Comics retailers, publishers, and distributors got down to business at the annual ComicsPRO retailer meeting held February 22–24 in Pittsburgh, Pa. The event is sponsored by ComicsPRO, an organization for specialty comics shops, and this year’s edition saw prominent publishers, retailers, and even a few creators mingling and sharing ideas.

Perhaps cooperation was urgently needed: the meeting came at a particularly unsettled time for the North American comics publishing industry. Graphic novel sales are down—even mighty manga is slipping—and comics periodicals sales are eroding as the format’s consumers are aging out and even dying off. A transition to a multi-distributor business during the pandemic—following decades of Diamond Comics as the industry’s sole distribution option—has meant many changes and questions.

Perhaps because of all these challenges, publishers and distributors alike were eager to make changes large and small to help stores stay afloat. The most popular change came from DC Comics: a shift from a Tuesday on-sale date for comics to Wednesday, the traditional “New Comics Day” used by every other major comics publisher. The announcement from DC’s sales manager Dustin Kitchens led to raucous cheering and a near standing ovation.

Marvel came back with president/publisher Dan Buckley announcing that most of their line would be held to a $3.99 cover price, with carveouts for first issues and other special editions. (Some Marvel first issues can go for as much as $9.99, albeit with added pages.) PRH, which got into the comics distribution game back in 2021 with Marvel and, later, Dark Horse, announced a series of small improvements to its business, including changes to their website to make pre ordering easier and consolidating online payments for retailers. (Although PRH is the 800 lb. gorilla of book distribution, the quirks of comic books weren’t always an easy fit for their systems.)

Lunar Distribution, another player who started during the pandemic, announced that its clients—including DC, Image, Magma, Oni, and Vault—had agreed to take returns on an affidavit basis. Diamond Comics, which has been steadily losing client publishers, announced a very popular cut to their shipping costs, implementing a flat 3%, plus a few adjustments. Previously, shipping could add up to nearly as much as the cost of the products, prompting complaints from many store owners.

Taken together, these were a series of incremental changes that answered many concerns of retailers, and may add a few percentage points of profits to businesses that desperately need them. ComicsPRO’s biggest announcement was the release of the Comet Standard, a voluntary system that will clean up the tangled web of metadata that all the above players have been using for years. Similar to how the book industry uses the ONIX standard to present uniform product information, the Comet Standard will take the current hodgepodge and spit out clean data that every POS system and retailer can sort in a variety of ways.

Putting together Comet took a year, and was the result of unprecedented efforts by all the major publishers, distributors, and POS systems—a cooperation previously unheard of in an industry where DC and Marvel are still heated rivals, and Diamond, Lunar, and PRH are jockeying to sign publishers. The main force behind Comet was retailer Katie Pryde of Portland’s Books with Pictures, a relentless data wonk who all praised for her stewarding the project along.

“This was the most collaborative group of people I’ve ever worked with on a tech project,” Manage Comics’s Brian Garside, another member of the Comet committee, told PW. “We even had people from Marvel and DC bouncing ideas back and forth.”

Putting together the standard may have been the easy part: now publishers have to start complying with it. A preliminary deadline of the end of 2024 has been set for implementation—one that is perhaps as idealistic as Superman. Still, retailers and other industry professionals seemed optimistic that cleaning up the data will make their lives easier and save time and money. “It's the thing that I was most anticipating coming here,” said Jean Michel, owner of Megabrain in Rhinebeck, N.Y. “I was very happy with everything that I heard, and I'm super excited for all of it to be implemented.”

Privately, many suggested that the surprising cooperation among industry players was because they have no choice: the comics industry is undergoing both overall media tumult and its own special problem—a new audience for comics periodicals is hard to find. Everyone badly needs data, including comparative sales charts and rankings. According to ComicsPRO’s outgoing president, Jenn Haines of the Dragon in Guelph, Ontario, “the big driving force for the metadata project was sales charts. Corporations want to say here's how we rank in the industry. They have a vested interest in getting this information.”

The meeting itself, now in its 20th year, has taken center stage as the one gathering for industry professionals, who universally praised it as a time of sharing ideas and community building. More creators are beginning to show up as well—DC writer Matt Rosenberg comes every year, and just hangs out to talk shop with store owners. “Where else can I come and talk to all the best stores in one place?” he said.

With the event growing in importance, Haines said that many potential exhibitors and speakers had to be turned away because of time and space constraints. Although ComicsPRO would like to expand the event even more, many shop owners cannot be away from their stores for that long.

There was also publishing news. DC has a big summer event coming from writer Mark Waid and artist Dan Mora, Marvel floated a horror series with bloody covers, and former DC executive Geoff Johns presented his new Ghost Machine imprint at Image. Manga publishers Kodansha, Viz, and Yen all presented, and Boom’s president Filip Sablik delivered one of his trademark uplifting slideshows, this time adapting a Ted Lasso quote to unite the troops: “Comics is Life!” proclaimed his final slide, and for many it was not far from the truth.

Behind the camaraderie and schmoozing was a sense that these uncertain times may lead down a challenging road, despite all the popularity and acclaim for comics. And the problems can’t be solved alone. “We need to be working as a full industry on this,” said Haines. “We really need to all be pulling in the same direction.”