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updated 3/14/2011 2:10:33 PM ET 2011-03-14T18:10:33

NEW YORK – The world of comic books and graphic novels is undergoing a digital revolution courtesy of tablet computers such as the iPad and the widespread adoption of smartphones. The easy-access downloading of titles might well expand readership, but the industry worries that digital distribution might not always be a force for good.

Comic industry players ranging from publishers to creators to retailers gathered Thursday on the eve of the New York Comic Con to discuss the future of digital comics, which are still in their infancy but looks ready to take the world by storm.

"There is a frenzy and a fear of the digital transition," said Mark Waid, chief creative officer of BOOM! Studios, a publisher of comics that has their own iTunes app. "But look at what it has opened for us. There is a huge appetite for what we do."

Milton Griepp, CEO of ICv2, which hosted the Conference on Comics & Digital, said that digital comics are "the fastest-growing part of the comics business."

ICv2 ballparked digital comics retail sales last year between $500,000 and a million dollars. Through 2010, ICv2 has been tracking a huge jump in digital comic sales that should end up in the range of $6 million and $8 million by year's end: a 1,000 percent increase, essentially.

Griepp said that Apple's iTunes is the biggest part of this exploding digital comics market, with downloads to Apple products including the iPhone, the iPod touch and as of April, the iPad. Apple's tablet computer, by all accounts, been a digital comics gamechanger, and its success is set to unleash a slew of other tablets heading into next year.

The major appeal of tablet computers, Griepp said, is their similar screen size to comic books and graphic novels – a major advantage over having to scan over panels on a smartphone, say. "With tablet computers, you can look at a comics' page the way it was designed," Griepp told the audience on Thursday.

The portability of a tablet computer over a desktop or even a laptop is another strong point for digital comics on the go. Similarly, Sony's PSP handheld game player has also been a major source of downloads, Griepp noted, and comics apps for the growing Android smartphone operating system also bode well for digital sales.

The "Big Two," now digital

A major factor fueling the rapid growth of digital comics has been the launch this year of digital marketplaces by Marvel and DC, the twin titans of the comics industry in the United States. Both have inked deals with ComiXology, a digital retailer that has gone from having an iPhone app launched in July 2009 to industry leader in a year.

At this point, digital sales have not evidently cut into print sales, though they have fallen off in the first half of 2010. Graphic novel sales dropped 20 percent, while comic books registered a slim one percent increase, according to figures gathered by ICv2.

Much of the graphic novel drop can be attributed to the "Watchmen" effect, Griepp explained, in reference to the release of the movie based on the famous graphic novel last year, which in turn produced a sales splurge for the title.

Ink is the industry's lifeblood

Print sales remain the lifeblood of the industry, with the 2009 total market estimated at $680 million, roughly split between comics and graphic novels.

Since the 1980s, the selling of comic books has followed a unique model in book publishing. Rather than moving units at chain stores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, some 3,000 specialty stores – the local comic shop – have sprouted throughout the U.S. and Canada and account for the vast majority of sales.

These brick-and-mortar retailers seem cautiously optimistic about the digital revolution at their doorsteps.

"The whole thing with digital comics, most retailers and storefronts are hoping that the digital market is an additive market that adds millions of new eyeballs onto comics, so when people sample things digitally then they’ll want to own a print version or get the rest of the story in print," said Joe Field, president of the trade organization ComicsPRO and the owner and operator of Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff in Concord, Calif. during a telephone interview.

A popular idea amongst retailers is for publishers to provide samples of a print comic online or to offer special in-store, bonus content for people who bring in a mobile device with a comics subscription.

Field, for example, has had people come into his shop with their iPads who have read the first chapter of a graphic novel and asked for the print version of the rest.

John Riley, owner of Grasshopper Comics, has seen a similar trend in his shop in Williston Park, New York. "What we’ve seen in our store is a large number of people who buy trade paperbacks or books that they’ve been exposed to online," he told the audience.

E-creativity and keeping piracy at bay

From a creative standpoint, the new digital realm can offer aspiring writers and artists an easier path into the market than through the traditional print medium.

Comics and graphic novels designed specifically for the iPad and the Apple iOS are already emerging, such as the Wormworld Saga, which is scaled vertically to best fit the device's portrait view.

Piracy is a big concern of the comics business, which has only to look at the decimation of the music industry over the last 15 years as free, stolen music online slashed CD sales and shuttered countless record stores.

A common theme echoed by the panelists Thursday was that online availability serves as a solid counterbalance to piracy, as demonstrated for music by iTunes and Amazon, two of the new bright spots for the music industry.

No matter how popular digital comics get, Field thinks that print products will stay strong given the collector's mentality that undergirds the comics' community.

"Those people who really love comics also to a degree treat them as art objects," Field told TechNewsDaily.

"They want to own the [print versions], and having them buried on a hard drive or being online is a different thing than holding the object and being able to turn the pages at your leisure, linger on certain panels, and hold it in your hand."

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