"Comics have lagged behind other media for so long in embracing digital," said David Steinberger, chief executive of leading digital comics retailer ComiXology. "I about fell out of my chair when DC told me what they were planning."
To salve retailers' concerns, DiDio and Lee have gone on a "road show" around the country touting a plan to let them set up their own digital storefronts and collect 30% of revenue. Gerry Gladston, co-owner of New York-based Midtown Comics, acknowledged that there's been plenty of angst among his fellow retailers.
"We're not at all convinced that digital will attract a lot of new readers," he said, "but we hope that it will drive people to our stores."
Others, however, believe DC's new digital strategy may mark an inflection point for an industry that will soon be paper-free.
In the short run, it seems everyone in the comic-book industry will benefit. DC's flagship title "Justice League No. 1" has pre-orders for more than 200,000 print copies, which would make it the bestselling title of 2011. Six other new DC No. 1's already have more than 100,000 pre-orders.
"Fan interest is huge — much of it positive, some negative, and some very cautious," Gladston said.
But much-hyped events and reboots have boosted comic-book sales before without much long-term effect. Wolfman wrote one of the earliest in 1985 with "Crisis on Infinite Earths," which was originally intended to result in every comic book restarting at No. 1, before editors decided against it. Since then, events, crossovers and reboots have become a near annual occurrence for DC and Marvel.
"The stunts have run their course," Liefeld said. "This is the biggest one in the past 25 years, and nothing else can come close."
The worst-case scenario for DC's new strategy is that few new readers stick around and existing ones are alienated by the changes. But the relaunch's architects said it's a necessary risk.
"The truth is people are leaving anyway, they're just doing it quietly, and we have been papering it over with increased prices," DiDio said. "We didn't want to wake up one day and find we had a bunch of $20 books that 10,000 people are buying."