Today is the 12th annual Free Comic Book Day, in which comic-book fans — and prospective comic book fans — can go to their local comic-book store and receive free comic books.
Free Comic Book Day is often thought of as a way to introduce new people to comics by giving these potential readers free comics. But it’s also a way to bring lost readers back into comic-book stores and to reward current readers.
Here’s how the event works: Free Comic Book Day is coordinated by Diamond Comics Distributors, which gets comics from publishers and distributes them to stores. Publishers print up special editions for the event. Sometimes, these are reprints of a first issue or a sampler reprinting part of several first issues. But a lot of the time, these free comics contain all-new stories. Stores don’t actually get these comics for free, though. They have to pay a small amount (12-50 cents) per copy, although they’ll give these copies out for free. Stores do this to attract new customers — but also to reward their current customers and to simply have a fun event.
Along with comics, some comic-book stores receive other items, such as mini-posters for comics-related movies and promotional items like keychains. Some stores often hold special events, discounting or even giving away unsold older comics.
It’s no surprise that Free Comic Book Day, now in its 12th year, arose during the era of the super-hero movie. A lot of comics fans have long bemoaned that such movies, while cool and often tremendously successful, rarely lead to new interest in comics. These movies are based on stories told in comics, a medium that doesn’t have a terribly large readership in the United States, yet comics have rarely seen a boost in readership from these movies.
In its first few years, Free Comic Book Day was explicitly tied to these movie releases. The idea was to get press for the event, since there was so much media attention given these films. The date of the first Free Comic Book Day, in May 2002, was explicitly chosen to align it with the release of Spider-Man. The second, in May 2003, was similarly chosen to align it with X-Men 2. In order to align the third Free Comic Book Day, in 2004, to Spider-Man 2, the event occurred in July. Some objected to the July date, believing that it was easier to market an event that could be expected about the same day every year. Some also worried that, although the event tried to piggyback on media attention surrounding these movies, chasing the biggest comics-related blockbuster around the calendar privileged super-hero comics and also made it seem like comics were really only a side story, relevant only when considering these films. Of course, that was exactly the opposite of the day’s intent. After 2004, Free Comic Book Day was set permanently on the first Saturday in May, removing these concerns. It so happens that there’s usually a new super-hero movie debuting on the same weekend, the way Iron Man 3 is this time. But that’s not always the case; in 2005-2006, no such film debuted the same weekend.
To say Free Comic Book Day has been a success would be an understatement. It’s often been covered in its own right, by media around the United States. Smart comic-book stores have often promoted what they’re doing for the event — and gotten coverage in return. The day is often credited as one reason why American comics sales have risen steadily over the last 12 years. There’s even a version of Free Comic Book Day in Germany, Austria, and the German-speaking parts of Switzerland — Gratis Comic Tag — and in the Netherlands and the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium — also called Free Comic Book Day.
But more than anything, Free Comic Book Day is often a lot of fun. It’s a chance to visit and support your local comic-book shop, see what they’ve cooked up, and chat with the staff. It’s a chance to meet the customers who buy there. But it’s also a chance to see mothers strolling in with kids who asked to go. It’s a chance to see young adults looking around before actually asking, “I like Spider-Man” — or Scott Pilgrim, or any other genre of stores — followed by, “Where do I start?”
There are so many reasons to be cynical. Free Comic Book Day is not one of them.
It’s a celebration of the comics medium, and of its readers, whether young or old, long-standing for first-time. It’s also a testament to the kindness and the real love of comics felt by the comics community, especially so many wonderful local comics shops.
So call a friend and go to your local comic-book shop today!