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POW! Online comic books start to pull fans to the Web

Online comic books offer a more immersive experience, even as collectors savor hard copies.

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"You see the average sales figures for comics, and pretty much every single title is dwindling bit by bit," says Douglas Wolk, the author of "Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean." "I think it's hugely important for anyone who's going to be publishing regular, serial comics to get used to the fact that they're going to have to deliver something online, the minute it gets released [in stores]," Mr. Wolk adds. "Even if it's a flawed solution, you need to start that audience immediately in the format that they've made very clear they want right away."

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In interviews with the Monitor, comic-book store employees estimated it would be several years before e-reading devices and tablets really changed the way they did business. Tucker Stone, the manager of Bergen Street Comics, a cozy store in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, said publishers had not yet worked out an effective online distribution method. Furthermore, he said, many comics readers prefer the ritual of a weekly visit to the comics store, where they can peruse a book before buying it, or chat with other fans in person. "There's still something to be said for the in-store experience," Mr. Stone says.

Still, as Stone acknowledges, the comic-book stores could be forced to change the kinds of comics they sell. "There's a big youth market that grew up plugged into their computers," he says, "and they're not as attached to the physical object." In coming years, readers might go online to read short superhero books, and walk to the closest store to purchase a graphic novel or a trade paperback.

John Rood, the executive vice president of sales and marketing at DC, wrote in an e-mail message that he did not envision paper books being replaced entirely by online editions. "Given that comics readers are often collectors, given that we like to hold a paper product in our hands, given that we like to gather with other readers at the comics store, etc. – these wonderful facts all suggest to me that digital will be [an] additive to any more traditional experiences," Mr. Rood said.

Certainly, the collectible market is unlikely to be diminished by devices such as the iPad. For decades, collectors have blissfully trundled through basement sales and dusty antique stores, hunting for the one book that time forgot. The copy of Action Comics No. 1, for instance, was reportedly found inside an old movie magazine; the pages of the magazine acted like a cryogenic chamber, sealing out toxins, moisture, and mold, and leaving the pages of the book in near-perfect shape.

But for casual comics readers, or former fans returning to the fold, digital comics are a good option, says Eric Lempel, director of operations at the Sony PlayStation Network. In December, the PlayStation Network began offering Marvel titles for download on Sony's hand-held gaming devices. There are currently 1,100 comics now available on the network, and Mr. Lempel says they are selling well.

"From my point of view, we're actually expanding the audience," Lem­pel says.

"You've got a person who may have read comics when they were younger, and wouldn't walk into a comics store today and buy a comic. But these new services allow them to jump back in and enjoy these books."