'People need heroes': Pensacola's comic shops have fostered fans, inclusivity for decades

Reflecting on his youth, Jim Sackett remembers hating school and especially reading. He had a troubled family life and spent time in boys' homes and foster homes.

At age 7, however, his school had a book fair and he was introduced to comic books, which became his escape. Ultimately, the interest opened a door for him to find a community and open up his own shop. For Sackett and others, comic books were a place to find encouragement when they couldn’t find it anywhere else.

“The movies and everything's all flash and excitement, but I think the core thing that attracts them is just that people need heroes,” Sackett said. “You need to feel they're gonna win.”

Through movies, television and conventions like Pensacon, superheroes have become part of mainstream culture. But local comic book shops are still a cornerstone of the community where people find heroes who truly represent them, where curious fans go after their favorite movie, show or comic conventions has ended, and where people searching for a space to belong are seen for possibly the first time in their lives.

Area 51 Comics, Toys, and Collectibles on Navy Boulevard in Pensacola on Thursday, March 2, 2023.
Area 51 Comics, Toys, and Collectibles on Navy Boulevard in Pensacola on Thursday, March 2, 2023.

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Pensacola Pop Comics is one of the few comic book shops in the area that sells strictly comic books. The shop, which sits across from Publix in East Hill Plaza and is owned by Harley Orr, is one of the estimated 2,000 comic book stores across the nation.

Orr was never interested in selling toys or memorabilia, but wanted a traditional store jam packed with older and newer comics.

Some of his biggest sellers that customers can never get enough of are "Batman," "Saga," "Love and Rockets" and now − with book bannings across the country − the graphic novel “Maus,” which follows the author, Art Spiegelman, who is interviewing his father about his experiences as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor.

Comic books at Area 51 Comics, Toys, and Collectibles on Navy Boulevard in Pensacola on Thursday, March 2, 2023.
Comic books at Area 51 Comics, Toys, and Collectibles on Navy Boulevard in Pensacola on Thursday, March 2, 2023.

Many people perceive comic books as just for boys, but Orr said he has seen people from all ages, race and sexes come through his doors. Orr describes comic books shops as a “small town” where people from every walk of life can bond and feel they're not alone in their love for storytelling.

“Stores have filled that void of being a part of something. It gives you that feeling of being part of a group, no matter how obscure or niche your interests might be,” Orr said. “And then the ability to come in and look at something and have it in your hands — I'm always amazed by how many people just say they would rather support a local business.”

The digital age has disrupted the comic book industry as much as any other, and fans can buy physical comic books through online retailers like Amazon or access digital versions through online libraries or subscription services from industry giants such as Marvel and DC.

Orr thanks a strong customer support for keeping him open.

Staying versatile is key to success

Others local store owners believe they must be versatile in their merchandise nowadays to stay open.

TBS Comics was established in Niceville in 1985, moved to Fort Walton in 1987 and then opened up a shop in Pensacola in 1991. Ed Nehring inherited the shop from his parents and was always surrounded by comic books as a child.

Nehring is interested in the entire nerd culture from toys and video games, and TBS Comics shows that with its inventory of board games, card games and miniature games.

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As comic book movies have exploded in the last two decades, he knows the directors and producers were just like everyone else. Kids coming to comic book shops, talking amongst other fans, where even the workers know the history and culture and it naturally builds an atmosphere a customer can’t get anywhere else.

“I have people who come, who are customers my age who now their kids come in and read,” Nehring said. “It's been an interesting tale where I have three generations of people coming in at the same time on a holiday like, ‘Hey, here's my grandkids. We want to buy him a comic and let him get him started,’ so it's pretty amazing.”

Sackett's comic book shop on West Navy Boulevard is called Area 51 Comics, Toys, and Collectibles, and inside visitors can find action figures ranging from X-Men to the Fantastic Four, a Midway arcade cabinet, a lounge area with game consoles like the PlayStation 2 and Atari 2600 with a couch for customers to sit and play.

Sackett, still reveling in his collections ranging from a large Peter Criss KISS action figure to his Bionic Man and Bionic Woman set, believes comic books are the foundations to conventions and movies.

Comic conventions, like Pensacon, are examples of how comic book fandom has helped spread to a larger audience and introduce younger readers to the fandom, he said.

But according to Sackett, when people leave the new “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” movie or Pensacon, there needs to be somewhere they can go and read about past and new adventures of the characters they have just discovered and fallen in love with.

Comic book shops fill in the spaces for fans who want to find an escape from their lives or fill in the dead time between conventions or movies.

“I believe that just keeps going because otherwise if you don't feed it, it dies and so people's passion for the stuff is not going to just come up once a year for Comicon. The movies and stuff do, but some people are getting turned off on some of the stuff from the movies,” Sackett said, reaching over to his table of comic books and sorting through the hundred of comics he owns. “But this stuff, the original stuff, like, old Daredevil from the ‘85 and these original stories, are still there.”

This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Pensacola comic book shops offer community, identity, escape