At booksellers like Barnes and Noble in Clarendon, there are shelves full of graphic novels, featuring everything from classic issues of Spider-Man to cutting-edge Japanese imports.
The question these days: how many comics fans are still willing to pay for what is slowly becoming free on the Internet.
"Any type of illegal piracy affects our business," said Dave Weinberger, retail manager at Nova Comics & Games in Springfield, one of several regional comic shops. "It's just like if you bring a camcorder into a movie theater and distribute the bootleg online."
Lining the walls of Nova Comics & Games in Springfield are thousands of the latest issues of the Astonishing X-Men, Superman, Ex Machina, the Flash, the Punisher and more.
Most of the shop's regular customers spend between $20 and $50 each Wednesday, when new comics are released. Some drop upwards of $100 per week on comics, which typically retail for $2.99 an issue.
But in the shadowy world of online piracy, all of those same comic books are available for free.
At Nova and other comic shops across Northern Virginia, Weinberger said that illegal downloading of comic books has yet to stymie a growing sales boom over the past 18 months.
Yet some Northern Virginia comic shop owners fret that digital comic piracy may be skimming an unknown amount of business off their bottom line. A certain number of young readers, they said, may be discouraged from paying for their weekly comic fix.
"Most of our customers have been collecting comics for so long, they're pretty committed to buying the issues," Weinberger said. "For younger readers, like high schoolers or college kids, you have to wonder if they're reading comics off the Internet."
COMIC BOOKS, like music, movies and television shows, can be illegally downloaded through "BitTorrent" technology, which allows a user to draw small pieces of large files from multiple computers to compile the pieces into one file on the user's computer.
Downloading a scanned comic book from a BitTorrent directory Web site can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours.
It is hard to gauge the prevalence of illegal comic book downloads. Few readers at Northern Virginia comic shops would admit to downloading comics.
An anonymous poll of comic book readers by the online industry magazine Comic Book Resources found that 30 percent had downloaded a comic book at least once.
At one BitTorrent directory Web site on Monday, 1,014 people had downloaded a pack of 78 pirated comics released a few weeks earlier, worth a total of about $233.
Comic books comprise only a fraction of music, movies, video games, TV shows and books downloads by an estimated 10 million online pirates each year, according to U.S. Justice Department and industry advocacy organizations.
Many online comic book message boards prohibit discussion of illegal comic book downloading in an attempt to dissuade bootlegging. Occasionally, message boards will feature a debate among comic fans over the ethics of piracy. While some see piracy as a contemptible act that hurts the industry, others feel it is fine if the book is long out of print.
Kevin Panetta, manager of Big Planet Comics in Vienna, said some comic fans believe it is justifiable to download classic comics that can only be found at conventions for hundreds of dollars.
"Fans of comics deserve to read Miracleman," he said, referencing author Alan Moore's groundbreaking 1982 comic, which may never be reprinted because of legal wrangling. "For a lot of people, downloading it is the only way they can read it."
Jared Smith, owner of the Vienna shop, said he "hasn't seen customers disappearing," but he knows a handful of his store's patrons have downloaded.
"The younger generation who grew up with illegal downloading is probably more willing to do it," he said. "Most of our customers are pretty loyal to the print format."
Smith said illegal downloading can affect his business when a comic fan downloads numerous back issues of comic books like Green Lantern or the X-Men, rather than ponying up for hardcover collections of reprinted stories.
JONATHAN LUNA, a comic book creator who lives in Prince William County and collaborates with his brother Joshua, said he views comic book piracy as simply stealing.
"Illegally downloading comics is definitely a problem," he said. "It's stealing. And people do steal our books."
The Luna brothers are well-known for their two independent books Girls and Ultra and for their art in Marvel comic books like Spider-Woman: Origin.
As an independent comic creator, Luna said digital piracy makes it more difficult to produce comics. "It doesn't make it any easier for us," he said.
Luna proactively searches the Internet for sites distributing his books illegally in an effort to stop them — sometimes aided by his attorney.
From some retailers' perspective, illegal downloading is not so black-and-white.
Gary Dills, manager of Phoenix Comics & Toys in Herndon and Fairfax, said a fair amount of his customers have probably downloaded comics, but a certain percentage are likely trying out a book before buying it.
"In that sense, it could actually be a positive," Dills said.
Dills suspects the industry giants Marvel and DC Comics will eventually distribute issues legally online for a nominal fee, much like iTunes with digital music downloads.
"Eventually there will be both the print and online version of the product," Dills said. "That worries me."