Last weekend it was Free Comic Book Day and I had a great time. This is a day when you can visit your local comic book store to find a varied selection of free comics available. To what purpose? I'm not entirely sure.
My dad's favorite parenting quote comes from the Simpsons. He's always saying "Just because I don't care, doesn't mean I don't understand." which he finds hysterical and (more worryingly) true. Today I realized that I feel the opposite way about Free Comic Book Day. I care about it, I like it, I appreciate it... but I don't really understand it.
Comic book publishers see this as a day to introduce new readers to new books, whether first time comic book readers or people who haven't yet tried a specific title. Comic book store owners see this as a way to introduce their stores to new customers who might not have ventured in yet.
In regards to trying new comic books; Personally, if I am interested in a comic book, I buy it. In fact, I usually buy the first 2 or 3 issues to get a more complete picture of the thing. The issues are short enough that I don't feel like I'm investing too much money or time in them. If I didn't want to spend the money, I would look online. These days the early issues in new titles are often available as digital previews on sites like Comic Book Resources, so there is even less risk. This takes care of introducing new readers to new titles for free.
So what about drawing new customers into the specialty comic book stores? Free Comic Book Day is meant to be a way for comic book stores to entice new readers into their stores. But for the most part, the day is promoted by ads in the comic books (which these theoretical people don't yet read), posters in the stores (which they don't yet know about), and on websites which cater to existing comic book readers (which these theoretical potential customers aren't yet aware of.) How then are new customers being enticed by the free comics?
I'm not sure why this day exists. There are no Free Book Days when book stores give away books with the idea that if you try them you'll want more, or can you imagine restaurants having a day a year when they all give certain dishes away on Free Food days? There is definitely never going to be a Free Movie Days at theaters, because the way they see it, if you want to go see a movie, you'll pay for it.
Every other form of entertainment must be paid for, even just to try it out the first time, you have to pay for it. The only thing that I can think of where you might get to try it for free the first time, is addictive, illegal drugs. (For all I know that's just some kind of urban mythology, because no one has ever offered me drugs without expecting something in return. And as a public service announcement to any young women out there: There's no such thing as a free lunch, so please be aware of any implied bargains you're making when you accept "free" drinks or otherwise. Anyway, getting back to my point...)
Why is there a Free Comic Book Day?
In San Francisco next weekend there will be the Bay-to-Breakers run, when people dress up in costume and run from one end of the city to the other, some for charity and others for entertainment (but most of them to get drunk and pee in people's front gardens.) At other times of the year there are other celebrations; things like the Folsom Street Fair when people wearing leather run around scaring the hell out of me, or the very exotic looking Day of the Dead, when people go out in the evening with skulls painted on their faces (I'm not sure why, but it looks great), the Gay Pride parade when... well anything happens really. Suffice to say that San Francisco is a city with a lot of different celebrations happening. Every other city I've lived in has had similar days of celebration and it seems like a healthy outlet (just look at that recent royal wedding in the UK, people were very excited about that) and I really appreciate it, but none of these really speak to me personally.
However, on Free Comic Book Day the comic stores are filled with people and this is something that I can really get behind. I love seeing everyone arriving early, excitedly buying comics or just grabbing free ones, just being as excited as I am every Wednesday. I love that for one day a year, there are a lot of people who are sharing their excitement about comic books, it feels very much like our celebration. Whether these people are new readers using this one day to test out comic books or not (and I have yet to meet a new one, but maybe they do exist), I like the fact that there is so much happy energy infusing the stores. I like the excuse to visit multiple comic stores in one day and I enjoy all of the different approaches that each store bring to the day. The CBR live site was a great source of images from all of the country and it warmed my heart to see them being posted throughout the day.
Whether Free Comic Book day is an effective marketing tool to attract new readers to comic book stores, it is still a very fun way to celebrate our love of comic books together. We're living in a seminal time, towards the end of an era perhaps. As some very articulate commenters on my last article noted, things are changing and it will massively affect the direct market - one day people all over the world may be buying their comic books digitally, instantly from mainstream websites. There was a time when my local comic book store was a refuge from a world that didn't understand or value comic books in the least, and the idea of a mainstream audience for comic books was still outrageous. For now, while the specialist comic book store still exists, Free Comic Book Day is a wonderful way to recognize and appreciate that institution.