Although it's been a tumultuous month in the comics industry, retailers and publishers got down to business at the Diamond Retailer Summit, held October 11—12 in Baltimore. Organized and run by Diamond Distribution, the exclusive distributor for the top four comics and graphic novel publishers, the yearly meeting drew nearly 600 retailers from around North America. While the effects of Disney's acquisition of Marvel and DC's rebranding as DC Entertainment are the subject of much speculation, retailers were focused more on sharing ideas and hearing about new publisher initiatives.

Dark Horse's (l. to r.) Dirk Wood, Jeremy Atkins and Scott Allie address the Summit.

It was also a chance to take the pulse of an industry that has come through the recession in surprisingly strong shape. Business has picked up, and the business is attracting a younger generation of retailers focused on burying the longtime comics shop stereotype. Although many retailers told PW that business had been down at the beginning of the year, all said that business has rebounded, with some shops claiming to be 30% ahead of last year.

Many attendees noted a strong showing for new comics shops. According to Diamond marketing director Dan Manser, 31% of Diamond's comic shop customers have been in business five years or less, and 10% of the summit attendees were there for the first time. Manser noted that “a lot of these new stores are being generated from managers of established stores striking out on their own and opening up new shops. So the knowledge level for these stores is much greater, and they have a better capacity for staying power in the marketplace.”

Crushing the stereotype—made famous on The Simpsons with the dank Androids Dungeon—of comics shops as unfriendly warrens run by grumpy fanboys, comics shops are getting more diverse, with added features like art galleries and coffee shops. For instance, 16-year-old Tate's Comics in Lauderdhill, Fla., winner of this year's Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award, features an upstairs gallery that houses exhibitions ranging from art by local South Florida artists to Star Wars needlepoint. The gallery is a draw on its own and helps the store build a community of loyal customers, said owner Tate Ottati.

Another Florida store, A Comics Shop in Orlando, uses traditional methods such as store signings and more innovative ones, such as a rental program, to keep customers coming in. According to store manager Mike Pandel, the rental program uses a point system that customers can add to with other activities to get them loaner copies of books. “The book pays for itself after three rentals,” he said, and the system gets readers to sample more books that they may start collecting.

The effect of this new breed of store owners hasn't been lost on publishers. “I've noticed a new generation of owners who are very aggressive about marketing themselves,” said Dark Horse director of communication Dirk Wood. “They have a lot of strong ideas, and some of the marketing ideas I've heard here we will definitely use.”

Boom! Studio publisher Ross Richie noted that new owners like Carr D'Angelo of Earth-2 in Sherman Oaks, Calif., and James Sime of Isotope in San Francisco have been rethinking retailing and influencing newer shops. And while stores such as Rocketship in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Secret Headquarters in L.A. have gotten a lot of attention because of their proximity to the New York comics industry and Hollywood, respectively, new stores are thriving across the nation.

Marvel's David Gabriel at the Summit

The success of the newer stores comes even in a brutal period for the publishing industry and the economy in general. Diamond v-p of purchasing Bill Schanes noted that the truism that cheap entertainment does well in economic bad times has come true once again. “People might not go on vacation, but they keep buying their favorite comics.”

The growth is coming from a mix of products, unlike last year's Watchmen phenomenon, which turned the superhero graphic novel epic into a bestseller in all retail channels. Retailers point to DC's new Green Lantern—themed zombie series, Blackest Night, as a big success. (A Green Lantern film starring Ryan Reynolds is planned for 2011.) At Marvel, the thrice-monthly Amazing Spider-Man is picking up readers. In graphic novels, there are bestselling books by Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Brian K. Vaughan, Bill Willingham and others.

Despite what was mostly an upbeat show, problems were addressed. Diamond Comics Distribution has had a rocky year—a move to a new warehouse in the spring coupled with a switch to a new software platform led to major problems with orders shipping improperly and lost books. At a morning session, Diamond v-p of operations Cindy Fournier reported that the problems seem to be diminishing as new systems start to jell. In addition, Diamond is hiring two new people who are experts in the new computer system to help manage orders.