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May 5, 2011

Free at last (and while they last)

When Joe Field was a columnist for Comics and Games Retailer magazine, he suggested a groundbreaking event for the comic book industry, using ice cream as a model. “I proposed the idea of a ‘free comic night’ based on the successful...

When Joe Field was a columnist for Comics and Games Retailer magazine, he suggested a groundbreaking event for the comic book industry, using ice cream as a model. “I proposed the idea of a ‘free comic night’ based on the successful ‘Free Scoop Night’ that Baskin-Robbins was doing in all of its ice cream stores,” he says. “About the only thing cooler than ice cream is comics, so I figured it would work.”

Field is the owner of Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff [], an award-winning shop in Concord, Calif. One day he noticed something out of the ordinary at the Baskin-Robbins location next door. “I hadn’t been given advance warning [that] the promotion was going to happen, but apparently everyone else in this neighborhood had gotten the news. Everyone was there, or so it seemed.”

If this concept was good for ice cream, why not comic books?

“My original vision was to get all facets of the comics industry working together for a mutually beneficial goal of reaching out to new potential comic book readers, calling back former readers and thanking current fans,” says Field.

It worked. Saturday marks the tenth anniversary of Free Comic Book Day [FCBD], an event that has become a juggernaut, motivating throngs of folks to line up outside comic stores across the country and around the world – including the Grand Strand. In anticipation of Saturday’s event, 2.7 million comics were ordered by retailers for the giveaway – titles printed specifically for the event by publishers such as Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Image, Archie Comics and more – and distributed by industry heavyweight Diamond Comic Distributors.

“With Free Comic Book Day celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2011, I think it’s fitting that this is one of the strongest line-ups of comics the event has ever enjoyed,” said FCBD spokesperson Leslie Jackson in a press release. “There are 37 very different comic books to choose from, and that will hopefully mean customers of all ages will walk away from a comic shop on May 7 with a free comic they can’t wait to read.”

But don’t expect to walk into a convenience store and grab your free copies off the spinner rack – and forget the notion of hitting up a big box book store chain for free comic goodness. A blurb on The Free Comic Book Day web site [] makes it clear that this is not going to happen. “This event celebrates the independent comic book specialty shops, thousands of which exist in North America alone. Each one is unique in its community, with a style and personality all its own, and each one carries a full line of comics, graphic novels, toys and related products.”

There are two such brick-and-mortar comic book stores on the Grand Strand, and both are gearing up for Free Comic Book Day. If this event is like Christmas Day for comic book lovers, the theatrical release of Marvel Studios’ “Thor” on Friday can be likened to Christmas Eve.

“I think Free Comic Book Day is something designed to get new readers into comic shops to be exposed to the whole concept of the direct market,” says Detroit-based Derek Coward, Podcaster and founder of the Deliberate Noise Network [] – a repository of podcasts about music, movies, books and all things comic book-related. “There are people who don’t even realize that there are stores that do nothing but sell comic books.”

THE COMIC SLINGERS Chad Hudson, owner of Apocalypse Comics in Longs, has been participating in Free Comic Book Day since the store opened five years ago. He has also helped friends who own stores in larger areas. “I have one buddy I helped out for Free Comic Book Day in Charlotte (N.C.) for two years – and he saw an average of 3,000 people at both events.” He also helped a pal in Washington, D.C. with basically the same numbers “That’s the difference between a major metropolitan city and an area like Myrtle Beach. It was the craziest thing I had ever seen.” By contrast, Hudson says he typically sees 300 people on that day at Apocalypse Comics. But how does this work?

“There is basically one distributor of comic books – Diamond Comic Distributors. They split up your shipment and send it to you in separate chunks,” he says. The 37 titles featured are sold to retailers at cost. “Everybody wants this stuff so far in advance, but what people don’t realize is that we don’t get this stuff until a week or two before the event.”

