Raina Telgemeier started reading comics at age 9. She began drawing them about two years later, around the time she took a tumble, while chasing a friend, and knocked out her two front teeth.
When she began working as a professional cartoonist in her 20s, she discovered there wasn’t much of a market for the kinds of stories she wanted to tell—stories about her own childhood. At the time her first graphic novel, “Smile,” was published in 2010, comics and graphic novels still skewed heavily toward young men, with an emphasis on superheroes, fantasy and science fiction. They were relatively unknown among young readers, particularly girls. Sales for “Smile” “took a long time to build,” said David Saylor, founder and editorial director of the Scholastic imprint Graphix, which published the book.
A memoir about her childhood dental accident, “Smile” gradually found an audience among middle-grade readers and sales took off, with more than 1.5 million copies now in print. “The girls were there,” Ms. Telgemeier said. “And the girls wanted more.”
By the time Ms. Telgemeier’s follow-up memoir, “Sisters,” made its debut last August, her following was so great that the sequel quickly captured spots on the best-seller lists of Amazon and USA Today. So far, “Sisters”—which explores her relationship with her younger sister, Amara—has more than 1.4 million copies in print.
The chart of Ms. Telgemeier’s success underscores how much the audience for graphic novels has broadened in recent years. Graphic-novel sales are outpacing the overall trade-book market, and their audience has expanded to include more women and younger readers. Graphic-novel publishers are offering an increasing number of stories featuring female protagonists. At the same time, the number of female creators in the field has grown. Among them: Roz Chast, whose graphic-novel memoir about caring for her elderly parents, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award in nonfiction.
“There’s just a lot of people discovering the medium,” said Terry Nantier, founder of graphic-novel publisher NBM Publishing. “I don’t think we’ve reached our full potential audience yet.”
Bold-name authors are joining in: Margaret Atwood is working on a graphic-novel adaptation of her novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” with Canadian illustrator Renee Nault, to be published in the U.S. by Nan A. Talese in 2016. And James Patterson is collaborating with Marvel Comics to adapt his “Maximum Ride” series, whose main character is a girl with wings. (It was previously adapted for manga, or Japanese-style comics.) The Marvel comic, called “James Patterson’s Max Ride: First Flight,” will debut in April.
Graphic-novel sales increased 4% to $415 million in 2013, including comics stores, bookstores and online booksellers but excluding e-books. Preliminary data indicate that in 2014 graphic-novel sales grew at an even faster clip, according to Milton Griepp, a market analyst and CEO of the trade publication ICv2.
By contrast, overall print-book sales through retail stores and book clubs fell by 2.5% to 501.6 million units in 2013, following a blockbuster year in 2012, according to a Publisher’s Weekly analysis of data from Nielsen BookScan.
Comics and graphic novels are closely related. The latter are usually conceived as book-length stories, although some appear first as comics in serialized form. Graphic-novel sales figures include both graphic novels and book-format comic collections.
Graphic novels gained acceptance as a legitimate art form in the 1980s after the publication of Art Spiegelman ’s “Maus.” Today, they are benefiting from a surge of comic-book characters in television and film.
“It’s a form that has gradually been destigmatized,” said Susan Van Metre, senior vice president and publisher at Amulet Books, a children’s imprint at Abrams Books that in 2014 published the critically-acclaimed graphic-novel memoir, “El Deafo.” “It’s no longer seen as something read by nerdy, socially-awkward dudes.”
Movies and television series such as AMC’s “The Walking Dead” have pushed book-format comic collections onto best-seller lists. Graphic novels, too, are providing rich source material for the big screen: The film “Snowpiercer,” based on a French graphic novel, was named on some critics’ ‘best of’ lists for 2014.
Graphic novels also lend themselves beautifully to being read on tablets such as iPads—and even smartphones. Digital sales for comics and graphic novels totaled $90 million in 2013 compared with $70 million in 2012.
ComiXology, the most popular comics app, allows smartphone users to read them panel by panel, in a cinematic effect called “Guided View.” The company launched its iPhone app in 2009, and was purchased by Amazon last spring. (The Kindle app has a similar function for graphic novels.)
Those digital platforms have served as a crucial entry point for readers who are discovering graphic novels for the first time. ComiXology’s surveys show that an increasing number of new buyers are women and girls.
“There’s an incredibly large group of people who are interested in the character but don’t know where a comic-book store is,” said David Steinberger, comiXology’s co-founder and CEO. “They all have devices.”
Marvel’s new series, “Ms. Marvel”—about a Muslim girl living in Jersey City, N.J.—was the publisher’s No. 1 best-selling digital title of 2014, according to Marvel. (The trade paperback version, “Ms. Marvel Vol. 1,” released in October, has been through seven print runs.)
Efforts to build this new audience began more than a decade ago. U.S. publishers had turned away from the popular children’s comics of the 1950s and early ’60s. Françoise Mouly, art editor at the New Yorker and former co-editor, with her husband, Mr. Spiegelman, of the avant-garde comics magazine RAW, launched RAW Junior in 1998. She hired prominent authors and artists to contribute to hardcover anthologies of comics for children.
