Isotope

In the midst of the digital age, comic book sales are still thriving despite the declining market. The rise in quality of print and digital comics sparked an increase in sales, as well as a renewed interest in the medium. Photo illustration by Katie Longua/ Special to Xpress

While they have no armor, weapons or gadgets, comic books possess super strength when it comes to persisting through a declining market.

The digital age has acted like kryptonite for many forms of print media, yet comics continue to sell to an ever-growing audience. And it’s not that print comics are simply surviving — they’re thriving.

“Comics are the one medium so far where print sales have gone up,” Brian Hibbs, owner of Comix Experience, said.

Above collectibles, toys, cards and all else, Hibbs is passionate about the books. He doesn’t feel digital readers have done justice to the high quality content of the extensive selection of comic books and graphic novels that are available.

“You can’t put a comic on a smartphone,” said Hibbs. “It changes the very nature of the comic.”

James Sime, owner of Isotope Comics, begs to differ.

Sime contributed to the creation of comiXology, a website and mobile application for purchasing and reading digital comics. Thanks to his business model, he has teamed up with comiXology to include digital comic sales at his shop.

“I don’t really want to read my comics on a machine,” Sime admitted. “I want to hold them in my hand. I like the way they smell, the way they feel. But I’ve read plenty of digital comics on those devices and it’s pretty cool.”

Some comic enthusiasts are finding that they can bridge the gap between print and digital. For SF State marketing major Kevin Hebenstreit, digital options alleviate the problem presented by his overflowing shelves and drawers of comic books and graphic novels.

“I worry about whether or not I will have enough space so that I can buy more comics. If I ever move, it will be quite a hassle to move all of those around to a new house,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about problems like that with digital. I can have my entire collection of comics, all on a tablet. That’s a pretty miraculous thing.”

For Sime, it’s less about whether print or digital comics are selling higher, and more about giving readers what they want.

“If customers start telling me that what they really want is comic books that are printed on pita bread, I will move a cooler in and I will start selling pita bread comics,” he said.

However, readers decide to take in their favorite books they won’t buy unless the content is good. Much of the renewed interest and high sales of comic books and graphic novels can be attributed to the quality and variety available — which have surged in the last decade.

“I’ve been doing this for 11 years, and comics have never been this good,” Sime said. “Just the quality and diversity, not only in the time I’ve been retailing, but in my entire lifetime.”

Comics once had the reputation of appealing to a less sophisticated audience. According to Hibbs, comics were considered the “idiot’s medium,” but that ideology has been rewritten and they are now seen as a valid storytelling choice.

The success of comic-based films, such as Marvel’s “The Avengers,” has helped reel in new audiences, but it takes more than a movie to hook a new comic fan.

“The new ‘Avengers’ movie brought a few people in, but it didn’t make those people come back,” Matt Kimbrough of Comix Experience said. “That depends on the quality of the ‘Avengers’ comics too, but it’s up to (the retailers) to get people convinced that there’s a lot more to comics.”

Marvel and DC films are just the tip of a massive iceberg. There’s more to comics than capes and tights, and comic shop workers are more than happy to help customers find what they’ll love.

“There is literally a comic book out there for every single human being,” Hibbs said.

When Sara Ayers — visiting San Francisco from Montreal — walked into Isotope last week looking for some books, she found the shop to be very welcoming. An avid reader of comics and graphic novels, she feels that the collectible aspect and the geek appeal are keeping print comic sales up.

“I suppose there could be a link to the whole coolness of being a geek these days,” Ayers said. “Any sort of geeky thing, including comic books, adds to your cred as a legitimate geek.”

Like the music scene’s renewed love of vinyl records, the continued desire to own tangible artwork gives print comic retailers little to worry about for the time being. The diversity of the medium attracts new readers and the timelessness constantly brings back regulars.

“Readers can be captivated by each page of a comic, from the inking, penciling, lettering, and coloring,” Hebenstreit said. “The comic medium works so well because it’s able to blend a well-written story, with beautiful illustrations accompanying it on each page.”

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Kirstie Haruta

Kirstie Haruta