This has been a year of fundamental change for comics publishers. The industry managed to weather a potentially disastrous distributor bankruptcy, while the stunning sales growth of Japanese comics (manga) and a powerful sales boost from several hit movies has led to new ways of doing business with general trade bookstores.

Comics publishers across the country are crowing about a sales explosion in their graphic novel divisions. "For Marvel, bookstore sales have increased over 400% in the past three years," said company COO Bill Jemas. "Bookstores now represent a significant portion of sales. Sales to comics specialty shops are going up—it's just that bookstore sales are growing at an even faster rate."

DC Comics Publisher Paul Levitz confirmed the sales explosion: "We're going to be up maybe 25% for the year. And I don't think we gained market share, so the overall growth was even greater than that."

Image Comics reports a rise of about 15% over the year and sales are still growing. "Graphic novels remain our single strongest growth category," said Image publisher Jim Valentino. "The potential for future growth seems almost limitless." And over at Dark Horse, the message is much the same. "Our graphic novel sales are continuing to grow in the book market and in the specialty market," said Michael Martens, v-p of business development. "The book market is now about 35%—40% of our business. Even hardcore comics pamphlet readers want book collections."

For comics publishers, the growth in the bookstore market represents the biggest change in the way they do business since the mid-1990s, when all but one of the major distributors to comics specialty stores went out of business. This led to thousands of store closures and plummeting sales figures. But even with low sales, media awareness soared and the general quality of the books being published improved, especially titles from smaller imprints. With stronger product and larger backlists than ever before, comics are ready for a brand-new general bookstore audience.

Levitz sees this as the major impact of the bookstore success. "One of the things that frustrated us for years was that we had incredibly loyal readers who were wonderful, but we didn't seem to be able to reach out to more casual readers to give them a taste of the stuff," he said.

DC, which is owned by AOL/Time Warner and has the distribution clout of Warner Books behind it, tried quite a few promotions during the year. "We had a lot of promotional teamwork with Borders, including a Mother's Day Wonder Woman program and a Father's Day Superman program," Levitz noted. DC also had success with its Teen Read Week program and consumer outreach at New York Is Book Country, where an even larger presence is planned for 2003.

Marvel's sales overall were up 14% for the year—thanks to the Spider-Man movie, which vanquished box office records as easily as the webcrawler topped the Green Goblin. Previous movie tie-in comics didn't always have great success in the comics shop market, because comics fans were generally already too familiar with the characters. But Spider-Man swung to the top in general bookstores. According to Jemas, "Ultimate Spider-Man [for teens] and Amazing Spider-Man [all ages] rose to the top of the graphic novel sales charts early in 2002 and held their ground for the year." In addition, a broad range of traditional Spider-Man titles, from board books to novelizations, all sold well.

DC's big success story was The Dark Knight Strikes Again by Frank Miller, a sequel to his groundbreaking 1986 bestseller The Dark Knight Returns. The followup introduced highly controversial surreal elements, and while fans howled, sales reached levels not seen for graphic novels in years. DC also had a hit with The Road to Perdition, another comics-to-film success story. The original graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Raynor eclipsed sales of Collins's own conventional novelization of the film.

Meanwhile, three-year-old Florida publisher CrossGen entered the bookstore derby in earnest back in May. While CrossGen still does better in specialty shops, the house is aggressively courting the bookstore audience. Publisher and CEO Mark Alessi is pleased with the results: "In our first two and a half months [in bookstores], we did a 1.2 million retail sell-in in the book market, which is great for new publisher to the market."

Despite being the new kid on the block, CrossGen has been looking to build its backlist. It recently introduced a series of new, smaller, manga-inspired titles, dubbed the Traveler line, encompassing some Scion and Meridien trades, which have strong appeal to female readers. "It's sort of the Western response to the manga format based on price, size and proven quality," explained Alessi. CrossGen also plans to adopt another manga tradition: ongoing, numbered series, which, simple as it sounds, isn't always followed by more established publishers, which have decades of backlist material to pick from.

