Traditional Comic Books Face the Digital Age

PHOTO Comic book heroes like Superman are getting a makeover for the digital age.

Every year, comic book enthusiasts from all over the world flock to San Diego for one weekend of superheroes, villains and all things comic-related. Welcome to Comic-Con 2010.

The convention has long evolved from being just a geeky gathering for comic book fans. Today, it is a star-studded sold-out event.

Angelina Jolie stopped by this year for a widely publicized appearance to promote her new spy thriller, "Salt." And the casts of series films like "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" have also been known to incite fan frenzies premiering clips from their latest installments at the convention.

This year, behind the outrageous costumes and movie previews was a serious debate -- what will happen to the "book" in comic books?

Similar to the path already taken by books and music, the new wave of comic consumption is digital.

The industry giants, like Ira Rubenstein, a vice president of Marvel Entertainment, see the step as a positive one.

"I think digital enables a whole new audience to experience comic books that haven't had access," Rubenstein said.

The much buzzed-about comic book applications that came out with Apple's iPad is supposed to give readers the same feel of reading a full size comic book.

Jonah Weiland, the executive producer of Comic Book Resources, an online community for comic book fans filled with reviews, blogs, discussion groups and videos, said the iPad can even enhance the experience.

"Comic books look fantastic on digital devices. You take one look, you have the color pop off the screen," Weiland said. "Digital comics look fantastic and they look better than anything we've seen in print thus far."

What effect will this have on the print market and all local comic book shops all around the country?

Weiland said the best shops will be just fine.

"I don't think paper comics are going anywhere anytime soon," he said. "The comic book retail market is always going to exist. But it's going to change and the better comic book shops out there are going to survive."

The digital branch of comic book companies are taking the industry even further by creating "motion comics" that bring superheroes to life, similar to videos. Many see the market as expanding, not dying.

"There's a huge opportunity to bring comic books to a larger market," Weiland said. "It's hard to buy comic books in stores these days, but everybody has digital devices."

Right now, digital sales are less than 5 percent of the roughly $1 billion U.S. market for comic books but the market is growing rapidly. With many comic book fans having grown into techies in adulthood, digital comic books seem like a natural progression.

But there are still old-school enthusiasts who worry that digital comics are the evil nemesis to their beloved stores and communities.

Some of these purists can be found at the Forbidden Planet comic book store in New York City.

"I like coming to comic book stores," said Andre Pazmino as he flipped through a comic at the store. "There's a nice community into reading comics. And if you digitalize it, you take out the whole community aspect of reading comic books."

Some argue that the comic book industry's penchant for collecting, trading and selling is going to help keep it alive.

"Your iPad's not going to go up in value if you download the first Spiderman on it," said Matthew Desiderio, a manager at Forbidden Planet. "The comic book industry is about colleting and cliffhangers and experiencing the art in your hands."

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