February 26, 2007 8:13 AM PST

Digital age plays villain, hero in future of comics

NEW YORK--We live in a digital world, and the New York City Comic Convention did not try to sweep that fact under the rug.

NYC ComicCon, which took over Manhattan's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center from Friday through Sunday, was loaded with plenty of new-media alternatives to traditional comics: mobile products from comic site GoComics, DVDs packed with classic Marvel serials, and video games galore. Compared with the high-definition screens and surround-sound effects, boxes of comic books in protective plastic sleeves--supposedly the central focus of the convention--came across as somewhat quaint.

ComicCon characters

It raised the question of whether the practice of collecting and reading comics stands a chance in an age in which the younger generation has so much else to choose from.

The comic industry, after all, is a mature one--most of the NYC ComicCon attendees perusing the classic comic books and tie-in toys were clearly grown-ups. I stopped to speak with two thirty-something men who were ogling a display of Marvel superhero figurines and asked them which they were interested in. "The little ones," one of them said. "We both have kids now." But the majority of under-18s (under-25s, even) at ComicCon focused their attention elsewhere.

"That generation is lost," said Vincent Zurzolo, chief operating officer of New York-based comic retailer Metropolis Collectibles. "They like playing video games."

ComicCon

It's not that kids don't love comics. In addition to video games and strategy games like Magic: The Gathering, both graphic novels and Japanese manga are big with them. That includes both original works and those that tied to entertainment--everything from upcoming horror movie The Hills Have Eyes 2 to the adventures of the pop singer Avril Lavigne. (Yes, really.)

With so much diverse media to pick from, it isn't particularly surprising that the "IM generation" prefers its comic experience to be one of consumption rather than collection.

"The audience (of comic fans) is now all over the media," said Steve Saffel, an independent content developer for science fiction and comics. He was here helping out some of his friends at the booth for Charlotte, N.C.-based comic store Heroes Aren't Hard To Find.

"Young readers today are on the Internet, playing video games, watching films, reading comics and books. The key is going to be to put the content where the audience is," he said.

Saffel is not alone in thinking that the comic industry should accept that in today's wired, content-rich world, there's more than one way to deliver a product.

"There are two kinds of comic fans," said Russell Williams, the CEO of Flying Labs Software, which offered a demo of the beta for its upcoming online role-playing game, Pirates of the Burning Sea. "There are the collectors, and then there are people who just enjoy it for what it is." He pointed out a display of Marvel DVDs that contain hundreds of digitized versions of classic Spider-Man comics, and proudly declared that DVDs had made it possible for him to bring 2,500 comic books on the plane with him.

"I've always got it with me," Williams said of the collection.

According to Williams, the digital age has opened up a whole new set of possibilities for the comic industry. "Technology is now getting to the point where the market can follow the people who don't have the time" or space to maintain a comic book collection, he said. Digital comics, Williams added, can give fans access to older titles that would otherwise be in storage. If his prediction is correct, this will open up a whole new segment of the comic fan market.

Williams doesn't believe that new media will kill the paper comic book trade. "The collectors will always exist, no matter what," he said.

From the helm of a software company, Williams naturally had positive things to say about technology's effect on comics. But for others, the situation is a bit more ambiguous. I asked Vincent Zurzolo of Metropolis Collectibles what he thought about technology's effect on the industry. "I think it's definitely going to have a small effect" on comic book sales," he said, adding that he didn't believe it would be a tremendous threat.

"You're always going to have a vintage market because not everything's reprinted," Zurzolo said.

Zurzolo had a point. Sad though it may be, the salvation of traditional comics may be their monetary value--something that doesn't carry over into the world of software or online media. "There's the investment factor. Anybody who collects comic books with the idea of making money in the future can't do that with electronic media," Zurzolo said.

Saffel agreed: "The investment side of comic collecting has become so sophisticated."

Still, Zurzolo has faith in comic books' ability to survive the digital revolution even without the financial factor taken into account. "There's something about holding a comic book in your hand," he said. "There's something tactile about it, something about owning the actual comic."

And that's one experience that a piece of software just can't offer--at least until technology makes some kind of leap that we have yet to imagine.

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