Associated Press

When the doors open today for Free Comic Book Day — an annual event that’s grown in stature from a few stores to some 2,000 worldwide — publishers and purveyors of tales of heroes and villains will court new readers who, despite the ease of digital displays, are making time for and spending money on comics printed on paper.

Retailers say the turnout and scope of the event, which began in 2002, is giving them and the industry a chance to tout their success by giving away 4.6 million comic books featuring everything from Superman to “The Walking Dead” to Gilbert Hernandez’s “Marble Season.” It takes place today.

It’s also a chance to extol not just comics as an art-form, but as a nexus of pop culture, too, said Joe Field, who organized the first Free Comic Book Day in 2002 and has been its chief architect and No. 1 proponent since.It’s also a time for the industry to tout its growth, in print and online.

John Jackson Miller, who tracks industry sales figures and estimates through his website, said that sales of single-issue comic books were up nearly $60 million to $474.6 million in 2012, compared with $414 million in 2011 and $310.6 million in 2003.

Miller said that digital sales of comics were an estimated $75 million in 2012 compared with about $25 million the year before.

“It’s definitely tripled,” he said of the gain. “The growth in digital sales has been substantial and the heartening thing to everyone in the business is that it happened alongside gains in print sales. There is no evidence whatsoever that the digital availability of comics — released the same day as the print comics — is pirating sales from the other.”

“We haven’t seen a pendulum swing between print and digital,” said Dan DiDio, co-publisher of DC Comics.

“Since the launch of the New 52, we’ve made a very strong effort to embrace the digital market as well as the print market,” he said of DC’s relaunched universe of characters, including Batman, Katana and Animal Man, among others. “Both of those markets have shown a level of growth and that’s helped us let retailers know that [digital] is supplementing the print. It brings readers to the stores.”

That, he said, is a reflection of how digital comics are often downloaded by new readers who may have seen a comic-inspired film or TV show, and then they want more and head to a comic shop.

It’s a sentiment shared by Dan Buckley, publisher and president of Marvel Worldwide Inc.’s Print, Animation and Digital Division.

He called the relationship between digital and print “symbiotic” to the core and indicative of demand for pop culture entertainment in a variety of media.

Sarah Titus, co-owner of The Comic Shop in Wilmington, Del., said that since the onset of digital comics, she’s lost just one print customer.

Going to the shop is a strong lure for many readers, who tout it as a place to relax, talk and explore.

Field calls Free Comic Book Day the chance for first-timers to experience the atmosphere of a comic shop, and the camaraderie of comics readers, to be among like-mind fans and friends and share in the pop culture origins of heroes and villains that have become TV and movie staples.

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