Into the Comic-Verse: Comic book collecting goes mainstream in O.C.

Comic book collectors shop for comic books on new comic book release day at Comics, Toons & Toys.
Comic book collectors shop for comic books on new comic book release day at Comics, Toons & Toys in Tustin on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021. The Orange County comic book collecting scene is alive and well, despite the push on Instagram live sales and the growing e-commerce market and collectables.
(James Carbone)

Wednesday is new comic book day at Comics, Toons & Toys in Tustin. The shop, also known as TNT, has been in business for 36 years. On Wednesdays when new releases drop, regulars shuffle in when the store opens at 11 a.m., most of them greeted by name.

“They all know each other,” said Mike Kadin, owner of TNT. “The people that come here on Wednesdays and Saturdays, they all know each other and interact.”

Most shops have subscribers who have a pull list, meaning when new comics come in for a series they collect, the shop will pull them aside for the subscriber.

Kadin, who worked in the shop in his youth and took over the store from the former owner, said TNT has about 350 subscribers.

A variety of new releases and vintage comic books to choose from at Comics, Toons & Toys.
Comic book collectors have a variety of new releases and vintage comic books to choose from at Comics, Toons & Toys in Tustin.
(James Carbone)

New comics drop on Tuesday too, since there are three distributors when there used to be a monopoly of one distributorship for comic books.

“We get three shipments a week. In those three shipments two of them are the major two, Marvel and DC, and the rest are everyone else,” Kadin said.

Comic books have long been associated with nerddom as a hobby that was decidedly uncool. But in more recent years the Orange County comic-book-collecting community has seen an increase in interest.

“There is a huge community here in Orange County who collect comic books,” said James Gurrola, store manager at Torpedo Comics in Irvine. “And it just keeps growing every year too.”

Torpedo, which is owned by John Dolmayan, drummer for System of a Down, has a location in Old Town Orange. Gurrola said they are taking the second O.C. location he manages, which opened this year at the Irvine Spectrum, in a new direction.

“We are more of a collectibles store,” Gurrola said. “We are not a traditional comic book store with new books and back issues. We mostly sell graded books, so more of a curated selection.”

Books are graded on a scale of 1 to 10, by a reputable company that appraises the comic book to make sure it’s legitimate, gives an evaluation of the condition of it, and then encapsulates it to keep it preserved.

“It is kind of like you have a piece of history right there,” Gurrola said.

Comic book collecting hasn’t always been regarded with such reverence, however.

“When I was a kid, if you were into comic books you were a dork,” said Felipe Zelay, a comic book collector who buys and sells comic book collections on Instagram under the handle, @flipmode_comics. “But now it’s like everybody is into these characters.”

Besides TNT and Torpedo, Orange County is home to several comic book shops, including Comic Book Hideout in Fullerton and Nuclear Comics in Laguna Hills.

The longevity of TNT has given the shop a rich history.

“Being here in my youth, I saw kids bike into the store, and then being here again later, I have seen those kids drive into the store with their kids,” Kadin said. “We definitely have roots.”

And like any iconic establishment, it’s not without its lore.

“The guy who created Deadpool originally worked here, Rob Liefeld,” said collector Peter Swanson, while picking up his pull at TNT on Wednesday.

Peter Swanson, of Aliso Viejo, shops for comic books at Comics, Toons & Toys in Tustin.
Peter Swanson, of Aliso Viejo, shops for comic books on new comic book release day at Comics, Toons & Toys in Tustin.
(James Carbone)

The increase in comic books’ popularity can partly be attributed to movies and television shows helping to bring the culture to mainstream audiences.

“The Marvel movies and TV shows and streaming services are an immense part of the industry now,” Kadin said.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is owned by Disney, released its 26th film, “Eternals,” this year and its fifth television series, “Hawkeye,” in November. There are more than 20 projects planned over the next two years, including “Thor: Love and Thunder” and “Black Panther 2.”

“Literally, almost weekly or monthly there is a new commercial airing for this industry,” Kadin said. “I don’t necessarily feel it is bringing in a new audience but it is keeping the audiences that are involved with it invested.”

Although Kadin admits when “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” came out and “Wonder Woman” hit, new fans came into TNT looking for books.

