Iron Man's Next Challenge: iPad Users

The cover of "Invincible Iron Man Annual #1"

Marvel Inc. is hoping its simultaneous release of the "Invincible Iron Man Annual #1" in both print and digital formats will boost revenues in the long run. Courtesy Marvel Inc. hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Marvel Inc.

Iron Man's armor has a new, formidable challenge: the iPad.

Marvel Inc. says it is testing the waters with its release next Wednesday of the Invincible Iron Man Annual #1 comic simultaneously in print and on the iPad. But for comic book shops, the backbone of the industry, it's a more complicated picture.

"Everyone's a little worried when something new comes, especially in such a traditional industry where change comes so slowly and it's been built on a tradition of not changing for so long," says Jared Smith, manager and co-owner of Big Planet Comics in Vienna, Va. "But I think ... it's good that we're not going to fall behind."

Comic publishers have experimented with online versions for some time, with mixed results. But Marvel, which, along with DC Comics, is the behemoth of the industry, entered the digital realm only about three years ago. It began digital downloads last month, says David Gabriel, Marvel's senior vice president of sales publishing.

"This move is just a test to see what's going to happen when we put out a book the same day, date [and] on both channels," Gabriel says.

For this issue, the digital version will be more expensive: The print edition will sell for $4.99; the iPad download will be split into three parts, each priced at $1.99. At the end of each part, readers will have the option of buying the physical comic at their local store.

Gabriel says if sales had been the goal, Marvel would have picked a more high-profile book to offer as a digital download.

"We might get some anecdotal evidence from retailers saying that, 'Hey, the guys who read the first part did come into my store afterward and picked up the book rather than continue to read it online,' " Gabriel says. "We're just in a wait-and-see pattern right now."

That appears to be the reaction among comic book dealers, too.

Peter Casazza, manager and owner of Big Planet Comics in College Park, Md., acknowledges that some retailers are apprehensive about the iPad edition. But he notes that the digital comics already available have had little impact on sales.

"A lot of guys are scared," he says. "They've lost some business in the last two years. Money's tight for a lot of people, and new competition is always a problem.

"Financially, I don't think it's had any impact on anybody yet. But five years from now, that could be a thing, and certainly 10 years from now it'll definitely have an impact. We hope for the best, but we just don't know," Casazza says.

Comic Sales

Comic sales totaled about $700 million in 2009 and have remained about the same over the past 10 years, says John Jackson Miller, who writes comics and tracks comic books sales at his website, The Comic Chronicles.

Some 90 million comics are sold each year, and despite the recession, sales have not taken much of a hit.

"Last year, we were down 2 percent year over year, and the previous year, we were up 2 percent year over year," Miller says. "In 2010, so far, it's been a very bumpy ride — up one month, down the next."

Miller says the digital version of the comic is unlikely to appeal to the same people who regularly buy individual print issues, or even collected editions — known as trades.

"It's not the same product," he says. "It does not appeal to the same exact clientele. It appeals to a fraction of our clientele that isn't attached to the physical [copy].

"Comics are ... unique among magazines. We're the magazines that people don't throw away: I think it's us and National Geographic and Playboy — we're the magazines that have resale value, and it is that fact that allowed us to create the comic shop market," Miller says

And that's what comic shop owners are counting on, too. Smith says comics, unlike digital downloads, are a tactile medium. The iPad, he says, could introduce a new group of readers to comics.

"You grow up with them, trading them and sharing them with your friends. And so I think if you get more readers into comics, it can't hurt," Smith says.

Casazza agrees, adding that ultimately what stores offer is staff expertise.

"There [are] a lot of books out there. If you can focus on highlighting the really good stuff and giving them a pleasant experience in your store, they're going to come back, and they're going to stay loyal," he says.

What's Next?

Gabriel, the Marvel executive, says the company is going to test its digital comics in many ways. He says it will release comics in both formats simultaneously and at the same price. It'll also come up with digital issues that drive readers to the stores.

"We'll be talking with the retailers to see what they think is going to have the least impact on them," he says. "But ... no one really knows what the impact is going to be until this one Iron Man book comes out — and they can start to gauge it for themselves."

Gabriel acknowledges there are many who are afraid it will take away their customers.

"We all know that it's not going to destroy the industry," he says. "I think we'll learn a lot from doing this."

Future Of Stores

Gabriel dismisses the idea that the format could ultimately kill comic stores or even the print version.

"Right now, we're still very dedicated to the print medium, to the comic shops, to the bookstores, to doing hard copy books," he says.

But, Miller says, though comics appear safe, it's unclear whether their future will be as assured.

"If you were to take the number of people who were buying the individual monthly comics now and all those people were to be suddenly downloading online, if that online price is a fraction of the print price — then," he says, "I don't think we sustain what we've had."

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