One of the year's biggest gambles was Free Comic Book Day, which attempted to do for comics what has already been done for ice cream. Held the Saturday after the blockbuster opening of Spider-Man, the timing couldn't have been better. Sample comics contributed by all major publishers were given away at comics specialty shops nationwide—foot traffic reached chaotic levels in some stores. A subsequent increase in business has been reported anecdotally, but everyone involved considers the promotion was a success; in 2003, FCBD 2 will tie in with the premiere of X-Men 2.

Another pleasant surprise in 2002 was the aggressive support from librarians for comics material. An ALA pre-conference on graphic novels was a big hit, and this year's Teen Read Week had a graphic novel theme. CrossGen is also looking at libraries in 2003, with a special library-only incentive program planned for small and midsize libraries.

"Librarians seem to be ahead of the curve in recognizing the enormous potential of the graphic novel for the YA and reluctant reader," said Image's Valentino. "They also understand that the medium covers a wide range of interests and demographics. We have been overwhelmed by both their knowledge and enthusiasm." Martens at Dark Horse agreed:. "Our library business has grown 400% the last few years. We're seeing younger librarians, and comics are part of their vernacular. They're not biased against graphic novels."

Distribution Woes

Nevertheless, despite all the excitement and sales growth, everything almost crashed to a halt with LPC's bankruptcy in the spring.. When LPC, which had focused on distributing small indies to the book trade, filed for chapter 11, many of these houses, from Dark Horse down to Top Shelf, were left in the lurch and owed huge sums by LPC.

With LPC out of business, both Diamond, the biggest distributor to comics specialty shops, and powerhouse CDS scurried to court the orphaned publishers. CDS, which had been handling warehousing and distribution for LPC, also picked up many of LPC's key personnel, including Michael Murphy, who now heads CDS's graphic novel division. CDS signed up Marvel, Tokyopop, Humanoids and CrossGen. Marvel switched its lucrative bookstore distribution from Diamond to CDS, reportedly over Diamond's mishandling of the Spider-Man books. Diamond responded by establishing Diamond Book Distribution division, a unit focused on the general book trade. By the end of the year, Diamond had signed both Image and Dark Horse, the number 3 and 4 publishers, in addition to many of the top indie publishers, including Top Shelf, Alternative Comics and Dreamwave.

Looking Ahead

In 2003, comics publishers are all planning strong releases. DC is excited about Endless Nights, an anthology written by bestselling author Neil Gaiman and illustrated by an international cadre of superstar cartoonists. "I think this will represent an opportunity to take things up to a new level," Levitz predicted.

CrossGen is looking forward to the spring release of its first Demon Wars trade paperback, based on R.A. Salvatore's popular fantasy novels. The graphic novel will be released in conjunction with a new Demon Wars novel and a role-playing game. Salvatore will tour to support the entire line.

Over at Marvel, with such film projects as Daredevil, Hulk and X-Men 2 coming out, it's a boom time. "All of the Marvel movie books will be heavily promoted in the major bookstore chains," Jemas said. In addition to regular graphic novels, Marvel will release putting out an The X-Men Encyclopedia and The Official Guide to the Incredible Hulk.

One thing that everyone is planning for 2003 is more product. DC's graphic novel output is increasing from 91 to 131 releases; Dark Horse published about 103 book titles (37 were manga) up from 80 last year; CrossGen is doubling its output, from around 20 to more than 40; and Marvel is planning over 200 trade book titles. Image plans to release a trade paperback a week. Valentino echoes a familiar fear in the comics industry: a glut of product. "We face [the danger] of flooding this new market with product. We prefer a long-term, continued growth strategy over a short-term 'beat out the competition' one. The latter has proven disastrous in our own industry time, and carrying it over to a new market seems the height of short-sightedness," he said.

Levitz sees many kinks still being worked out: "This is a very new category for most bookstores and bookstores are also a very new partner for comic book companies as publishers. And we certainly haven't figured out how to maximize it yet."

"There's a change in the popular culture in the last few years," said Levitz continued. "Science fiction and fantasy were [once] at the periphery of the culture. Now it's harder to argue that they're not either at the center or very near the center. The same thing is going on, I believe, with comics."

Despite worries over a glut, flush with dedicated readers and shelves full of quality product, the comics outlook for 2003 makes 2002 look like just the beginning of a beautiful relationship.