Zelay said sometimes the movies can drive up prices.

“A lot of people who have never been into comic books before are coming in, because these movies have mainstreamed these comic books and now everyone wants to get a piece of the first appearance of Iron Man, or the first apprentice of Thor,” Zelay said. “It drives the value of the comic book much higher, so it makes it much more expensive to buy.”

Some collectors, like Jimmy Farias, a comic book collector since 1979, don’t mind the shift to the big screen.

Jimmy Farias, of Orange, is ready to check out at Comics, Toons & Toys in Tustin.
Jimmy Farias, of Orange, a comic book collector since 1979, is ready to check out with two boxes of books on new comic book release day at Comics, Toons & Toys in Tustin.
(James Carbone)

“It is great that they have advanced to the cinema, because nowadays with the special effects and everything, they can actually represent the characters the way the books do,” Farias said. “You are not seeing this herky-jerky flying and what not. The cinema brings them to life, and then it brings readers in to find out how good the books really are.”

Gurrola said the movies have inspired a younger generation of comic book fans and creators.

“It has brought a lot of younger people back into it,” Gurrola said, “and there are a lot of new books that are coming out that are written by younger people too. ”

“Something is Killing Children,” written by James Tynion is being developed into an original series for Netflix, for example, Gurrola said.

People certainly have different reasons for collecting.

“There are people who love and enjoy it and do it simply out of that,” said Kadin, “and then there are people who also want to monetize off it.”

“For me it’s both the art and stories,” Farias said. “Sometimes the art doesn’t match the stories, sometimes the story is better and sometimes it’s the other way around. But they are fun to read.”

Swanson said he enjoys the stories but also the thrill of maybe finding a treasure.

“There is a speculation factor that books may increase in value as soon as a day after buying them. It is not super common but it kind of gives it a little bit of excitement, kind of like buying stocks,” Swanson said.

Comic book collectors shop for comic books at Comics, Toons & Toys in Tustin.
Comic book collectors shop for comic books at Comics, Toons & Toys in Tustin.
(James Carbone)

The comic book community’s reach has also expanded due to e-commerce, with sales on sites like Ebay and Instagram Live.

“I have been selling on Instagram Live for quite awhile and kind of pride myself on being one of the pioneers that started the online sales,” Zelay said.

Typically sellers use the live feature on Instagram and sell comic books in an auction style, with consumers commenting or direct messaging to claim the book.

“We saw something that we felt was going to be the future in getting more comic books out there through more outlets than just a comic book store,” Zelay said. “People want to just order things through their phone.”

Torpedo utilizes live sales via Instagram too.

“That grew out of the pandemic actually, because we all had to shut down and get creative about new ways of staying open,” Gurrola said.

Now that they are open again, the live sales have continued.

“It is just a way for people who can’t get to the local comic shop to still buy things, and it’s a lot of fun, they talk them up and make it exciting to buy things,” Gurrola said.

Swanson said there are risks with buying online.

“If you buy a book online and it arrives damaged, that could affect the value of the book,” Swanson said. “And when you buy from Ebay you are kind of rolling the dice.”

But across the board, collectors agree e-commerce can’t replace shopping for books in person.

“There is nothing like going to your local comic book shop, especially on new comic book day. You want to be there to see all the new books,” Gurrola said.

“The thing for me though is, I like to come in and open the book and look at the artwork,” Swanson said.

Gurrola also points out comic book shops host events and conventions.

“Local comic book shops will also have signings and events going on that also adds to the excitement of going there,” Gurrola said. “You can do it online, but it is more fun to be there.”

Kadin said the community inside the shop is part of why TNT has lasted so many years.

A comic book collector leaves with books at Comics, Toons & Toys in Tustin.
A comic book collector leaves with books on new comic book release day at Comics, Toons & Toys in Tustin on Dec. 8, 2021.
(James Carbone)

“If I was to get up and move to Washington tomorrow and move the store to Washington, it wouldn’t be successful. It isn’t necessarily the four walls and the product and the brick and mortar, it is the goodwill and longevity of the shop. You can’t replicate that,” Kadin said. “You can purchase goods anywhere, but you can’t replicate the people.”

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