Since 2002, every first Saturday in May, comic shops around the world have taken part in Free Comic Book Day, the industry’s “open house” event tailored to invite new and lapsed fans into the welcoming arms of brick and mortar comic shops. The concept is simple: publishers release exclusive content geared toward (mostly) young, new readers, and retailers pay for these books to give them away for free. Customers find something new to love and (hopefully) come back to pay for their next fix. Everyone wins!
The impetus for Free Comic Book Day was the collapse of the comic book industry in the late 90s. Retailers that had not shuttered their business after a massive shrinking of the marketplace were left wondering how to get former fans and new readers through their doors. One enterprising retailer, Joe Field of Flying Colors Comics, proposed the idea for FCBD after witnessing the success of Baskin-Robbin’s Free Scoop Night event (you can read more about the inception of Free Comic Book Day on Comichron).
In less than fifteen years, Free Comic Book Day has become an annual tradition that has continued to grow in scale. Last year, over 4.7 million comic books were given away by over 2,100 retailers worldwide, the highest numbers for the event since it began. This is good news for both the publishers creating the comics, as well as for the retailers that pay for the books that are given away. More books, more customers, and growing mainstream media coverage has cemented the event as a successful marketing tool for the industry at large, providing a platform for publishers and retailers to introduce new customers to the world of comics. The allure of “free” is a powerful draw, but it is not always a lasting one. More people visit comic shops on Free Comic Book Day than any other day of the year, but many retailers will tell you, those new faces do not always translate into regular customers. An anonymous retailer we spoke with thinks a wider variety of genres amongst the FCBD comic offerings would help to attract and maintain new customers. “Considering how many people avoid the medium because they assume ‘comics = superheroes,’ FCBD is one of the few days when non-readers are exposed to comics en masse. It’d be nice to see a stronger mix of stereotype-challenging genres (romance, popular drama, historical fiction, etc.).”
Stores do have the ability to pick and choose which FCBD titles to buy for the event, though most titles offered skew toward young, superhero fans. There are fifty titles to choose from this year, a number that is down slightly from previous. “We try to make it special because for many people, it is their first visit to our shop (or any shop),” says Annie Bulloch, co-owner of 8th Dimension Comics & Games in Houston, Texas (and a Women Write About Comics columnist). “We tend to order the most copies of the all-ages comics, and kids have a great time. We’ve had cosplayers come to interact and take pictures with customers, and everyone gets a kick out of that.”
“Our FCBD is always a spectacle,” says Juliette Capra of Fantastic Comics in Berkley, California. “We get members of the 501st to come guard the store (and help entertain the long lines), we encourage our customers to show up in cosplay, some of our staff cosplay all day, and it just generally winds up being a really festive atmosphere. For all the tiring prep beforehand and the busy, busy day itself, I think the positive experiences we have and can give to our customers are completely worth it.” Megan Rae Jordan of Atlantis Fantasyworld in Santa Cruz, California agrees that the free comics are only part of a successful FCBD event. “We (and a lot of other) shops, tend to use this busy day as a time to focus on experience. Even if it’s mostly advertised to people who have already come into the shop, being able to provide a positive experience keeps them coming back.”
The limited advertising of the event is a point of contention for many retailers. Holly Ringsell, owner of Dark Side Comics in Essex, England, has found the lack of promotional materials a hindrance. “Their [FCBD] website could be improved. They should have an abundance of downloadable material for us available at least two to three months in advance–not tiny awful banners and logos. There should be a ‘retailers’ area with accessible material. I understand there’s little bits and pieces [of promotional material]you can buy from Diamond, but it would be nice if they printed off some big old posters for free, even one per store would be nice.”
Heather Kenealy of DJ’s Universal Comics in Studio City, California sees untapped potential in cross promotion with DC and Marvel television properties. “The only advertising I ever see for [FCBD] is in comics where people already reading comics can see it. In the past few years, they’ve put ads online, but on websites already trafficked by people who are aware of it. Why aren’t there ads running after Arrow, Flash, Agents of Shield, iZombie?” Aidenn Ossorio of Dragon’s Lair in Austin, Texas agrees. “Why in the world is Marvel especially not promoting it? It’s surprising to see them letting so much untapped potential go without even attempting to connect that broader audience to new readership.”
As evidenced by the still relatively new Halloween ComicFest, a similar event to FCBD that sees stores giving away comics rather than candy, free books alone do not draw crowds. Perhaps it is the specificity that has limited its success; unlike FCBD, the much smaller selection of books for ComicFest are geared toward the spooky season, and Halloween is still a uniquely American holiday, limiting the events’ international appeal. Since stores are largely responsible for advertising, trying to promote another very similar event (with even less support) and still maintain customer enthusiasm is proving a challenge.
FCBD is largely seen as an overwhelmingly positive event by retailers, but it also serves as a yearly reminder of the industry’s shortcomings. During FCBD, families can flock to local comic shops and be overwhelmed by the selection of free all-age titles. Every other day of the year, parents who are not in the know about mainstream comics are at a disadvantage in finding content appropriate for children, especially if their local retailer does not take the time to offer guidance. This disparity between how FCBD presents the industry versus the rest of the year can be hard to reconcile.
The majority of FCBD comics aren’t just all-ages, they are also specifically created to be accessible to new readers. Young, old, new, and lapsed fans can all benefit from the opportunity to try out titles without the intimidating hurdle of continuity. Even a regular customer like myself, who makes weekly trips to my local comic shop, looks forward to the simplicity offered by the self contained stories of FCBD. Consider the overwhelming confusion new readers will face this summer with both DC’s Convergence and Marvel’s Secret War events overtaking the shelves. If you’re a new fan that comes into a comic shop for FCBD 2015, your next visit may be far more challenging by comparison.
FCBD allows us all to celebrate the joy of comics while also forcing us to face the self-created challenges of the comics industry. The limited scope of choices within mainstream comics, and balancing the needs of dedicated fans with potential customers, are problems that find some solutions once a year on FCBD. Making comic retail outlets welcoming, exciting places one day a year can and should inspire the industry at large to embrace the opportunities that FCBD embodies. A retail experience free of judgement. Community focused business. Comics for everybody. If the industry as a whole can offer this on the other three hundred and sixty-four days of the year, eventually we won’t need to give comics away for free.