Okay, I've rewritten this thing a couple of times now, trying to take some of the bitchy snark out of it (which is why it's going up so late.) I really don't want to be the grumpy malcontent here, and there's no need to be snide about this. But I have to ask... what, exactly, is the point of Free Comic Book Day?

I know the whole spiel about how it's supposed to be making ambassadors of us all and lifting up the specialty-store retailers so the outside world will behold the glory that is comics. And some retailers even try and make that happen, and good on them, but it's pretty clear that they are having a rough swim upstream judging from what I saw on Saturday. The deck is stacked so high against them that it's a miracle anyone even bothers to try getting comics into the hands of the uninitiated any more.

I think we might as well own up. What we think of as 'the mainstream' -- the regular monthly books from DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, and Image -- isn't mainstream, and hasn't been for twenty or thirty years now. Those comics are published for a fringe subculture, a group of hardcore hobbyists no different from model train enthusiasts or SCAdians or any one of a dozen different examples. Leave the question of whether it's good or bad off to one side for a minute; I'm just saying, that's the way it is. "Mainstream" as it's commonly defined left the building decades ago.

So if I'm being brutally honest about it, I have to wonder... if it's just for us, is Free Comic Book Day worth it?

I'm looking at the Gold Sponsor selections right now and really, I only see three out of nine that I would say unequivocally are aimed at a general, non-comics, non-geek audience. All the others suffer to a greater or lesser degree from an in-group mentality, the automatic assumption that the reader will be some kind of geeked-out fantasy/SF nerd at the very least and an every-Wednesday comics regular at most. These books are all aimed at people that are already reading comics they buy at a comics shop. It's so insidious and understated that I would bet the publishers involved don't even realize it's there. But I assure you that if the point of Free Comic Book Day is ambassadorship to the non-nerd population, these aren't the tools that will accomplish it.

Let's back up a step. Most everyone I've ever met that's been around comics, fan, pro, whoever, every last one of us has taken as our basic assumption that more people need to read comics. That there aren't enough of us, and for comics to survive, there needs to be a huge influx of new readers.

Now... just suppose that never happens. Ever. Suppose that we're IT.

Think about it. Spider-Man 3 just opened to HUGE numbers, breaking box-office records on a PLANETARY level. This is the third hit Spidey movie. Has this mainstream success been reflected in the regular monthly book's sales in any significant way? For that matter, Free Comic Book Day's usually tied to some superhero movie opening. Does that ever translate to a sales spike for the monthly comics? Even the comic being adapted for the movie?

Of course book and trade paperback sales shoot up, merchandising goes through the roof, etc., etc. But I don't think that ever has translated into what people say is supposed to happen. The stated goal I keep hearing over and over for these kind of promotions is specialty-shop evangelism. I.e., "We must get more people visiting the comics shop and once they see all the OTHER cool stuff there, they will become hooked and then we will increase the numbers of avid comics readers."

I don't see it happening. I don't think it's going to happen. I think we might as well get our heads around the idea that, for better or worse, our mainstream is now the fringe. Because if "mainstream comics" aren't a big hit NOW, when's it going to happen? What's it going to take? Look at how geeked-out Hollywood is now, look at how successful Smallville and Heroes and Battlestar Galactica have been. This has been going on for a while now -- you could say it's been ramping up since the first Star Wars came out in 1977. Never, EVER has it been as cool to like this stuff as it is now.

But none of this acceptance and enthusiasm ever slops over on to mainstream comics. Sales keep going down.

The comic book as we know it, the 32-page stapled booklet that comes out once a month, is only still around because of us, the hardcore fans. I don't think that fabled next wave of new readers is ever showing up. Not for these things. They're all reading manga digests and Shonen Jump. Comic books -- the standard 32-page newsstand version -- are now about on the same level as, oh, small-press poetry chapbooks or something like that, as far as their status as a communications medium and the audience size is concerned. I think it's bottomed out at this specialty level and this is where it's going to stay. The upside of this is that we are, at least, a relatively stable audience. We're always here. We're not going anywhere. No need to waste any evangelism on us.

So... why bother? Do we really need Free Comic Book Day? What good is it?

For publishers, of course, the answer's easy. Get a few more people to look at your books and some of them might stick around and even pay to see more. Fair enough. And some of that money sticks to retailers too. Okay. Makes sense.

But as far as I can tell, that's ALL it is. Loss-leader marketing. We might as well let go of the idea that this is some sort of grand mission to Bring Comics Wonderfulness To The World. FCBD is about us, it's aimed at us, and the books I saw this year were largely designed to get fans to add ANOTHER book to an already-existing pull list.

The exceptions? DC's Legion book, Archie's entry, and Bongo's sampler.

Of those, two out of three are tied to a TV show... making them more useful, really, as promotional items for TV than for comics.

