They have spent half a century saving the world from the brink of disaster. But now even the likes of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four may not have the requisite powers to save Marvel Comics from the clutches of the internet and a "catastrophic" abandonment of print.
The comic book giant behind some of the most famous superheroes of all time is rumoured to be pulling its paper editions from shelves in order to focus exclusively on selling digital editions from an online store. Despite a modest surge in popularity, and a 10 per cent rise in comic book sales last year, publishing bosses at Marvel are reported to have decided the future of comics lies online.
For decades, Marvel has stayed ahead of competition, such as DC Comics, by owning the rights to some of the most famous superhero characters in history.
From Hulk to Iron Man, its stable of superheroes has recently brought in vast profits. The franchise in 2009 led to the Walt Disney company acquiring Marvel Comics' parent company, Marvel Entertainment, in a $4bn deal.
Sales have been in decline since the peak of Marvel's dominance in the 1960s under the leadership of Stan Lee. Half a century ago, its top title, The Amazing Spider-Man, could be expected to sell over 350,000 copies. Today, its bestseller, Avengers World, sells around 80,000 copies.
Comixology, the firm which since 2009 has sold some 125 million comics online – mostly Marvel – finally led the company to embrace the digital world.
Michael Kozlowski, editor of Good e-Reader, which specialises in reporting online on e-publishing, said Marvel has been hiring developers, designers and coders to make its own comic app. "It hopes to incorporate Marvel Unlimited, Marvel AR, Marvel Events and its new comic store into a singular experience. They realise that digital is their future," he told The IoS.
But Lisa Wood, director of the Thought Bubble comics festival, said: "The fallout would be catastrophic. To comics buyers, shops and retailers are so important. If that community of readers just goes online, we're going to lose something really important."
Marvel Comics declined to comment.