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.

Sony Computer Entertainment America

Last month an online auction house here unloaded a 1938 issue of Action Comics for $1.5 million, the highest sum ever fetched for a single comic book. The sale of Action Comics No. 1, which features the debut of a handsome, caped hero named Superman, was widely touted as proof of the health of the collectible market – and the lengths to which die-hard collectors will go to obtain mint-condition copies of their favorite comics. It was also a chance to honor that increasingly endangered species: the pulp-and-paper comic.

In the past year, the comic-book industry has begun to lurch away from its roots in print publishing, and toward a future where the majority of comics fans will consume them online. Already, Marvel Entertainment and DC Comics, the two leading comics houses, offer many titles on the Web, either through subscription services or, in the case of DC, a sprawling alternative Web comics site. Marvel has made comics available for the Sony PlayStation Portable platform and the Apple iPhone; independent publisher Image Comics allows readers to read some books online free of charge.

"We are at an incredible point in time, where there's this massive shift in how people are consuming comic books," says Gareb Shamus, the founder and CEO of the comics magazine Wizard. "That cumbersome process – creating a product, printing it, shipping it; that worked for a very long time. But with the ease of access on the digital side, the barriers are getting broken down."

Like many analysts, Mr. Shamus sees the Apple iPad, the tablet device released on April 3, as an industry game changer. The iPad is a natural fit for comics – the 9.7-inch LED screen approximates the size of a paper book, and the iPad's Internet and 3G connectivity mean that consumers will be able to download titles on the go. A range of publishers and third-party developers have lined up to create content for the iPad, including Marvel, which will sell hundreds of iPad-ready comics for $1.99 a pop, and Panelfly, a kind of mobile clearing house for digitized comic books.

Meanwhile, a company called Graphic.ly recently announced it would release an application making it easy for users to annotate and trade comments on their favorite online titles. Graphic.ly bills itself as "an immersive social experience" built around comic books – in other words, a Facebook or MySpace for people who would rather discuss story arcs and the color of Batman's spandex than the restaurant they visited last night.

"As tablet-, slate-type devices become more ubiquitous," they will make comics "more intimate, more immersive and immediate," says Jim Lee, a top artist and the publisher of WildStorm, an imprint of DC Comics. "By 'immersive and immediate,' I mean to the degree readers will be able to dive deeply or broadly into content on a whim. So if you love this story by creators X and Y featuring these DC characters, these devices will be able to locate and suggest the next best, most similar, thing."

In many ways, the comics industry today resembles the record industry at the dawn of the 21st century: a business stuck selling physical products at a time when more and more consumers want an online experience. Although comics publishers have ostensibly embraced the Web, the pace of digitization remains slow, and the vast majority of new titles aren't available online until several months after the official release date. At the same time, the prices of print titles continue to climb. As a result, piracy is rife – a sizable contingent of readers have turned to file-sharing services, where they can immediately and illegally download PDFs of all the latest books.

"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."

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."

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