On a recent episode of The Big Bang Theory, the guys asked: Why do we still go to comic-book stores?
Well, Sheldon and the gang would be the first to admit they're creatures of habit, but many readers of the graphic arts are embracing new means of accessing their favourite titles.
Desperate to find a copy of issue No. 23 of The Walking Dead (yes, the series the AMC zombie epic is based on)? You can spare yourself hours of haunting eBay or comic-book shops and download the complete series for $2.99 or less an issue.
The comic-book industry has been pushing digital for a couple of years, but was held back by technology that was clunky for displaying art.
Enter the tablet – and a whole new readership is discovering the addictive quality of the art form.
"It wasn't until the iPad or other tablets that we really had a device that could bring a true comic experience to the reader," says Arune Singh, a director of communications at Marvel.
For the past 10 Wednesdays – the day new comics titles are released – the top-grossing iPad app has been for comic books, according to sales tracker AppData. The graphic-novel world's version of iTunes is Comics, from developer comiXology, which even came pre-loaded on the Amazon Kindle Fire that debuted in the United States this month.
The app allows purchases of new issues, "guided view" reading that scrolls panel-to-panel for smaller screens, and titles ranging from classic superhero fare to childhood faves like Archie to edgy new series such as dark-comedy detective comic Chew.
Most of comiXology's customers are either new readers or lapsed fans rediscovering the medium, according to CEO David Steinberger.
"We have a lot of people coming back to comics," Steinberger says.
Many comics readers who have made the switch say ease-of-use was the main draw.
"A big reason I read comics digitally is the convenience of having them take up no space," says Ryan Closs, a long-time fan who lives in Montreal.
Traditional stores tend to be niche, with a clubhouse feel for enthusiasts, like vinyl stores for music fans. Not to mention the fact that there are simply fewer comic shops around than during the industry's early-1990s height.
"Digital puts a newsstand in every Starbucks," says industry analyst Milton Griepp. While exact numbers are hard to come by, he says digital sales of comics more than doubled between summer 2011 and a year earlier.
The next step may be knocking down the walls between the page and the screen.
Major publishers are releasing new issues through every platform simultaneously, starting with Archie Comics at the beginning of this year.
Marvel, the publisher of Spider-Man, X-Men and the Avengers, has started a pilot program that prints codes in physical issues, so readers can download a digital version for free. (Rival DC has started a similar program, but charges extra for the download.)
Marvel says it will eventually follow up with the reverse – digital downloads that come with a coupon for a physical copy.
"What's really important is that the print and digital publishing are growing together," says Peter Phillips, a senior vice-president at Marvel.
While some publishers are looking at adding multimedia extras, such as video, into their digital comics, no major players have done so yet. But Marvel's Singh points out that their new Season One line was drawn with the screen in mind, with consistently sized panels and no big spreads that read poorly on an iPhone.
A digital leader among small publishers is Top Shelf, which releases everything from kids' comics to adult works such as Blankets and From Hell. Its strategy has been to use every channel available, according to Chris Ross, director of digital publishing – even offering some titles digitally first. They recently released Lost Dogs, from Essex County author Jeff Lemire, far before the print edition comes out in April.
Since a big share of the digital readers are new, many print retailers don't seem worried yet that they're going to lose sales.
Years of online piracy have already eroded sales, and the customers that still come in value the printed page, says George Zotti, co-owner of The Silver Snail in downtown Toronto.
"Comic-book crowd tends to be very tech-savvy," Zotti says. "But they still have that old-school collector vibe."
TOP COMICS APPS
Comics by comiXology
- Features: Huge selection, including big-name franchises and exclusive DC releases.
- Tech: Great panel-by-panel display is helpful for small screens.
- Extras: Powers other apps dedicated to single publishers or series, such as Scott Pilgrim.
- Content: Look for lots of small publishers with edgy titles.
- Tech: Storefront is not as user-friendly, but big focus on community of readers, who can leave reviews and comments.
- Extras: It created software to allow publishers to display their comics on their Facebook fan pages.
Comics+ by iVerse
- Content: A decent, but smaller, selection than other main apps.
- Tech: Zooming is a little clunkier, and no panel-by-panel viewing.
- Extras: It’s also released a dedicated Peanuts app that provides a direct line to Charlie Brown and the gang.