"It took about 14 years of trial and error with digital comics to get them in a format in which they're palatable. Really, it's the iPad that makes them palatable," said sci-fi and comic book writer John Jackson Miller in an interview at last month's San Diego Comic-Con.
Miller's credibility as both observer and participant in the comic book business is impossible to question. In the '90s, he was editor of the now-defunct trade magazine Comics Retailer. He still tracks the print side of the business via his website, The Comics Chronicles, yet maintains that digital is an important contributor to publishers' success.
He's right; look at comiXology. The privately held distributor of digital comics recently teamed with Walt Disney (NYSE: DIS) subsidiary Marvel Entertainment to give away millions of premiere issues for new and classic series in hopes of winning new readers. Last year, comiXology ranked as the third-highest grossing app on the iPad. Readers have downloaded more than 80 million issues since October, after needing three years to reach its first 100 million.
Most importantly, Miller argues, millions who've never visited a comics shop are now buying comics because of digital availability.
"I do make note of the fact that the week the iPad was released, the number one comic was Blackest Night #8. What did Blackest Night #8 have? A double-gatefold," Miller said. "To actually show a double-gatefold, in color, at the original size ... you would need an iPad the size of a 24-inch monitor."
Don't expect Apple to introduce a full-sized comics edition iPad anytime soon. The Mac maker doesn't need to: comiXology is already the 66th highest-grossing app in the App Store as I write this. Over at Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) Play store, comiXology rates 48th on the list of top-grossing Android apps (which presumably includes both smartphone and tablet downloads).
These and other digital stores have made comics easier to get, which, in turn, seems to have more readers interested in giving the medium a try. Why should you care as an investor? I see two reasons.
First, rising interest in comics-sourced stories creates profit opportunity for those with ownership interests in big franchises. And not just the Big Two: 21st Century Fox has rights to valuable Marvel franchises. AMC Networks (NASDAQ: AMCX) broadcasts a TV adaptation of the Image Comics series, The Walking Dead, which draws a huge audience on digital, according to comiXology CEO David Steinberger.
Second, with support for multiple e-readers and a wide range of video streaming services, Apple may have the best mobile entertainment platform available on the market right now. That so many of us of are now using it to also read comics is both unsurprising, and proof of the device's -- and by extension, Apple's -- staying power.
It won't always be this way, of course. Apple has a history of cranking out revolutionary products and then creatively destroying them with something better. Read about the future of the Mac maker in the free report, "Apple Will Destroy Its Greatest Product." Can Apple really disrupt its own iPhones and iPads? Find out by clicking here.