Apparently I was in serious danger of having my geek card revoked, because early Friday morning I hopped a train for San Diego and spent a day at Comic-Con International for the very first time.

“This is the Comic-Con Express,” came the announcement over the station PA system as the train pulled in. You didn’t have to tell me. I could have figured it out just from the little girl in the Supergirl outfit in the seat right behind mine.

After plunging into the pulsating throng of humanity that is the incredibly over-full San Diego convention center and obtaining my press pass, I managed to make my way to a session about how the digital revolution is affecting comic retailers. (Yes, faithful reader, the reason I made the trip to Comic-Con this year was to see just how the iPad and similar devices are affecting this industry.)

As you might expect, there’s a lot of concern among comic-book retailers about a future in which comics come as digital downloads and not bundles of paper sold in their retail stores. This is an industry grappling with potentially gigantic changes that may be forced on it by technological advances, and as someone who works in both the journalism and technology fields, I get the feeling that I’ve seen some version of this same slow-motion train wreck before.

First, the good news: The appearance of the Marvel Comics app as one of the most prominent apps available when the iPad launched in early April gave the entire industry some time in the spotlight. Clearly everyone in the comic-publishing industry thinks that digital comics have the potential to broaden their market. If you look at the list of top-selling digital comics, it’s quite different than the top comics sold in specialty stores, and is dominated by familiar heroes and brand names, including movie tie-ins.

Comic-Con International

“These people are not your core comic-book buyers,” said David Steinberger of Comixology, the company behind both Marvel and DC’s iPad apps. Instead, Steinberger said during the panel on digital comics, these are the sorts of people who went and saw Kick-Ass in the cinema and then were interested in seeing the original comic on which it was based.

But the comics industry seems convinced (or at least quite hopeful) that the coming digital comic revolution, in which devices such as the iPad eliminate the need for reading printed media, will end up driving readers into comic-book stores in search for the good stuff -- on paper.

“We’ll do the drug dealer stuff,” said DC sales and marketing vice president John Rood, suggesting that digital comics serve as a way to get people hooked, especially via free samples. DC has been doing a lot of experimenting with freebies, including a 10-page sample of the re-launched version of Wonder Woman, and Rood said that the company was seeing six times as many free comic downloads as paid downloads.

“[Comic shops] are cultural centers,” Steinberger told the audience, populated mostly by comic retailers. “People who are involved with [shops] want to be involved… but other people don’t know the stores are even there.” Comixology’s apps include a store-finder database that points readers at brick-and-mortar locations where they can buy comics in the flesh.