Dueling digital formats were the big news story on the first day of the 2011 Diamond Retailer Summit, an annual meeting of comics shop owners organized by Diamond Comics Distributors, the biggest U.S. comics distributor, on the eve of the C2E2 pop culture festival in Chicago. Overall combined 2010 sales of periodical and graphic novel comics were reported to be down slightly, while gaming and apparel made big sales gains at comics stores.

The day kicked off with two announcements of programs to enable physical comicsshops to profit from selling downloadable comics to their customers. Diamond and iVerse announced that Marvel would be participating in the previously announced Diamond Digital program, which allows retailers to sell download codes for various comics that will be offered exclusively through physical shops for thirty days. Marvel currently offers comics through their own online store, via the Comixology app, and through the Playstation 3 online stores. The move was announced at a morning session which saw a lively discussion between retailers and Diamond personnel.

At an ‘Ask Diamond” presentation, Diamond v-p, sales Bill Schanes presented a number of sales figures from 2010—comics overall were down 3.9%, with periodicals down 3.6% and graphic novels virtually up just 0.8%. 2010 was a down year for toys at Diamond–in the toy segment, retailers must compete with Toys R Us and so on–and magazines–a generally soft market is the culprit here. These categories were down more than 20% each.

However, the gaming market surged, up 40.8% from the previous year, and apparel was up 38.4%. With tangible goods such as these not susceptible to piracy, it’s an attractive option for stores. Diamond is looking at expanding their exclusive apparel offerings with more limited edition T-shirts, but increasing awareness overall.

Meanwhile, Comixology, another leading vendor in the digital comics world, announced that they were teaming with several publishers—led by DC but including Image Comics, BOOM! Studios, and Dynamite Entertainment—as part of the Comixology Digital Storefront Affliate plan, another effort to allow physical comics stores to offer downloadable comics for sale. Comixology’s method is a bit different and involves a digital storefront that is powered by their software which retailers can use.

Elsewhere, indie comics publisher Dark Horse was showing their own program for downloading Dark Horse digital comics. Although digital revenues are still small, no one wants to get left out of the expected fun when it starts.

While brick and mortar retailers are still cautious about whether these products will become a big part of their retail mix, they are realistic about offering something that their customers may desire. However, the caution also seems justified; currently the digital comics wars makes betamax vs VHS look like a picnic, with competing formats everywhere and no single consensus on whether comics should be fully downloadable, only viewable through an app or only visible online.

The lack of consensus is making the whole field look like the Wild West. “It’s a hot mess,” says Diamond director of digital distribution Dave Bowen. Despite this concern he was bullish on the idea of letting brick and mortar retailers get in on the digital action and stressed that Marvels’ entry into the Diamond effort was a huge move.

David Gabriel, Marvel senior v-p, sales, answered retailer questions in an afternoon session, mostly dealing with scheduling and reordering. In answer to a question about Marvel’s All Ages material, Gabriel said that they will be concentrating on reprinting comics material originally created by Boom! Studios for magazines, and mass market editions.