San Diego comic book stores went through the wringer. Can Comic-Con come to the rescue?
When “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” was released in early May, customers walked into Mathias Lewis’ comic book shop to chat about the film. Many bought Doctor Strange stuff.
Two months later, when “Thor: Love and Thunder” came out, people still wanted to talk. But few bought.
“The desire is there,” said Lewis, owner of Knowhere Games and Comics in San Marcos. “But the financial means to meet this demand are not.”
In the weeks leading up to the return of Comic-Con, many businesses are feeling the effects of inflation and high gas prices after years of pandemic uncertainty. Comic book stores are the “canary in the coal mine”, said one owner, and a recent drop in sales could signal a wider economic contraction.
In more than half a dozen interviews with local business leaders, several said they hoped the world’s biggest pop culture convention would provide a boost.
Some added that the event can be a mixed blessing.
For some stores, the end of July is one of the busiest weeks of the year. Another owner said it was one of their worst because the convention attracts customers. Attendance can help with networking, although renting a booth can be prohibitively expensive and, unlike in previous years, owners do not receive free passes.
A person with Crohn’s disease whose wife has multiple sclerosis said it was just too dangerous to go inside with huge crowds.
The multi-billion dollar industry is unquestionably enjoying growing market appeal and critical acceptance. Marvel films alone have attracted more than some countries in a year, and the Pulitzer Prize Board has just renamed its Editorial Cartooning award to Illustrated Reporting and Commentary, a recognition of the medium’s power in non-fiction. .
At the same time, the volatility is real.
Many places described by the San Diego Union-Tribune a decade ago no longer exist. The Panels Comic Book Coffee Bar in Oceanside recently closed, and Ocean Beach’s Galactic Comics dropped the term “comic books” from its name. (Both companies have released statements online saying they plan to continue in other forms.)
The ComixLounge in Escondido is currently only open on Saturdays, though the owner said he hopes selling for the first time at Comic-Con will help the store fully reopen next month.
“It’s been pretty tough,” James Borders Jr. said.
Borders praised Whatnot, an app he now uses to auction comic books.
Dealers have long had to balance agreeable collectors, who can deposit huge sums on rare issues, and regulars eager for novelties. Casual readers may appear less but spend more on collected editions, while toys and games may increase the bottom line, although their appeal is often tied to film releases beyond the owners’ control.
Kenny Jacobs recently opened a new branch of Nuclear Comics in North Park, after operating in Laguna Hills for decades.
People actually spent a lot during the pandemic because of stimulus checks, he said. Ignoring lockdown orders to keep his Orange County store open also helped.
The recent loss of customers reminded him of the Great Recession, when he had to take a second job at Trader Joe’s to stay afloat.
“I’ve seen more people disappear in the past two months than I can even remember how long ago,” he said.
In many cases, customers still show up, but to sell. More than one owner said residents are clearing their collections for quick cash, increasing (and potentially devaluing) products even as demand slows.
The supply chain has also been disrupted since publishers changed distributors during the pandemic, including San Diego’s IDW.
For Yesteryear Comics at Kearny Mesa, this has sometimes led to huge shipments appearing at odd times, complicating what can be sold when, owner Michael Cholak said.
Nevertheless, the comics have deep roots in San Diego.
Even when Comic-Con was canceled, people still lined up over the summer in costume, said Aaron Trites, who runs Now Or Never Comics downtown.
“It’s almost like migrating birds,” he says.
Mathew Meth, owner of La Mesa-based delivery service Pacific Coast Key Comics, said more and more people have been emailing for recommendations, especially for women. His Hispanic wife was particularly excited about DC’s new Brazilian Wonder Woman.
“It seems like a good time to get into comics,” he said.
Print and digital sales have generally increased in recent years, according to a estimation by ICv2 and Comichron. In the United States and Canada, sales and downloads of comic books and graphic novels topped $2 billion last year, industry tracking groups said.
In a recession, small publishers and stores are the most exposed.
Mathias Lewis of San Marcos said shopping at local stores is like supporting the “modern living room for young geeks.”
“If comic book stores were to go away, DC and Marvel would continue,” he said. “But the small publishers and small creators who I think make comics so unique and so interesting and innovative wouldn’t.”