More recently, new graphic-novel imprints began popping up with the goal of reaching more women, girls and young readers in general. By the mid-2000s, those imprints included Papercutz at NBM, First Second at Macmillan, Graphix at Scholastic and TOON Books, a publisher founded by Ms. Mouly.
“It does open the path for artists and authors like Ms. Telgemeier, and for publishers to want to do books that girls will read, because each time they’re discovering the obvious: ‘Oh, we’re ignoring half the audience!’” Ms. Mouly said.
In 2014, women represented 43% of the 151,000 attendees at New York Comic Con. In Seattle’s Emerald City Comicon, women were the majority: 52% of exit-survey respondents identified themselves as female.
“The boys’ club definitely has broken down, and is even more apparent looking back,” said Tom Devlin at Drawn & Quarterly. He is the editor of “SuperMutant Magic Academy,” a new title coming in 2015 from Jillian Tamaki, co-creator of the award-winning 2014 book, “This One Summer.”
Sana Amanat, the Marvel editor behind “Ms. Marvel” and “Max Ride,” said the success of “Ms. Marvel” came as a surprise.
“I honestly thought that people would see this and say ‘Uck, God what a gimmick,’” she said. “It was a bit of a risk.”
Marvel’s “Max Ride” will be a bit older than the original character, and a bit edgier, Ms. Amanat said. Her friends will be a diverse group. “The audience we want reads this series,” she said of Mr. Patterson’s books. “For us, it was about tapping into that.”
For Mr. Patterson, it was about turning more kids into readers. “Comic books are really what got me reading,” he said. “I love the idea of kids getting these comics that are part-movie and part-novel and gobbling them up.”
This winter will see a broad selection of titles by or about women:
“Girl in Dior,” by Annie Goetzinger, a grande dame of comics in France, will be published in the U.S. by NBM in March. In addition to her work in comics, Ms. Goetzinger has done theater costume design and fashion illustrations for Le Monde. Her book is a biography of Christian Dior couched in a fictional Cinderella story about a fashion reporter plucked to become a model. It includes endnotes drawn from Ms. Goetzinger’s archival research.
“Just So Happens” is a story of a young Japanese woman in London who must travel home for her father’s funeral. The author is a man: Fumio Obata, a Japanese expat who lives in England. His lushly illustrated book was released in the U.K. last February, and will be published in the U.S. in March by Abrams ComicArts.
Ms. Telgemeier was born in San Francisco in 1977. “I was journaling my life in comic form from the time I was 11,” she said. Those comics are long since gone—she threw them away when she went to college. But as a student at the School of Visual Arts in New York, she began self-publishing minicomics, telling short, personal stories about her childhood.
In her late 20s, she started on what would become “Smile”—first conceived as a one-page-per-week serial web comic. About the same time, she was hired by the new graphic-novel imprint, Graphix, launched in 2005 by Scholastic, to adapt the megaselling “Baby-Sitters Club” series, which had ended in 2000.
Her first “Baby-Sitters Club” book came out in 2006. “I remember people saying, ‘Well, who’s going to read this?’” she said. Her series—totaling four black-and-white installments—found a modest audience.
It took her five years to finish “Smile.” When she did, Graphix snapped it up.
Flecked with laugh-out-loud humor, “Smile” offers an unflinching account of the author’s struggles with mean friends, painful orthodontia and awkward social encounters. It built momentum as it racked up awards, including state and national contests in which students themselves voted for the book.
“She encapsulates middle school,” said Cathy Berner, the Houston bookseller whose 11-year-old daughter devoured the book. “She just nails it—the awkwardness. And you know what? It’s so charming.”
In 2012, she published another graphic novel—this time, a fictional story called “Drama,” about a middle-school theater production.
“‘Drama’ is what happens after ‘Smile’—I just fictionalized it,” Ms. Telgemeier said. “I got really into performing and theater. Maybe ‘Drama’ is the antidote to ‘Smile.’ ‘Smile’ is about terrible friendships and ‘Drama’ is about great friendships.”
The book did well. (It has more than 650,000 copies in print.) But her fans were clamoring for more true stories from her own life.
Then came “Sisters.” On a family trip to Colorado, siblings bicker, marital tensions flare and a pet snake survives on the loose and undetected in the family van. Kate Leth, who works in a comics store in Halifax, Nova Scotia, said girls streamed in, clutching crumpled bills, to buy the book on the day it was released.
There’s more to come. In early December, Ms. Telgemeier turned in a script for her next book, planned for 2016. After eschewing fantasy for so many years, she’s finally delving into the world of magical realism. The new book, which doesn’t have a title yet, is about “two sisters who are very different from my sister and me,” she said.
Ms. Telgemeier is “blowing the doors off,” said Mr. Griepp, the market analyst. “She by herself is a real force that affects the whole category.”