San Diego Comic-Con, held this year from July 20 to 23, is a massive celebration of popular culture and a perfect bellwether for the comics industry. Launched in the 1970s as a place for superhero fans to trade back issues (and endlessly debate which is better, Marvel or DC), Comic-Con now offers a window into the steady transformation of the North American comics industry and its fans.

U.S. comics publishing is being transformed by a new generation of readers, especially by young women and fans of color. But comics have also been changed, for the better, by the book format—graphic novels—and by book industry practices.

American comics were dominated by superhero comic book periodicals for decades. Since the 1970s, these comics have been sold almost exclusively via the direct market: the comics shop specialty market. But all of this is changing—the customers, the comics, and the stores where people buy them.

This year, PW’s Comic-Con panel (organized by Heidi MacDonald and moderated by this reporter) focused on retailing: “Selling Graphic Novels to a Diverse Audience.” If the panel had a subtitle it would be: beyond the one-genre, one-format, one-kind-of-fan comics marketplace.

The program featured a panel of retailers that included a general trade bookseller and three comics shop retailers. Two of the retailers, Kristen Parraz and Jennifer Haines, are women, reflecting the changing demographics of the industry. Parraz owns Hi De Ho Comics, a 40-year-old store in Santa Monica, Calif. Before taking over Hi De Ho, Parraz worked with girls in the criminal justice system in Los Angeles. Haines is the owner of the Dragon, a comics shop in Guelph, Ontario.

Both women spoke to the need to make everyone welcome in their stores. A long-standing complaint about traditional comics shops is that they often discourage (or insult) female fans. Haines noted that many times she felt ignored in traditional comics shops. She said she designed her own shop to be “like a bookstore.” She added: “We shelve books by genre, not publisher. Sometimes our customers don’t realize we’re a comics shop.”

Haines said that, to her, diversity means “making sure everyone who comes in feels they belong.” That means having at least one woman working during every shift. It means stocking comics such as Ms. Marvel, or indie comics such as Lumberjanes (Boom) and Motor Crush (Image), that are aimed at a new generation of fans who want other kinds of stories in addition to those about superheroes.

Asked to define diversity, Parraz cited her previous work with at-risk girls and pointed to the stock stores carry: “I want to make sure these [marginalized] communities have comics to read [that] mirror the diversity of the people who come to the store.” The sentiment was echoed by Chris Butcher, former store manager at Toronto’s acclaimed comic book store the Beguiling (he recently left to be a consulting editor at Viz Media), who spoke of the importance of “seeing yourself in the material in the store.” Butcher added that reading Grant Morrison’s Invisibles, a popular series that includes gay superheroes, helped him come out as gay: “I saw queer characters; that was big for me.”

The comics shop panelists identified a couple of ways to make comics more accessible to customers who are new to them: the book format and returnable stock. “Books by far are a more normalized and satisfying [reading] format, especially for new comics readers,” Parraz said. Indeed, the panelists said graphic novels are the fastest-growing segment at their stores. “Graphic novels are a constant growth area, there’s been no slowdown in sales,” Parraz added.

Terence Irvins, graphic novel buyer at New York City’s Kinokuniya, a Japanese bookstore chain in the U.S., emphasized the benefits of returnable stock. Irvins, who is African-American, has worked in the comics shop market and the book trade. He was hired to expand Kinokuniya’s inventory beyond manga to include the full range of Western comics and graphic novels, including selling traditional comic books.

Asked to define the difference between a comics shop and a general bookstore, Irvins explained that they are essentially the same—except for the vendors each uses to stock its shelves. Comics shops generally buy wholesale stock nonreturnable from Diamond Comics Distributors, while bookstores use a variety of wholesale vendors that offer a wider variety of materials and also allow returns of unsold stock.

“The direct market has tricked itself,” Irvins said, by depending on a single distribution vendor that may not be able to deliver the content it wants. Comics shops have the option to use wholesale vendors that offer returnable titles, but they generally don’t, out of habit, for convenience, or perhaps due to ignorance. He emphasized that Kinokuniya also buys from Diamond, but “the bookstore options [for buying stock] are still there for a comic shop.”

Indeed, to Irvins, flexibility and having the option of returnable stock is the real key to “getting the material I need for a diverse audience.” Diversity in comics retailing, he said, is not simply about ethnicity or gender: “It’s what you read.”

Butcher said that the book trade also has issues providing diverse content, pointing to the We Need Diverse Books movement. “But [the book trade] is paradise in comparison to the comics industry,” he noted. “We need to offer comics for everyone, especially comics for children. We need to create cradle-to-grave readers like they do in the book industry.”