PHILADELPHIA -- Stop counting comic books out.
That's the assessment of Dan Buckley, publisher and president of Marvel Comics, the longtime purveyor of stories about the exploits of characters including the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and the X-Men.
The industry, which reported modest increases during the recent recession, is still growing, though the level has tapered off, Buckley said. But it still remains vibrant because of the creativity engendered by new characters, reboots and, in the case of rival DC Comics, a total relaunch that generated new interest and buzz, something that other publishers benefited from.
"This is an American storytelling medium that people love and respect," Buckley said, noting that Marvel retained its ranking as the top comics publisher again last year.
He attributed the company's success to deeper storytelling and moving readers with the deaths of some well-known characters and the reinvigoration of some old favorites, too.
Diamond Comic Distributors Inc., a Baltimore-based company that distributes comics, graphic novels and pop culture merchandise to more than 4,000 shops worldwide, said that, while DC held nine of the top 10 top-selling comic titles for the year, Marvel held the biggest share of the market.
Diamond said Marvel remained atop thanks to demand for issues such as "Fantastic Four" No. 587, which featured the death of the Human Torch, and "Ultimate Comics Spider-Man," which saw Miles Morales take up the mantel of the wall crawler after Peter Parker's death.
That helped give the company a 37 percent dollar market share and a 41 percent unit market share.
That, along with DC's New 52, created more interest from new and first-time buyers, and the outlook is set to be similar for 2012.
"Sales of comic books were quite strong in the second half of the year, led by the September launch of DC's New 52 comic books, and that positive trend has continued in the months since," said Diamond President and CEO Steve Geppi. "With a full slate of high-profile new projects scheduled ... we are optimistic that comic book sales will increase again in 2012."
Buckley, who joined the company in 2003, said the uptick in sales from 2010 to 2011 -- up 1.2 percent industrywide -- is further proof that buyers will be there, whether in the shops or online through digital comics, if compelling stories are written and drawn.
"It's huge -- social media and the way we speak to each other. The opportunities are just fantastic out there," Buckley said. "Let's stop talking about how this is going to end because I've watched this try to end three or four times already, and it doesn't end."
Marvel, for its part, is planning a massive story that pits two of its most famous teams -- the X-Men and the Avengers -- into a 12-issue mini-series as they brawl over the return of the Phoenix, one of the publisher's most powerful characters. That is set for release starting in April.
"We all want to see the best of the best go against each other -- Lakers & Celtics; Ali and Frazier; Yankees and Red Sox. And in comics, it's the Avengers fighting the X-Men," said Axel Alonso, Marvel's editor-in-chief. "This is the kind of high-octane, action-packed story that fans demand while also having a profound effect on every character involved -- and reshaping the Marvel Universe in its wake."