Comic book shops are alive and well in the digital age

Print copies of comic books are still in high demand at comic book shops, despite the availability of digital comics.

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Editor's note: This is part one in a three-part weekly series on comic books and comic store, leading up to Free Comic Book Day on May 7.

While the advent of digital media changed the way consumers get their music, books and movies, the same cannot necessarily be said for those who read and collect comic books.

“Print is important to comic book buyers,” Mark Waid, comic book author who has written for DC and Marvel and recently breathed new life into Archie Comics, said at the “Digital versus Print” panel at the 2015 Baltimore Comic Con. “They want to have something they can have signed, and they want something they can keep long term.”

Ralph Watts, owner of Comics and Paperbacks Plus, 201 E. Main St., Palmyra, agrees.

“Digital hasn’t been any kind of threat to my shop,” he said. “Actually, it probably helps since they can read them online, and then want to have the hard copy so they can hold the real comic.”

Watts, who has been in the comic book business for 29 years and a comic book collector for more than 40 years, said he feels that digital comics are no threat to his store.

Further, he feels that comics aren’t quite the same when read on a screen.

“Comic books are different than regular books because they have art, and honestly, art on a screen is never going to be as cool as art in your hand, because it is just not the same thing,” he said.

That has a lot to do with some restrictions artists face when formatting comics for digital readers.

“Digital can limit creativity as far as layout because of visual limitations on digital devices,” Katie Cook, writer and artist of “Gronk” and writer for “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic,” said during the Comic Con panel.

Those limitations are one of the reasons Watts feels his customers, and comic book readers in general, refuse to abandon print.

“When you hold a book that was created as a book, it is the end result,” Watts said. “If you’re on the computer screen, you have to move it around, and the colors aren’t the way they were intended to be. I’m not saying it’s a terrible experience, but it’s not the best experience.”

Unlike traditional books, comic books are not just about reading, but collecting as part of a hobby, according to Watts.

“Comic book readers are usually comic book collectors, and you can’t really collect digital,” Watts said. “You can’t tell somebody the story about the first time you read a comic book online – who cares, we all did that. The thing is, when is the first time you bought a comic book? That’s a story.”

When the digital format started gaining prominence through online sites like Comixology about 10 years ago, Watts said comic shop owners were initially concerned.

“We thought customers would just bypass us completely, and never buy anything in paper form again,” he said. “However, what I’ve worked out is that out of 250 to 300 customers, I might have lost three people who actually told me they were going to digital only.”

Despite the need for most enthusiasts to have a print copy of their favorite comic books, digital is still a popular format, and one that seems to boost print sales.

“People come in here all the time and say they’ve read a comic online, and then they say they want the book in print,” Watts said. “I can’t say I have that daily, but certainly on a monthly basis.”

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Customers buy current issues of a title online, and then decide they’d like to pick up back issues leading up to the current story arc, Watts said. However, getting back issues online typically costs more than buying a hard copy of the same back issue at the comic shop for 99 cents, according to Watts.

Back issues of Marvel’s “Spider-Man” or DC’s “Batman” currently start at $1.99 for digital editions on Comixology, although they do offer a few comics for free. Free online comics can be used as a gateway to a print collection, according to Cook.

“Digital can hook readers first via free comics,” Cook said. “That allows you to build a fan base who will then want to buy copies in print.”

Watts agreed that some comic book readers enjoy their hobby using both formats.

“I do have people who come in that collect print and digital copies of the books,” he said. “When you buy a new comic book, they give you the code to download it for free. So some people will keep that code, and if they are on a plane, they’ll read it on the plane. But, at the same time, because they want to collect it, they’ll also hold onto the print copy for their collection.”

Considering the harmonious manner in which print and digital exist in the comic book industry, comic book shops are alive and well in the digital age, according to Watts, and that is due in no small part to the habits of the average comic book reader.

“There are readers and there are collectors, but the majority of people who are buying comic books are collectors,” Watts said. “If they miss a print issue then they need to fill the gap because we are obsessive-compulsive – we need to have everything complete.”

Comic books as valuable collector pieces

While modern comic books can be picked up for anywhere from 99 cents to around $5, whether in digital format or print, their value can grow over time.

During the 1960s, the “Silver Age” of comic books, an issue of Marvel’s “Amazing Spider-Man” cost 12 cents. That same 12-cent comic can now be purchased for anywhere from $50 to $1,000, depending on the condition it is in.

To look at a specific example, issue 25 of “Amazing Spider-Man” was published June, 1965, and sold for 12 cents. That comic book can be found on websites like ComicsPriceguide.com, or in comic book shops if they have them, for $1,400 in near mint condition. That same comic in mint condition is worth $7,000, and that is only for an ungraded issue. Graded issues of comics, those that have been certified by a registered expert and sealed in plastic, are typically worth twice that amount.

However, the value of a particular comic varies depending on its rarity, condition and importance within the specific title’s storyline. Returning to “Amazing Spider-Man" 25, it is worth slightly more than some of the other issues of “Amazing Spider-Man” released in 1965 because it has one of the earliest appearances of Spider-Man’s love interest, Mary Jane Watson, and introduces villainous robotics engineer, Spencer Smythe, making it more important to the title than issue 21’s fight, and subsequent team-up, between Spider-Man and the Human Torch.

Newer comics can also see a rapid increase in value. DC Comic’s conducted a “re-launch” of its long-running titles, including “Batman” and “Superman,” in 2011. A mint condition of 2011’s Batman issue one, which had a cover price of $2.99, is now worth $200, according to ComicsPriceguide.com, and $3,000 for the same book if it is graded.

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