Free Comic Book DayHow do you get more people to read comics? The publishers and distributors behind Free Comic Book Day believe they have the answer: hook the readers with free books, and reel them in to the stores. Free Comics Book Day 2004 was the third industry-wide event of its kind, cannily scheduled for July 3, 2004 to coincide with the opening of Spider-Man 2. It's the third annual event of its kind, the first two years having been a success. The basic idea is simple enough: participating publishers send out single-issue promotional books for the day, which are distributed by comics stores across the country. The regular books aren't free; only the special FCBD issues.
Can the free comic strategy work? I went to the FCBD event at Austin Books and scooped up a handful of freebies to find out. I'm a little sorry that CrossGen withdrew its American Power offering; I was looking forward to commenting on it. Still, there was plenty of material to review. The five capsule reviews that follow cover a mere handful from the giant stack I brought home with me.
Publisher: Dark Horse
What they offered: a Clone Wars Adventures story, written by Welles Hartley and drawn by Matt and Shawn Fillbach. The Clone Wars Adventures books are tie-ins with the Cartoon Network's animated series of the same name, drawn in the same stylized, Batman: The Animated Series-inspired manner. This promotional standalone story focuses on Jedi Knight Luminara Onduli and his Padawan Barriss Offee, as they attempt to evacuate a planet's civilians before the arrival of the Separatist droid army. (Readers who aren't followers of the Star Wars franchise may find that summary fairly incomprehensible.) A couple of ads for Kurt Busiek's Conan and Mark Ricketts's Lazarus Jack are all that hint at the vast, rich offerings that Dark Horse has in its catalogue -- there is a glance at Hellboy, and no mention of Luther Arkwright, Usagi Yojimbo, or any other titles that have graced the Dark Horse line.
Buy more?: Star Wars fans might, although some might be put off by the utilitarian script with its rather simplistic Important Life Lesson story. Younger readers, however, may eat it up.
What they offered: To no one's surprise, a Spider-Man story. It's a "revisiting" of Stan Lee's original tale of Spider-Man's first fight against the arch-villain The Vulture. A short 6-page story about the Tinkerer is also included. The artwork has been updated to the zoomy, manga-influenced style commonly seen in Marvel's superhero books these days, but the story is an old-fashioned Stan Lee tale. Still, as with the Dark Horse book, there's not really any nods in the direction of Marvel's other properties. Spider-Man's fellow screen stars, the Hulk, Daredevil, and even the X-Men, are only mentioned in the "Subscribe and Save!" home delivery ad.
Buy more?: Marvel seems to be running on the assumption that interest in the Spider-Man movies will lead to an interest in the Spider-Man comics, which will in turn lead to an interest in Marvel titles in general. They also seem to think that young readers will be snagged by the Stan Lee stories just as their parents were. It's hard to say; some youngsters these days may find the "gee whiz!" storytelling a bit goofy. Parents would know best.
Publisher: Alternative Comics
What they offered: An omnibus of short works and previews of longer works by a variety of artists, including Harvey Pekar, Nick Bertozzi, Josh Neufeld, James Kochalka, and Gabrielle Bell. Especially noteworthy is the preview for Nick Bertozzi's The Salon, a forthcoming graphic novel set in Paris, 1907, and featuring Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and many other great artists of pre-WWI Paris.
Buy more?: Unlike many other offerings from FCBD, the Alternative Comics book is definitely aimed at readers outside of the teenager-and-younger demographic. It immediately puts one in mind of the New York Times Magazine cover story on graphic novels; the same people who would be pulled in by that article would probably also be intrigued by the Alternative Comics sampler. Readers may be sufficiently intrigued to chase down additional Alternative Comics books -- and now is a good time to do so.
What they offered: an omnibus of sneak previews for a wide range of titles, including the title co-created by Courtney Love, Princess Ai. Most of the book is in the original right-to-left manga format (always a trifle disorienting at first; sometimes I think this merely adds to the current popularity of manga among teens, making it one more thing their parents don't get), although there are a couple of pieces in Western left-to-right format, to ease the transition for newcomers.
Buy more?: To be honest, some of these previews were a little hard to follow, and not just because of the formatting. The story snippets were usually ripped out of any kind of context, save for a one-paragraph summary to let the reader know more or less what's going on, but which often left a lot of characters and back story unexplained. Still, the sample is sufficiently interesting to grab the attention of fantasy and sci-fi fans.
Publisher: Astonish Comics
What they offered: Yet another omnibus of samples from their largely kid-friendly line. Especially notable is the charming and beautifully drawn Herobear and the Kid.
Buy more?: Not long ago, I had a woman e-mail me asking for recommendations for comics to give to her eight-year-old son. I had to do some research and asking around, and the detailed results of that survey are material for another column. But if I were that woman, and if someone put the Astonish FCBD book in my hand, I'd have been very pleased; imaginative, kid-friendly stuff that doesn't condescend to young readers either. And for older readers, the Spooner strips are pretty amusing too.
Other things: Image offered a glimpse at Spawn, Invincible, and Savage Dragon, although in case that wasn't interesting enough, they made sure to include a picture of the rather frighteningly proportioned, scantily clad main character of Witchblade on the cover. DC handed out copies of Teen Titans Go!, which, like Marvel's Spider-Man book, was filled with ads for plenty of products other than comic books. Gemstone books went rather delightfully retro with a Mickey Mouse comic; on the opposite end of the spectrum, Top Shelf Productions featured more shorts by James Kochalka, Jeffrey Brown, Aaron Reiner, and Scott Morse.
After reading all this, though, the question that still rattles in my head is whether or not Free Comic Book Day really brings in new comic book readers. Since the giveaways were all sponsored and hosted by independent comics specialty shops, it's hard to believe that they were as effective in "recruiting" as a similar event hosted by Big Chain Bookstores might be. Perhaps my local shop was an anomaly, but it did seem as if most of the people scooping up comics that day were the regular habitues of the store. Myself included.
Still, you never know. To my surprise, there were actual children in the store that day, which almost never happens: boys about eight or ten years old, and the clerk was helping them pick out some Marvel superhero titles from the shelf. Not from the free stuff -- the actual for-sale comics. Maybe the bait worked after all.