The Miami Book Fair International, held November 9-16, marked its 25th anniversary by launching the Comix Galaxy, a partnership between the Miami Book Fair and Diamond Book Distributors that greatly expands the presence of comics and graphic novels at the annual show. Comix Galaxy opened Friday November 14, with the heaviest crowds of the weekend, attracting an audience of fanboys as well as families and moms pushing strollers—not to mention creators from as far away as Switzerland and as close as Haiti. The Miami Book Fair, held at Miami Dade College in downtown Miami, is one of the largest consumer book fairs in the U.S. and draws more than 250,000 visitors each year, an audience larger than any comic book contention in the country.

“This isn’t your typical comic book convention,” said Joe Soriano, events manager for American manga publisher Tokyopop, who said he liked the family feel of the event. Among the presenters on hand to help the public and fellow librarians navigate this graphic new world were Robin Brenner, the author of Understanding Manga and Anime, a teen librarian and manga specialist from Boston. Her presentation was part of the Miami Book Fair’s School of Comics, a day-long series of panels aimed at informing the public as well as educators and librarians about comics, and it touched upon everything from the different types of manga to the symbols and graphic indicators manga artists use as a kind of a narrative shorthand.

Fourteen vendors—including among others Dark Horse Comics, NASCAR Comics, Toon Books, Udon Entertainment and startup comics publisher Radical Comics—exhibited their wares under the Comix Galaxy tent at the Book Fair. New York City-based Marvel Comics, used its presence in Miami to continue testing its titles in Spanish in the largely untapped Hispanic market in South Florida. Spanish-language editions of Ultimate Spiderman and Ultimate X-Men are leading the way with more titles to come, according to David Gabriel, Marvel’s senior v-p of sales. Tokyopop, publisher of such manga series as the bestselling Fruits Basket and Vampire Kisses: Blood Relatives, got a chance to show parents new to manga about the company’s rating system, said Soriano, and show off a lineup that includes licensed Japanese titles and original English-language works created in the manga style.

Francois Mouly, Art Speigelman at the Toon Books panel. Photo by O.P. Musibay

The Comix Galaxy—which earlier in the week included a special tribute, panel and exhibition devoted to the late and legendary comics creator Will Eisner—made a big splash in this coastal town. Pulitzer Prize winning comics legend Art Spiegelman not only designed the fair’s poster but used a laptop presentation to show off new works including a new edition of his seminal work the 1970s, Breakdowns (just out from Pantheon), and a new childrens books, Jack and the Box, published by Toon Books, a new kids comics publisher launched by his wife and longtime comics collaborator, Francoise Mouly (who also happens to be the art director of the New Yorker). One of the highlights of the show was hearing Spiegelman and Mouly read Benny and Penny by Geoffrey Hayes, with the kids yelling out the special effects in the panels. (Another highlight was the Wednesday evening tribute to Will Eisner, which featured a panel including Eisner’s trade book editor at Norton, Bob Weil, agents Denis Kitchen and Judith Hansen and acclaimed comics artist Scott McCloud)

Spiegelman was joined by a cadre of new comers in the comics field including Alex Baladi of Switzerland, creator of Frankenstein Now and Forever; Jessica Abel and Matt Madden, authors of Drawing Words and Writing Pictures (First Second)—praised by creator and teacher Scott McCloud as great primer on creating comics; David Heatley, showing off his new book, Hanging Upside Down (Pantheon); and Ralph Penel Pierre, author of Male Pandye.

Retailers also seemed happy with the debut of Comix Galaxy at the book fair. Rick Shea, owner Melbourne, Fla.-based Famous Faces & Funnies Melbourne, worked as Marvel’s retailer during the fair. He reported strong sales, especially on books that likely wouldn’t sell well at a traditional comics convention. Sheasaid he would use the feedback from this year to better tailor the product they bring to Miami in 2009. Tate Ottati, owner of Tate’s Comics in Fort Lauderdale, also had high praise for Comix Galaxy. He noted that the fair drew a diverse group of people, who were now much more familiar with the company’s gaming and comics inventory as a result of the Book Fair. He reported about $5,000 in sales, about the same revenue he has generated at comic-specific conventions.

Photo by O.P. Musibay

Exposure was the word of the day at the end of the event. “We are getting our name out to a whole new group of people,” said Matt Moylan, marketing manager for Ontario-based Udon Entertainment, on hand to launch a new line of kids manga. Joe Hovorka, president of discount retailer Tales of Wonder, said sales were weaker than he had hoped, but “from an awareness viewpoint, we view it as a success. We’d do it again.”

Marvel artist Mark McKenna, creator of Banana-Tail, and Emotes creator Helen Lau, both of whom were marketing independent, creator-owned, hardcover collections for kids, said they were very happy with the response from the crowds packing the Comix Galaxy tent. Indeed, by the time the show ended, both artists showed off nearly empty boxes.

Despite a general sense of approval, there were glitches. Liz Cavalier, who worked with writer Frank Beddor, creator of the Looking Glass Wars, complained about lighting in the Comix Galaxy tent, which made sales difficult as the day wound-down, and there were also complaints of limited or ineffective signage.

Lissette Mendez, program coordinator for Florida Center for the Literary Arts, the organization which oversees the Miami Book Fair, acknowledged the problems and said they were all fixable. Diamond Book Distributors John Shableski, who worked with the Miami Book Fair to launch Comic Galaxy, also acknowledged the glitches but also said the event had gone well and looked forward to the next year.

“The first time bugs need to be worked out,” said Shableski. “The goal was exposure to a new part of the market.”