Retailers can mix things up by offering freebies of their own in addition to the available books. “I have stuff from previous years – and I keep all of the sneak peek books and little freebie books that I get throughout the year – and I give those things away too.” On Saturday, Hudson will give away a limited number of art prints and Green Lantern rings.

Hudson says he does not limit his freebies to a certain amount per customer. “You can get one of everything until they are all gone,” he says. “I see about 300 people on that day.” The store opens at 10 a.m. on Saturday and closes at 8 p.m., but he says he’s typically out of everything by 6 p.m. It is not unusual for him to see upwards of 30 people waiting in line before the store opens. Apocalypse Comics has a sale on much of his inventory the same day. “Free Comic Book Day drives a lot of people to the store, so it makes sense to do that.”

An added benefit of participating could be the possibility of repeat business – or the cultivation of new customers, but Hudson is a bit wary. “That happens, but a lot of it is people coming in to get some free stuff for their kids. They might come in once or twice a year after that, but there is one simple fact about this event, and that’s the word ‘free.’” But he recognizes that there might be a kid in the bunch that will become really involved and grow into a regular customer.

Steven Haines of Corsair Comics at Palmetto Studios and co-founder of X-Con World, a yearly local comic convention and show, has been a comic book retailer for 14 years and has been a participant in Free Comic Book Day since it launched in 2002 – and for the past three years at Corsair’s location in downtown Myrtle Beach.

“Free Comic Book Day is an opportunity for publishers to either promote something that they really want to start pushing – or to promote something new they have got coming out for the summer comic season,” he says. “Obviously comics are not seasonal, but they know that the stuff coming out in the summer is going to be bought a lot more, with people on vacation looking for something to entertain them – and comic books are where its at.”

Like Hudson, Haines says that he could technically give away anything he chooses to on Saturday. “We’ve got a table full of freebie stuff here that of course will all be out with the free comics.” But he takes a different approach when it comes to dispensing these gratis books. In the past, he tried to make sure customers got copies of everything, but for him it was not practical. “People really do take advantage of that,” he says. “You end up losing all of your comics to one or two people. I have had to start limiting people to two or three free comics because there is not enough to go around.”

We can see the potential for opportunism here. “You have to kind of guard the free comics, initially at least – to see how many people you are going to get. You have to limit it because it’s not fair to people who get there later in the day. It’s just rude to say, ‘hey, you didn’t get here on time – no free comics for you – sorry.’” He admits that it is rare for somebody to walk in and insist on having one of everything that is offered for free, but it has happened.

Corsair Comics normally opens at noon on Saturdays, but will open around 10 a.m. for the event. “I have noticed that most comic book fans do not get out of bed early – so I don’t get here at the crack of dawn by any means,” says Haynes, with a chuckle. “Typically I will stay open until it just peters out, and I try not to have any set schedule on Free Comic Book Day because you just don’t know what you are going to get.”

Last year, Haines says he did plenty of social networking and Facebook advertising for the event – and did a text blitz. “It was really busy, and I am hoping this year to have twice as many people here. We’re going to have the X-Con Girls out here in costumes and doing activities for kids – this gives the event a real sense of occasion. And we will probably run some specials that day – different things to make it not just about coming in and getting a free comic book.” For Haines, it’s all about getting folks to come in and discover the store.


One classroom at Myrtle Beach High School is emblazoned with all manner of comic book ephemera. That room belongs to math teacher Dean French, who caught the comic bug in 1963. “Our family took a vacation, and we had an eight hour drive to our vacation site,” he says. “My mom bought me a comic book to keep me busy – and I remember that first one – it was Justice League of America number 13.” He says he fell in love at that point – steeping himself in the world of comics with Silver Age titles from Marvel and DC.

“There are two kinds of people in the comic book world. They call one a collector and they call me a reader. I don’t collect them because I am going to turn them into millions of dollars. I just love reading the stories.” He adds that a beat-up comic for a couple of bucks to him is just as good as a $100 collectible.

