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Comickaze bookstore struggles to survive in pandemic and amid industry changes

Lucky 2.jpg
Roland Lizarondo
Lucky Bronson, store manager at Comickaze Comics, is shown in this undated photo.

Comic-Con Special Edition is this week so here's how one store is trying to keep customers well stocked with the latest comics

Comic-Con Special Edition happens in person this Friday through Sunday. The event focuses on comics and pop culture. So to kick off this week, here's a look at one comic book store and how it is faring through the pandemic and changes in the industry.

The Comickaze story

When you walk into Comickaze Comics on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, you are immediately struck and a little overwhelmed by how many books there are. Books crammed into shelves, spilling out of boxes and tempting you from spinning racks.

There are walls of DC and Marvel comics but you can also find a graphic novel on classical pianist Glenn Gould or on how God is disappointed in you, or on how to become a billionaire or on history of the Black Panthers. There are books on how to draw manga, how to break into the comics industry or how to mix a Lovecraftian cocktail.

Like a good library, Comickaze is a place you can spend hours in and just get lost in the enticing diversity.

But Comickaze has been through a lot recently. Its original owner, Robert Scott, had been running the store for three decades and worked hard to make sure he stocked not just the big DC and Marvel titles but a vast array of small press and indie titles as well. But in December 2019, Scott died suddenly of health related issues. His wife, Denise, had to close the Point Loma Liberty Station store but worked hard to keep the original Clairemont Mesa Boulevard store open.

Then the pandemic hit, forcing most businesses to close their doors to in person customers. The bookstore was in survival mode but surprisingly the forced closure gave the business a moment to catch its breath.

"At least the shutdown let us regroup, pull ourselves together as a store and kind of bounce back because we didn't have to deal with new product and paying for new product constantly and we could focus on selling on the product we have, which is a lot of stuff," explained Lucky Bronson, who is now the store manager. "And it was interesting going through that transition and into the shutdown because when everything is going well, you can talk about community but when faced with possibly closing, our customers, our family and friends, they stepped up and started buying stuff and keeping us open. And that's when you know you're a part of the community. It's when you're at your lowest and people show up and help us stay open because of what Robert built."

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Roland Lizarondo
Comic books at Comickaze Comics are shown in this undated photo. During the pandemic Comickaze Comics could not get any new comics delivered and had to rely on selling what stock they had on hand.

Surviving the pandemic

At first it might seem that a comic book store, which caters to people who buy weekly comics, might be in a good position to survive the pandemic shutdown. But no one anticipated how the pandemic was going to affect the supply chain.

"Our main distributor, Diamond Comics, completely shut down and they said they were not shipping any new product until the lockdown was over," Bronson said. "I'm sure a lot of that had to do with staffing issues on their end, which caused a really big disruption to the comic industry as a whole, because they were the main distributor for Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Image Comics, basically everything that we needed to run as a store. And so what was interesting about that was for a long time, retailers felt Diamond was a monopoly and didn't always take our concerns into account because who are we going to go to? So that was a wake up call for Diamond and for the industry as a whole. DC Comics decided to end their contract with Diamond and go to another distributor. And so the shutdown caused a lot of disruption. A lot of the comic industry had to recalibrate and kind of figure out how they're going to survive."

"Marvel and DC being the biggest companies, talk about us being partners, but they really treat us as employees, whereas the smaller publishers do reach out to us and hope that we do partner with them and promote and support their stuff, which through the pandemic, that made a difference."
Lucky Bronson, store manager at Comickaze Comics

What was interesting was that it turned out to be smaller distributors and not the comics industry giants that tried to help retailers.

"For instance, Robert Kirkman's company Skybound, he also created 'The Walking Dead' and 'Invincible,' they published a comic — a new 'Walking Dead' story that no one expected — published it for free, sent it to us for free so that we could sell it and make some money while this whole thing was going on," Bronson said. "But Marvel was just crickets. So Marvel, you have all this money, you have all these resources and influence, no advertising from them, nothing. And so it was that wake up call made us kind of change our priorities and want to support the smaller press. People like Boom, Aftershock ,TKO. TKO, for instance, if our customers ordered from them through the shutdown in 2020 through their web store, they would send a part of those profits to us, which wasn't a lot but it was nice because Marvel and DC being the biggest companies, talk about us being partners, but they really treat us as employees, whereas the smaller publishers do reach out to us and hope that we do partner with them and promote and support their stuff, which through the pandemic, that made a difference."

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Roland Lizarondo
New products on display at Comickaze Comics are shown in this undated photo. Comickaze Comics is almost back to business as usual with new products coming in on a more regular basis.

Current challenges

There are other issues that retailers have to deal with. Ordering things like the bags and boards and comic book boxes can now take months rather than weeks, and a paper shortage may impact printing of comics.

"After they announced the paper shortage, publishers announced that they weren't going to do second printings," Bronson said. "So right now it's wait and see what's going to happen. But what we're hoping for is that the publishers take a minute and re-evaluate how they've been publishing comics. For instance, Marvel and DC will do variant covers where the interior is the same, but they put a different artist on the cover to entice people to either spend more or buy two copies of the same book, which has been frustrating for us because the price of comics has been going up past what we've seen as inflation. And so the market has narrowed down to people who can afford comics, as opposed to just being a disposable entertainment. So what I'm hoping is publishers stop and go and figure out what's important for them to publish and what we can sell as a product."

"It's funny that in my experience, portrayals of comics fans, geeks, nerds, is that they are introverts and that they don't want to socialize with people ... But at Comic-Con you see there's hundreds of thousands of people there for one thing, and they're all happy about it and to talk about it."
Lucky Bronson, store manager at Comickaze Comics

This Friday Comic-Con returns to an in person show with what it is calling Comic-Con Special Edition. There will be no Hall H and only about half the number of people expected to attend with numbers estimated at about 60,000.

Comickaze has not been an exhibitor at Comic-Con for decades but Bronson appreciates what it offers pop culture fans.

"It's funny that in my experience, portrayals of comics fans, geeks, nerds, is that they are introverts and that they don't want to socialize with people," Bronson said. "But with Comic-Con, we see that's not true because they might not want to socialize with you, because they don't want to have that small talk that doesn't interest them. But at Comic-Con you see there's hundreds of thousands of people there for one thing, and they're all happy about it and to talk about it."

But Bronson does wish that the nonprofit would make more of an effort to help small comic book retailers and do more in terms of partnerships with them. Comic-Con does highlight stores through its annual Will Eisner Retailer Award for which Comickaze had been nominated at one point.

As more things are opening and more in person events are happening. Comickaze is seeing things returning to almost normal. There is still a lot of uncertainty on the horizon and running a small business is always a challenge. But thanks to Robert Scott and Bronson, Comickaze Comics has established itself as part of San Diego's pop culture community and hopefully it will continue to do so for many years to come.