC, and now Image—it’s becoming increasingly difficult for retailers to gauge what else to order. Still, most retailers said they do a brisk business when they vary the publishers they stock. “Only 11 of our top 25 [sellers] are Marvel or DC,” Brower said. “Our bestselling comic of 2014 [Lumberjanes #1] is from Boom!” Even for the stores in the survey that routinely order heavily from independent publishers and distributors, knowing what to stock and when to stock it is challenging. “Over time we’ve gotten better at ordering the stuff that we think will do well,” said Dave Pifer, of The Secret Headquarters, in L.A. He added, “There’s just so much stuff every week! It’s insane!”

Varied stock, however, is only one part of getting customers to return. Retailers also emphasized the importance of rotating stock. “We try to switch out stuff often and get as many eyes on different things as possible,” said Menachem Luchens, from Escape Pod Comics in Huntington, N.Y.

Although keeping the right mix of books in stock is always a demanding piece of the comics retailing puzzle, perhaps the greatest challenge for comics retailers, not to mention publishers, is the effort to bring in new (which often means younger and female) readers while keeping longtime (typically men over 40, generally superhero comics collectors) loyal customers satisfied and engaged. For last year’s survey, most of the retailers we queried responded that women ages 17–30 appeared to be the fastest-growing segment of the comics market. That was true again this year, but kids ages 6–17 (both boys and girls) were added to the mix this time around.

D’Angelo said the comics market offers options to readers that it once did not. “Women and kids come in for Adventure Time but they leave with Lumberjanes.” (Both series are publishing by Boom!.) D’Angelo also highlighted series such as Teen Titans Go (DC) and My Little Pony (IDW) that target girls and emphasized, “It’s not just a boycentric thing anymore.” When Jason Levian, of Floating World Comics in Portland, Ore., was asked about comics that attract new readers he pointed to “All-ages books, Cartoon Network–type books, and books with more appeal for female readers.”

This year the survey included one question not based on hard data but instead on retailers’ anecdotal observations: retailers were asked to estimate the percentage breakdown of male and female customers that buy at their stores. The answers were consistent across the stores: their newest (and younger) consumers were often women, and they are coming in greater numbers than ever before.

Three out of the 13 stores queried did not respond, but of the ten that did, four reported that their customers are 65%–70% male and 30%–35% female. The remaining six estimate that, regardless of age, their customer breakdown by gender is 50%–60% male and 40%–50% female. All the stores report that there is greater gender parity within the younger customer base, a group that has come of age watching both blockbuster superhero movies and reading manga, which generally attract a higher percentage of girls and women.

But perhaps the most satisfying part of this paradigm shift, for both new comics readers and the older vanguard of superhero comics collectors, is that the industry now understands that it can serve a variety of readers with different tastes. Once associated primarily with essentially one genre and male readers, today’s comics market can offer something to any segment of the comics marketplace.

Correction: an earlier version of this story stated that PW surveyed 12 comics retailers, which is incorrect. The survey queried 13 stores. In addition Wayne Wise's was misspelled and the photograph of Phantom of the Attic was switched to a new image. Also it was stated that Lumberjanes is published by Image. It is published by Boom! Studios.