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The Writer’s Block

At Free Comic Book Day, You Get What You Pay For

I love free stuff. But then everyone loves free stuff! Who among us hasn’t cruised CostCo on a Sunday morning, snacking on miniature servings of crab dip, tiny slices of cheesecake, and, if you’re real lucky, a thimble-sized cup of white wine? Who hasn’t gotten that euphoric chill that comes from spotting a pretty good, only slightly dinged-up coffee table/bookshelf/record player/whathaveyou sitting on a street corner, marked free to a good home?

So it almost goes without saying that I look forward to the first Saturday in May each year. Why? Because for the last 10 years, comic shops across America have celebrated Free Comic Book Day on that date. Free? Comic book? DAY? Heaven, she is a place on Earth.

Free Comic Book Day (or FCBD, if you’re into that kinda thing) is exactly what it sounds like. Each year, in an effort to combat their dwindling reader base, comic companies both great and small put out a selection of free comics. Well, free is something of a misnomer; it’s free for you, me, and other Johnny Consumers. On the retailer end, the books price out to about 10 to 25 cents a pop to the store.

The concept is a fairly simple one: Retailers buy these books at (relatively) little cost, people (largely children, but not exclusively) come into the stores to get said free comics, and, with some luck, they’ll become repeat, full-price-paying customers. The “first taste is free, the next one’ll cost you/hook ’em while they’re young” routine isn’t a new scheme: Drug dealers (with apologies in advance for this analogy, comic book guys, but come on, it’s true) have been using it to great success for years, after all.

I spent the better part of my afternoon on May 7 at Hampden’s Atomic Books (co-owned by erstwhile City Paper contributor Benn Ray) and Federal Hill’s Alliance Comics. I looked around, I talked to the staff, and I listened.

How’d these guys feel about Free Comic Book Day? Pretty good! Both noted that a fair amount of time and money goes into FCBD, but the sales bump they get more than makes up for it. Both spots had a decent amount of foot traffic going, mainly kids and their parents. Alliance had a mid-20s couple in Ghostbuster getups (proton packs included) looking around. In other words, a better than average Saturday.

That said, Ray made a comment at one point wishing that the companies would focus less on promoting “franchises.” When I sat down and read through the free comics themselves, I saw exactly what he meant. Every one of Marvel and DC’s offerings, decent though they were, somehow tied into a recent or upcoming movie/cartoon series. Even offerings from indie publishers such as Fantagraphics or Top Shelf were reprints of decades-old Mickey Mouse and Little Lulu strips. I get the point in choosing to focus on stuff the public’s going to recognize, but in a medium where you can create ANYTHING YOU WANT, pushing stuff that people a) have already seen before and b) can enjoy in a totally different format doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Image’s free Super Dinosaur comic, while not really my thing, is a step in the right direction: new material that hasn’t gotten widespread attention. The newest series from The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, it features the decidedly kid-friendly premise of boy scientist and his best friend, a talking T-Rex with robot arms. Sounds like that could bring in some fresh-faced readers. Publishers should consider tossing into the mix free issues of some of their critically acclaimed but maybe less well-known material, like the Harry Potter-esque The Unwritten from DC’s Vertigo imprint or Marvel’s noir showcase Criminal, alongside Captain America/Thor/Green Lantern/Inspector Gadget. Because you’d have to go out of your way to not know about that stuff, you know?

The bottom line: Comics? Just about the most adaptable medium there is. You can absolutely tell great stories with established licensed properties—the largess of Batman comics and DVDs in my possession is a testament to that. But if the medium is going to survive and thrive, it’s gotta embrace its ability to cultivate exciting new ideas. Before they were trillion-dollar multimedia franchises, properties like X-Men and Peanuts were just good stories with fresh angles to which readers responded. Free Comic Book Day’s a great thing, and it’s a successful enough formula that it’s even spawned imitators (Record Store Day, anyone?), but it needs to step up and take some real chances. Because if you’re giving this stuff away for free, what the hell do you have to lose? ■

Contact Max Robinson via hiveofscum.wordpress.com.

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