SAN DIEGO -- It's not always that the plucky kid in the cape and domino mask can save the day, but digital comics are here to stay, say American comic book publishers.
In a recession-defying feat, the comics business rebounded from a catastrophic downward sales spiral when DC Entertainment, the home of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, rebooted its superhero universe in 2011. A key component of the reboot was to begin publishing all its titles "day-and-date" digitally, meaning that they would be sold online at the same time and for the same price as they were in retail stores.
Two years on, print comics are celebrating their best industry-wide sales in a decade, and digital comics have established themselves as a small but complementary force.
"The triple digit growth slope's not as steep as when we launched," said Jim Lee, co-publisher of DC Entertainment, "but we're having tremendous success with books like the Injustice game tie-in."
Reported sales numbers back up that assertion. Comics sales in print through June 2013 are up 13 percent over last year at this point, according to one site that tracks the industry. Digital comics 2012 sales for the North American market were estimated at around $70 million, nearly triple the $25 million from the previous year. Digital comics sales are a bit trickier to track, since publishers are reluctant to discuss sales figures, but they're saying digital sales are skyrocketing.
That's small when compared with the nearly $680 million in estimated print sales from the same period, but in 2009, digital sales were estimated at $1 million.
Ron Richards, the marketing director at Image Comics, which publishes the Walking Dead and Saga, among other titles, confirmed that his company is seeing strong digital growth. "We've learned that digital isn't cannibalizing print," he said.
Even smaller publishers, like IDW Publishing, are seeing a big boost to their bottom lines from digital. The company's vice president of digital publishing, Jeff Webber, gave some perspective on digital's impact.
"IDW has had a 20 percent growth rate over the past four years," he said. Digital is "10 to 15 percent of our business, where four years ago it would've been 30 to 40 percent of our business."
Another metric that indicates digital is growing rapidly comes from Comixology, a cross-platform marketplace app and Web site that lets people buy and read digital comics.
CEO David Steinberger said that the people have now downloaded 180 million comics since the app was released five years ago, a jump of 80 million from October 2012.
As digital comics have become widely accepted by publishers, retailers, and readers, the format has not been without its growing pains. While comics are available digitally from a wide range of marketplaces, including Apple iBooks and Amazon, Comixology undoubtedly offers the widest selection of major North American publishers. That relationship to the marketplace caused havoc when Comixology's servers crashed in March, following a Marvel Comics giveaway.
Another controversy erupted a few months later, when Comixology pulled a new issue of the extremely popular comic book Saga from its iOS app without warning.
It was an attempt to avoid a conflict with Apple, said Steinberger. "We put out a ton of books, almost 300 a week. It's tough to expect any channel to review every single one of those," he said.
"By the time of Saga, we had had some books rejected actively, so we had been pro-actively interpreting the rules," Steinberger added.
The best intentions of digital were to bring back fans who had stopped reading comics because of storage problems or difficulty finding a physical comics shop to buy them from. But it's hard to imagine that comics are seeing this kind of growth solely from old fans embracing a new format.
Some of the growth is certainly attributable to demographics. Dan DiDio, co-publisher at DC with Jim Lee, said that the fastest growing demographic is among women between 18 and 24 years old. But a tightening of the relationship between comics and their adaptations in other media have played a big role for the company, too.
Lee said that while DC is publishing its core superhero universe digitally, the company's digital-first comics are often comics adaptations of their characters from other media. "We're finding that elusive new fan in no better place than games and TV shows," he said.
Meanwhile, Image Comics recently took the unusual step of making its titles available for digital purchase without DRM. The first major comics publisher to do so, Richards explained that his company approach to digital is less about learning from the mistakes of larger media businesses like movies and music, and more about giving its customers as many ways as possible to buy its comics.
"My big talking points are choice and piracy," said Richards. "Piracy exists, and there's no way to stop it. If you look at Game of Thrones, it's the most BitTorrented show on the Internet, but it's the highest in DVD sales."
IDW's Webber, who has been involved in digital comics publishing since UClick allowed people to download Garfield comic strips to their flip phones in 2003, said that digital comics are making comics more accessible to people who don't care for collecting the books.
"We love comic collectors and that's what all this is about," he said, gesturing to the chaotic hustle of the Comic-Con show floor. "Digital has opened it back up to those casual readers who just want to read."
It's entirely possible that digital will eventually become a bigger business than print. But for the near future, at least, digital comics will remain a growing sidekick to the older, more experienced print superhero.