French says comic books are a wonderful way of learning to love reading and art. “I didn’t think I was an art fan until I started taking it apart and realized that – sure I am. [Iconic Silver Age comic book artist and writer] Jack Kirby is my absolute favorite artist – and it’s an art scene like anything else.”

Early on, students might have viewed him quizzically – like, what’s wrong with that man reading comic books and why didn’t he grow up - but French says he has made a transition from a curiosity to a sort of guru. “When all of the [Marvel-themed] movies came out, I became really hip because I knew what Iron Man looked like when he first came out. I became a resource – and now the kids come to me to ask about the history – what really happened to these superheroes and how much Hollywood might have changed things.” He says this can also serve as a great introduction.

“My classroom has all kinds of comic-themed posters on the wall. It’s a great ice-breaker because math makes a lot of people nervous and tense.”

French’s take on Free Comic Book Day is practical from a business standpoint. “Comics have stories that run many issues. They get them going on the first issue for free – and hopefully they are going to buy the next ones to see what’s going to happen next.”

Once seen as lowbrow and scoffed at – especially in an academic setting - comic books have been steadily gaining respect as scholastic tools. French has seen graphic novels utilized by English teachers. “They have a list of which ones are acceptable, because some are pretty gruesome, unfortunately – but any time you can get kids reading and get their brain moving – literacy is so important."

As a math teacher, he sees a real need for literacy, although what he does is perceived as a numbers game. “When other teachers ask us what we can do to help our students advance in math, we always say, get them to be better readers. If students can read a word problem correctly, then we can take over and do the math portion with them.”


Rick Hershey, owner and founder of Empty Room Studios [], an art service provider in Myrtle Beach, is working on a graphic novel with author Nikola Jajic called “H.P. Lovecraft’s Wonderland” – which tells the familiar tale of Alice’s adventure in Wonderland as if the story was written instead by the cult horror writer. Hershey is handling all art duties and lettering.

Last year, Arcana Comics published another Hershey/Jajic collaboration called “Loosely Based.” But comic books were a major influence.

“I originally tried to get into comic book work, but the style I was working in – which was a more realistic style – wasn’t popular at the time,” he says. “So after tons of rejection letters, I moved into illustration work, which was sort of my second passion.”

He began reading comics as a pre-teen. “Chris Claremont and Jim Lee working on X-Men really got me into it. I saw what could be done with the medium. When Vertigo [an imprint of DC comics] came out, it got me into more of the adult/underground comics.” He was taken in by Watchmen and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman titles. “These just got me into the possibilities – that it wasn’t just superheroes in tights, or children-themed stories – you could really do some solid storytelling with the art form.”

Hershey says he was never a comic collector, per se. “I got to the point where the idea of keeping comics in little Baggies and never really reading or enjoying them got to me. I just want to enjoy the stories – so I don’t think there was ever a comic book that wasn’t worn from me reading or looking at the artwork and studying the styles – they were all beat up and worn.”

Meanwhile, podcaster Coward collects comics, but does not sell them. “I have given away more comics on the podcasts than I have ever sold.” Currently his collection hovers at nearly 10,000 units. “When I was living on my own for the first time, I had all of these long and short boxes, but I had no furniture. I would stack them up, put a sheet over them – and there was my dinner table.”

Hershey equates comic books with American mythology. “It’s heroes and gods and storytelling – sharing that with other people. Putting them in a box and hiding them away isn’t going to help the market grow, and it’s not going to get more readers.”

Most people are exposed to the comic book genre through film and television, according to Hershey. “Free Comic Book Day is about getting people who might have only seen a comic-related movie or have never read a comic book to come in to stores and see that we still put out these books – and the stories are still out there. There are a lot of different genres that could appeal to you.”

Coward adds that comic book publishers are going out of their way to make Free Comic Book Day their equivalent of a Super Bowl commercial. “To me, that’s a great thing – to get more comics into the hands of people who are interested.”

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