When “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” was released in early May, customers walked into Mathias Lewis’ comic book shop wanting to discuss the movie. Many bought Doctor Strange stuff.
Two months later, when “Thor: Love and Thunder” came out, people still wanted to talk. But few were buying.
“The desire is there,” said Lewis, the owner of Knowhere Games and Comics in San Marcos. “But the financial means to fulfill that demand is not.”
In the weeks leading up to Comic-Con’s return, many businesses are feeling the effects of inflation and high gas prices after years of pandemic uncertainty. Comic shops are the “canary in the coal mine,” one owner said, and a recent downturn in sales may signal a broader economic contraction.
In more than a half-dozen interviews with business leaders around the region, several said they hope the world’s largest pop culture convention offers a boost.
Some added that the event can be a mixed blessing.
For a few shops, the end of July is one of the biggest weeks of the year. Another owner said it’s one of their worst, as the convention draws away customers. Attending can help in networking, although renting a booth may be prohibitively expensive and, unlike previous years, owners are not getting free passes.
One who has Crohn’s disease, and whose wife has multiple sclerosis, said it was simply too dangerous to step indoors with huge crowds.
The multi-billion-dollar industry unquestionably benefits from growing commercial appeal and critical acceptance. The Marvel movies alone have pulled in more than some countries make in a year, and the Pulitzer Prize Board just renamed its “Editorial Cartooning” award to “Illustrated Reporting and Commentary,” a recognition of medium’s power in non-fiction.
At the same time, the volatility is real.
Many places profiled by the San Diego Union-Tribune about a decade ago no longer exist. Panels Comic Book Coffee Bar in Oceanside recently shuttered, and Ocean Beach’s Galactic Comics has dropped “comics” from its name. (Both companies posted statements online saying they plan to continue in other forms.)
The ComixLounge in Escondido is currently only open Saturdays, although the owner said he hopes selling for the first time at Comic-Con will help the shop fully re-open next month.
“It’s been pretty rough,” said James Borders Jr.
Borders did praise Whatnot, an app he now uses to auction comics.
Dealers have long had to balance pleasing collectors, who may drop enormous sums on rare issues, and regularly eager for new releases. Casual readers may show up less but spend more on collected editions, while toys and games can pad the bottom line, although their appeal is often tied to movie releases outside of 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 shop open helped, too.
The recent loss of customers reminded him of the Great Recession, when he had to work a second job at Trader Joe’s to stay afloat.
“I’ve seen more people just disappear in the last two months than I don’t even remember how long,” he said.
In many cases, customers are still showing up — but to sell. More than one owner said residents are emptying their collections for quick cash, which increases (and potentially devalues) products even as demand slows.
The supply chain has also been upended since publishers changed distributors during the pandemic, including San Diego’s IDW.
For Yesteryear Comics in Kearny Mesa, that’s sometimes led to huge shipments showing up at odd times, complicating what can be sold when, said owner Michael Cholak.
Nonetheless, 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 migratory birds,” he said.
Mathew Meth, owner of the La Mesa-based delivery service Pacific Coast Key Comics, said more people have been emailing for recommendations, especially for women. His Hispanic wife of him was especially excited about DC’s new Brazilian Wonder Woman.
“It seems to be an actual good time to be into comics,” he said.
Print and digital sales have generally increased in recent years, according to an estimate by ICv2 and Comichron. In the United States and Canada, sales and downloads of comics and graphic novels topped $2 billion last year, the industry-tracking groups said.
If there is a recession, smaller publishers and shops face the most risk.
Mathias Lewis, in San Marcos, said shopping at local stores was the equivalent of supporting the “modern-day salon for young geeks.”
“If comic shops were to disappear, DC and Marvel would continue on,” he said. “But the smaller publishers and smaller creators that I think make comics so unique and so interesting and innovative wouldn’t.”