All the rest of them are pretty much targeted to an audience that are already comics fans. DC had as an alternative pick to the Legion book the zero issue of Meltzer's Justice League, probably the single most impenetrable fans-only book I've seen in the last year. (If you read it, try to imagine for a moment what a FREAKISH experience that book would be for someone who only knows the League through animated cartoons.) And even the Bongo FCBD entry has a lot of nudging and winking gags that are clearly aimed at us, the Wednesday faithful.

As for how I acquired this fine selection of freebies, that story illustrates the basic thesis as well.

Like good nerds, we'd gone to an afternoon screening of Spider-Man 3 (quick review-- better than 1, worse than 2, and that's all the time I'm going to spend on it.) Just for the hell of it, Julie and I thought we'd stop in at a comics shop on our way home and see how Free Comic Book Day was going. This was a new shop, one I'd looked up on the net for my students as an alternative to going into downtown. This store had shown up on the FCBD webpage as "actively participating."

Well, you couldn't prove it by us. To begin with, the store itself was damnably hard to find; part of a row of storefronts in a little strip-mall, no signage at all beyond the bare name of the shop over the door and a couple of comics posters in a window that was almost invisible from the street.

Okay. So maybe the guy's poor and didn't have money to spend on advertising. But how hard is it to put together some kind of a sidewalk sandwich-board sign on what should be your biggest promotional day of the year? For Christ's sake, people manage THAT much effort for a yard sale.

We walk in and there's some kind of Heroclix tournament or something going on, a row of tables with gamers deep in concentration. The player nearest the door glanced up at us and waved vaguely at a bunch of the FCBD books stacked on a bench.

"Take whatever you want, it's free," he said.

Julie took one of each. The guy was already back to his game by the time we moved to the bench; we could have looted them all.

While Julie was picking over the free books, I moved back towards his back-issue stacks. I had to kind of edge along the outside of the gaming area, it was very cramped. We looked around a little longer, I found a couple of back issues, Julie found some things for herself, and then we stood waiting while the guy disengaged himself from his game long enough to ring us up.

At the register, I asked him if any kids had been in earlier. I'd given his address to the kids in my classes -- roughly seventy students of mine, total -- all week long, remember. He shrugged and gave me a kind of half-smile. "Well, y'know, kids... they aren't really interested in comics these days."

What could I say to that? We just smiled and left.

That was our retail experience on Free Comic Book Day.

Now, I'm not a gamer. I admit it. But I can't imagine a situation short of some kind of State Championship (complete with a hefty paid registration for all participants) that would warrant treating paying customers -- walk-ins, sure, but we spent money, for crying out loud -- like nuisances on what is supposed to be your National Day of Evangelism. In fact, it continued to befuddle me all week why a retailer so obviously not interested in cultivating customers would even bother to participate in the FCBD promotion.

And then it hit me. He doesn't bother with customer service because he doesn't have to. He doesn't need "customers" -- he sells to fans. He's the only game in town for that whole area. All he sells are comics and gaming supplies. And fans show up for that stuff no matter HOW we're treated, because we HAVE to have our monthly fix. Why should he bother to put anything into it? Clearly he's doing well enough to pay rent and keep himself in Heroclix.

Looking over the books once we got home, trying to put them through the Greg Burgas "Into The Back Issue Box" test, I have to say, most of them came up short. Most of them were... mildly interesting. And I say that AS A COMICS FAN: my reaction was largely "meh." Even Dynamite's Lone Ranger entry -- and I loves me some Lone Ranger -- was nothing to really shout about.

I have to be fair. We didn't see ALL the entries. (Julie was deeply irked that Unseen Peanuts was nowhere to be found at the store we visited -- we can only assume that sleepy Heroclix-playing shopkeeper figures that "comics fans don't really like Peanuts," or else he just automatically ordered the Gold Sponsor books and called it done.) There may have been other great FCBD books we didn't see.

And let me make this clear: the books I have here aren't BAD. They're just not anything that's going to bring anybody back, and most of them are going to be somewhat hard going to anyone that isn't already comfortable with the stuff. They're so steeped in the idiom of installment-plan, written-for-the-trade monthlies (not to mention being largely hardcore-nerd-oriented) that they don't work very well as samplers.

I know there are lots of wonderful retailers out there. I will grant you that right away. You don't all have to line up to tell me what a mensch your regular comics guy is. For that matter, MY regular comics shop, Zanadu, is amazing and they have the Eisner to prove it. But Free Comic Book Day probably didn't do a lot for them either, really. They are already hustling the other 364 days of the year with all kinds of promotions and events, they don't really NEED it.

I don't know. I have been going back and forth with this all week long, and some days I come down on one side and other days I'm on the other. Is Free Comic Book Day worth the trouble?

I'm still wondering. If Free Comic Book Day isn't about evangelism, if it's not about introducing a form of entertainment to folks who'd like it a lot if they knew it was there.... then why bother with it?

And on the other hand, if that is indeed what it's supposed to be doing? Then... why aren't we doing it better?

See you next week.

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