Twenty years ago, when I first attended the San Diego Comic-Con, it wasn't the spectacle it is today. Hollywood wasn't interested. Toymakers were only marginally more interested.
Now, all that's changing. Every major studio attended Comic-Con last week, as did most of the major video game publishers. Disney (NYSE: DIS ) , Sony (NYSE: SNE ) , and Fox Studios were all there, each one situated near Activision Blizzard (Nasdaq: ATVI ) , which was showing off a new Spider-Man theme game to the 125,000 or so fans in attendance.
The comic book industry isn't what it used to be, with one exception: Comics are still in print, and collectors still buy them at mom-and-pop shops and at Comic-Con. But even that could change soon.
In an interview, retailer and comics historian Robert Beerbohm, who's sold at every Comic-Con since the first one in 1970, proclaimed digital as the future. "People want to read the stories. It's not about having the paper document in your hand," Beerbohm said from the show floor. (Click the screen to see the whole interview.)
I think Beerbohm's right. And if he is, it's yet another reason to love Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iPad. Combined with digital technology supplied by a private company called comiXology, the Mac maker's iconic e-reader is becoming a platform for reading comic books, as well as newspapers, magazines, and anything else that can fit on a small screen.
For mom-and-pop retailers, that's a scary, disruptive idea. Get enough people behind digital and you no longer need comic book shops, the thinking goes.
But for Disney and Time Warner (NYSE: TWX ) , whose Marvel and DC Comics franchises live off selling intellectual property in a variety of forms, the promise of digital is huge. At the very least, it creates a cheap way to distribute comic books globally. Just download to your smartphone or iPad.
Many longtime comics readers I spoke with love digital comics, even if they mourn the thought of losing the paper format. Neither of the big two publishers are likely to harbor such sentiments. They know that paper comics are expensive to produce. Anything that cuts costs yet preserves the storytelling format is ideal. Digital on the iPad achieves that.
Put another way: Comic book publishers need a superhero, and Steve Jobs may be it.
But that's my take. Now it's your turn to weigh in. Can the iPad substitute for a paper comic book? Should it? Let the debate begin in the comments box below.