Jimmy Newbold is a seasoned salesman at Comic-Con International in San Diego as they come.
The retired police officer began selling vintages at the world’s largest comic book convention in 1975, long before he opened his Southern California comic book store in 1998. He is believed to be one of the last original dealers at Comic-Con, which over the course of Four days plus preview night usually attracts hordes of people – many in elaborate costumes – looking to meet their favorite artists and authors, sit at panels with famous TV and movie stars and wander the display booths stocked with valuable versions of comic books and comic book art .
But last year, after Newbold already had valuable inventory for sale at the convention, rising COVID-19 cases forced the cancellation of Comic-Con’s 2020 in-person gathering. His biggest sales week of the year went. “It was a kick in the teeth.”
The virtual events hosted by Comic-Con were not the same for Newbold. And when this summer’s personal conference was also canceled, he thought 2021 would be another lost year. But this weekend, a smaller, three-day in-person event called Comic-Con Special Edition will return to the San Diego Convention Center. Although the gathering will happen on a weekend without the usual crowds of summer—an attendance has been estimated at 167,000 in past years—comic store owners like Newbold are looking forward to the return of the IRL show. Even if not many of them attended.
“The trick, I need it,” Newbold says. “Most of us back traders need this show because it’s a real money maker. Comic-Con is a big part of my business.”
However, Newbold says that he and most of the issue dealers he knows around the country will not be attending this time.
“It’s not comfortable,” he says. “It’s very expensive when you go for a week, but it’s practical because it takes a week to make that kind of money doing what we do on this show. There is no way to justify pulling material, say from New York, at a two-and-a-half day conference where they charge so much for kiosk”.
Even moving inventory a few miles away, Newbold says, is a logistical problem for a discount agreement where turnout is unknown.
But he doesn’t care about losing revenue. He feels he did a good enough job at the store this year to make up for the loss.
No matter the time of year, Comic-Con energy thrives in Southern California’s comic book stores – spaces that are deeply intertwined within its culture.
“Comic-Con started with a diverse group of exhibitors that included retail comic book sellers,” says David Glanzer, the organization’s director of communications and strategy. “That continues to this day. Of course the industry has changed a lot in the past 50 years with digital comics, online retail, and other factors. But comics were, and still are, one of the main focus points of our event.”
Located about a mile northeast of the San Diego Convention Center, tucked into the corner of F Street and 11th Avenue, is one of the city’s newest comic stores: Now or Never Comics.
On a recent Friday morning in early November, the store was asleep. Frankie Carino stands behind the cash register to greet the few customers who enter. Zack Norris organized comics in boxes and shelves nearby. “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” is playing on the TV screen in the back of the store.
Store owner Aaron Treats opened the two-story comics store in December 2018. He says Comic-Con was among the biggest reasons he moved to the Southern California city from Boston and set up a store downtown.
“I had high hopes of being close to the conference, and I’m definitely eager for the show to come back so we can start getting some additional hits from Con,” he says.
While he’s still dealing with how the agreement will affect business, he got a taste of it in 2019.
“At the time, our first year at Comic-Con was far and away the biggest sales week we’ve had in the three years we’ve been open,” he says. Revenues exceeded three times the average monthly store sales.
But when the pandemic broke out in 2020, the fear and uncertainty faded. The comics industry has been on a hiatus for about three months, with no new comics – “comic book bread and butter” – coming in April, May or June. Trites, like Newbold and others, have been forced to pivot to stay afloat: He broadened his selection of vintage comics, increased sales on Ebay, pushed promotions on social media, and showcased on the sidewalk.
But what surprised him most, even as comic fans mourned Comic-Con’s cancellation for two years in a row, its spirit was steadfast: The weeks when the convention was supposed to happen were the biggest store sales weeks of the year.
“Even without the convention, everyone had a sense that the show was going to take place that week, so everyone was still in the spirit of Comic-Con,” says Treats. The agents appeared wearing T-shirts, hats and badges from previous events.
For the Con community, the show will continue.
“It’s really nice to see how deep this agreement is in the city,” he says. “Not only is this traveling circus that passes through the city once a year and then disappears. It is part of the city’s DNA.”
What Comic-Con will bring this year is anyone’s guess, but retailers aren’t anticipating pre-pandemic traffic since people are leaving town for Thanksgiving with friends and family.
The travel season was capsized last year by a booming winter wave, but travel experts estimate that about 3.8 million Southern Californians will be out of town this year.
For Triets, “any show is better than no show.”
Despite all that, Robert Estegy will not be deterred.
Estigoy, an assistant director at Comics-N-Stuff in Chula Vista, will be on the show floor with partner and illustrator Asia Estigoy selling their small print comics, including “Peaburt’s Big Adventure” and associated merchandise.
But his retail store, which was shown at the conference nearly 20 years ago, will not be present this time.
Estigoy is confident that people who don’t make the event will go to the store instead, just as they have for years. “Collective book stores and comic books are much larger retail environments, so they give people who don’t get tickets to experience Comic-Con both during the conference and throughout the year,” he says.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Shawnee Myers browses the shelves and bins of Southern California comics, an inconspicuous warehouse nestled inside a cul-de-sac in industrial San Diego. Superhero posters and murals cover the walls and hang from the ceiling. Jazz is played from a nearby loudspeaker.
The San Diego resident and weekly client load includes issues of comic books from “Batman,” the science fiction fantasy series “By the Horns” and the apocalyptic series “Benny for You Soul: Death.”
Myers is attending this year’s Comic-Con Special Edition event with her husband and is disappointed to hear that her favorite local comic store won’t sell out. “It’s sad that he won’t be there but I totally understand why.”
Keep in mind that this weekend’s event is the go-to for Comic-Con’s resurgence next year.
“[Comic book stores] Really part of our fabric,” says Glanzer. “As long as the comics are there, they will be at the heart of our organization.”