Comic-Con International, the annual trade show for comics, graphic novels, gaming, film and pop-culture merchandising of all kinds, is a strange hybrid beast. The largest annual gathering of the professional community of comics and graphic novels, it's also the biggest convention for comics fans and readers.

Unofficial estimates suggest that well over 60,000 fans, professionals and gawkers attended this year's convention--held July 31--August 4 at the San Diego Convention Center--wearing everything from three-piece suits (Hollywood scouts) to Imperial Stormtrooper outfits (comics and sci-fi fans). But the Con is where publishers and retailers find out instantly what works and what doesn't in the overlapping entertainment categories of American pop culture.

Manga, or Japanese-style comics, and anime, their animated version, are generating vigorous demand from teenage readers (both girls and boys). Some of the largest Japanese publishers are setting up U.S. divisions, dramatically increasing the number of titles they release or launching new manga/anime publishing and retail ventures.

In Japan, unlike the U.S., comics drive the publishing industry. Manga publishing is a $3-billion to $5-billion industry in Japan and one-third to one-half of most general publishers' revenues come from manga. The U.S. market is just beginning to grow, and the robust increase in sales has spurred new investment.

Longtime U.S. manga publisher Viz Communications has joined with Shueisha, another Japanese manga publisher, to launch Shonen Jump, a 256-page Japanese-style periodical anthology, which will serialize seven story lines. The series of graphic novels will be released in 2003. Shonen Jump will be released in "right to left" editions (cheaper to publish, since that's the way they're done in Japan, and cool to U.S. kids) and include popular series like Dragonball Z and Yu-Gi-Oh!

Seiji Horibuchi, Viz CEO, told PW that "over the last five years, our bookstore sales have surpassed sales in the comics specialty market, and there is tremendous interest from libraries." Viz's manga graphic sales have doubled, he said, to about $5 million; Viz is distributed to the book trade by PGW and available at Waldenbooks, Tower and video/DVD retail outlets like Suncoast.

Always aggressive, Tokyopop is doubling the number of titles it publishes to 400 and reports success with its own right-to-left-reading English-language manga. The company is launching a contest to find and publish original American manga and is expanding its efforts to cross-market book titles and their anime versions in DVD and video. "B&N is telling us to publish more," said Tokyopop CEO John Parker. "We're concerned about a glut of titles on the market, but consumers are buying." Tokyopop titles are already available in about 6,000 retail outlets, and the company is expanding its retail presence. Tokyopop has an agreement with Wherehouse Music and Suncoast, video and music retail chains that usually do not carry books, to put spinner racks holding its titles into several hundred stores.

Japanese manga publisher Gutsoon Entertainment is launching Raijin Comics, a new U.S. line of right-to-left manga that will publish a weekly periodical anthology of stories. These will be released as graphic novels this fall. The house is also planning a $400,000 contest to find and publish original manga. And small manga indie publisher Comics One is turning to the Hong Kong variety of Asian comics (called manhua) and is releasing a manhua series based on the hit movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Upward Mobility

Graphic novel sales continue to rise. According to the presentation by Robert Boyd of Client Distribution Services at the panel on "Comic Book Statistics," graphic novels are selling more strongly this year than ever, as book retailers are figuring out which ones to order and how to promote and display them. And almost every publisher, aside from a few stuck in the back of the hall, reported that sales were up significantly at the convention itself.

Boyd also mentioned that the graphic novels that sell best in bookstores are very different from the ones that sell in the comics specialty store direct market. The biggest sellers were all from the backlist. Of last year's 10 bestselling graphic novels in bookstores, he said, number one was The Hobbit, a decade-old title whose new edition wasn't even solicited to comics stores. Other top sellers included Tokyopop's manga titles Sailor Moon and Dragonball Z, and number 10 was Frank Miller's 15-year-old modern comics classic The Dark Knight Returns (its long-awaited sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, currently a bestselling periodical, will be available as a single volume in October).

DC Comics president Paul Levitz noted that, according to market research, graphic novel customers are "a disgustingly literate bunch of people"--very heavy book buyers and readers--and that, in addition to the familiar $1,000/year hardcore comics fans and $200/year casual readers, retailers are starting to see more $300--$500/year graphic novel customers. And many of these new buyers are women: according to panelist Mel Thompson, a comics market analyst, the most successful comics retailers have upward of 25% female customers.

Distribution Shuffle

In a major coup for Client Distribution Services, the distributor has lured Marvel Comics away from dominant comics distributor Diamond. CDS will distribute Marvel's lucrative line of graphic novels (everything from Spiderman to the X-Men) to the general book trade.

Diamond, of course has launched Diamond Book Distribution, in hopes of establishing itself as a distributor of comics to the general book trade. But CDS's experience in the book trade seems to be attracting many of the former LPC clients, including CrossGen, which is embarking on a massive trade paperback initiative and also announced a half-dozen movie and TV deals. CDS has also signed up manga mainstay Tokyopop. But a handful of companies formerly affiliated with LPC have found a new home over at Diamond, including Top Shelf and Comics One, and Diamond has also snapped up smaller imprints like artist David Lapham's El Capitan Books and Antarctic Press. At press time, distribution plans for large indies such as Dark Horse and Image and for distinguished Canadian indie Drawn and Quarterly were still up in the air.

DBD's Kuo-yu Liang, the book-industry veteran hired to head the unit, appears to have his work cut out convincing publishers that Diamond can be successful in the book trade. But trade paperback sales in comics specialty stores, where Diamond rules, are booming as well; Diamond's Roger Fletcher said that sales are up 30% for the first six months of 2002. But it's the book trade that Diamond is after and, despite losing Marvel, Liang said DBD will be attending the regional bookseller trade shows and ALA meetings. DBD has signed on with BookScan and will have a bigger presence at next year's BEA. "Diamond is changing," Liang said. "We've sold returnable for over a year, and the growth has been tremendous."

Eisner Awards; New Artists

Will Eisner, the venerable 85-year old comics master for whom the awards are named, won the Eisner for Best New Graphic Album for The Name of the Game (DC). Carla Speed McNeil's Finder series (published by her own Lightspeed Press) didn't win, but received four nominations. Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso's 100 Bullets series from Vertigo/DC won two Eisners. Mike Mignola's Hellboy won an Eisner, and his graphic novels from Dark Horse are taking off now that a movie based on them is in preproduction. And the book industry's own Chip Kidd won an Eisner for The Art of Charles M. Schulz from Pantheon.

The lines for a signing by outsider fine artist Mark Ryden at Last Gasp's booth were long. Brian Ralph's new book, Climbing Out, self-published with the help of a Xeric Foundation grant, drew crowds to the booth he shared with Jordan Crane and a few other process-intensive artists. Image reported that its trade paperback collection of Frank Cho's Liberty Meadows comics flew off the shelves, partly thanks to interest in Cho's Spiderman cover artwork. And a number of retailers at the convention, including Berkeley's Comic Relief, gave David B.'s impressive graphic novel Epileptic 1, from L'association/Fantagraphics, prominent placement near the register. They report enthusiastic word-of-mouth.