WOBURN — Jim Tournas remembers when comic book conventions were sleepy havens for the outcast. The shops drew a handful of diehard collectors willing to spend hours thumbing through dusty boxes of old comics searching for rare editions of Superman or Batman.
But comic conventions have outgrown their geeky roots. Events like the Boston Comic Con — which gets underway Saturday at the Seaport World Trade Center — have grown as fast as a speeding bullet into pop-culture extravaganzas for fans of superhero movies, TV shows, and video games.
For owners of comic book stores, the increasingly popular events mean lucrative exposure to tens of thousands of potential customers and new markets across New England.
“The money is really good because you can make a lot of sales in one place,” said Tournas, 60, a comic artist and manager at the Salem-based Harrison’s Comics & Pop Culture, which has a warehouse in Woburn and two stores in southern New Hampshire. “Our numbers go through the roof, because we’re selling to thousands of people instead of hundreds that come to our stores.”
Harrison’s is one of more than 50 merchants participating in the seventh annual Comic Con. Although estimates of the amount of money that trades hands at the event are hard to come by, shop owners and organizers say collectors come in droves and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars snapping up comics that run from 15 cents to $10,000 a copy. About 50 percent of the sales at the event come from comic-related collectibles and other memorabilia, owners say.
“Doing the shows has helped us tremendously, especially with our online sales,” Tournas said. “It gives stores a chance to get new customers and sell products that aren’t selling as fast in the stores.”
Besides forests of vintage and new comics, the event will feature more than 200 well-known comic book creators as well as celebrity appearances by Laurie Holden of the TV show “The Walking Dead,” Kristen Bauer of “True Blood,” and actors Aidan Turner and Dean O’Gorman of “The Hobbit,” organizers said. A film festival will be held on Saturday, highlighting short independent productions.
New England Comics, which has eight stores in Greater Boston, will also be staking out a spot at this year’s convention to hawk its wares, which range from comic books and graphic novels to T-shirts and superhero action figures.
Like Harrison’s, the retail chain started hitting the conventions several years ago and noticed a huge improvement to its bottom line from the increased profits.
“It’s a very good profile for us,” said Alan Vickers, who manages New England Comic’s Malden store. “It’s really as if we have a ninth store for those two days because we have a huge number of people coming from outside of the state.”
For George Brousseau, owner of Command D, a small family-owned comic book store in Dracut, this year will be his first foray as a business owner into the wacky world of comic conventions. He said independent comic book store owners have been slow to jump on the convention wagon, but he can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines if he hopes to compete with the larger chain stores.
“We’ve giving a try now because we think it’s time with the whole pop culture thing moving in the direction of superheroes,” Brousseau said. “I don’t have any expectations at this point. I’m just going to go see what it’s like.”
Boston Comic-Con is one of dozens of similarly named events held in cities across the country. The biggest gathering is in San Diego, which draws an estimated 130,000 fans and celebrities and resembles more of a Hollywood film festival than a comic convention.
Nick Kanieff, founder and coproducer of Boston Comic Con, held the first event in 2007 and said only about 1,000 people showed up. Last year, the event drew more than 15,000 fans and luminaries from productions related to movies, videos, and comic books, he said.
“If this was a publicly owned company, I’d be the darling of Wall Street with that kind of growth,” Kanieff said. “We’re definitely in the top 25 for attendance.”
Originally scheduled to take place in April in the Back Bay, the city’s convention was rescheduled due to the Boston Marathon bombings.
Kanieff said a portion of the proceeds from a “star-studded” comic art auction will go to the Boston One Fund, in support of Boston Marathon victims, as well as the Mike Wieringo Scholarship for aspiring comic book artists studying at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Comic store owners credit Kanieff and others with putting Boston’s annual event on the map, garnering national attention from big-time collectors and merchants.
“You can find stuff there that you couldn’t find elsewhere,” said Glenn O’Leary, manager of the small independent Comic Book Palace in Haverhill. “Some guys make a lot of money at the conventions. But the fans are really the ones that get the most of out it.”
For more information and tickets: http://www.bostoncomiccon.com/
Christian M. Wade can be reached at cmwade1969