The trouble with Free Comic Book Day

My first Free Comic Book Day was in 2011. I went to a comic shop and immediately shot to the graphic novel section of the store, picked up a Spawn book I’d had my eye on for a while, and took it to the register to inform the owner of my selection. He saw what I was doing, laughed in disgust, and told me to pay for it or put it back. The free comics, he said, were a few select titles that carried the FCBD mark on them, and were only available, in my store’s case, for those who spent $10 or more during the day.

I spent my ten dollars for the “free” comics, got a bag of assorted titles, and then struggled to find something I truly wanted to read. Felt a bit guilty about it, too. These comics were “free.” Who was I to get so choosy when I (should’ve) paid nothing for them. The question of who these comics were for, who the intended audience was, stuck with me from that moment on (along with the memory of making an ass of myself for not knowing how FCBD actually worked).

It’s an important question that seemed to have a satisfactory answer at the event’s inception back in May 4th2002 (a date that was chosen so it would coincide with the premiere of the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie). Back then, the free comic selection included Marvel Comics’ Ultimate Spider-Man #1, Dark Horse Comics’ Star Wars Tales: A Jedi’s WeaponImage Comics’ Tomb Raider # ½ and DC Comics’ Justice League Adventures #1. It was a good all-around sample of the participating publishers’ biggest hits, their steadier selling points. They represented a convincing argument for why each one of them deserved the reader’s money and attention beyond FCBD, for why potential fans should become lifelong comic book readers or collectors.

At a glance, each of these comics offered legitimate starting points for new readers, for people looking to get into comics. Veteran fans didn’t necessarily have much to chew on given that the line-up included reprints that had already been in circulation for some time. Ultimate Spider-Man #1, for instance, was initially released on September 6, 2000. Justice League Adventures #1 had already been in circulation since November 14, 2001.

The aim, given the event’s proximity to the Spider-Man movie release, was clearly to welcome a new type of audience that would hopefully leave movie theaters hungry for superhero comics after watching them swing all over the silver screen. Whether movies truly succeed in ushering in that new wave of fans is a different conversation, but it seems to reveal enough about the thought process behind the first FCBD.

The following years stayed the course, with big superhero movies like X2: X-Men United and Spider-Man 2 followed by a growing Free Comic Book Day. A larger selection of titles featured in each event, and they offered either a sample of first issues from story arcs already in the stands or collected in graphic novel form (something Avatar Comics and IDW used to do in the early years) or reprints of comics that had a movie premiering on FCBD weekend, or in close proximity to it.

Something important happened a few years in, though. Something that changed the composition of FCBD celebrations just enough to make the intended audience question harder to answer. Little by little, ‘the Big Two’ (Marvel and DC) started pumping out #0s -zero numbered issues that set up big events. While this wasn’t something that dominated the offerings across the board each year, it did start setting a new trend and a different marketing mentality for FCBD. The event turned a bit inward, looking to an already-established fanbase when thinking about the content that was going to feature in the free books.

In 2009, for instance, DC Comics offered a primer on the Green Lantern universe for the purpose of setting up their upcoming event Blackest Nightwhich was already steeped in continuity and required hunting down specific Green Lantern trade paperbacks to fully appreciate.

Free Comic

The following year came with War of the Superman #0, the conclusion to the Superman line-wide event called New Krypton, which (again) required having a firm hold on continuity to understand. Marvel, on the other hand, was debuting the new series Iron Man/Thor (written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by John Romita Jr.), a story that piggybacked off the Fraction-written Invincible Iron Man and Michael J. Straczynski-written Thor runs.

Other publishers stuck to reprints and short story collections that contained one or two new pieces of material along with previews or pages from previously published work. With some exceptions, subsequent years would follow suit. Zero issues that set up events were accompanied by sampler books with some original material sprinkled throughout to spark interest rather than tell a more complete story that could meet the same goal.

It’s tempting to say that, as FCBD evolved, it made sure that there was something for everyone, fans both old and new. But upon closer inspection, it’s possible to identify a pattern that puts a bigger emphasis on continuity rather than on standalone work that caters to first-time readers.

I’ve never understood why publishers put more trust on samples and zero issues than on self-contained stories that highlight certain characters or teams. Dark Horse, for example, has a longer track record of putting out more of these kinds of stories, be it of the Hellboy variety or of other original creations such as the Black Hammer universe. And yet, these are short works rather than full-length single-issue comics.

Hellboy

Rather than set up a whole new storyline, why not present the best case possible for why readers should start reading and follow a given character or title? A 22-page comic with a story that begins and ends without explicitly requiring a commitment to continuity right off the bat should make for a more compelling argument than a sampler or a two-to-three-story micro-anthology that comes off more as an appetizer than a small but still generously-sized meal.

It brings us back to the same question: who is FCBD for? This year’s edition had some good comics, which is true of every year. DC’s Dark Crisis #0 is a beautifully illustrated book and it showcases different aspects of the overarching story that’ll be taking over the DC Universe next week. It’s not newcomer-friendly, though. In fact, it makes little sense if you haven’t read Joshua Williamson and Rafa Sandoval‘s Death of the Justice Leaguewhich is already a kind of zero issue to begin with.

Image Comics’ Bone Orchard Mythos Prelude is a better example of a comic that provides a more complete sense of story while making the world it introduces to readers worthy of further reading. Getting a story with a hefty amount of content, given the constraints of a single issue, does more to develop a following than just going for a quick taste of story that barely counts as a legitimate example of a short narrative.

Bone Orchard

A possible answer to the question of who FCBD is for is that it could mainly be for direct market retailers. The rise in #0 issues and event prelude issues from The Big Two points to an interest in bringing people in to stores more than the desire to create new readers. In a way, the acquisition of new costumers can come off as incidental, not as the predominant intention.

These kinds of ‘event prelude’ offerings cater more to collectors and established readers who are already submerged in their favorite continuities. Store discounts do offer a compiling incentive to visit brick and mortar locations to stock up on graphic novels, but it can also be argued that they speak to existing customers that have been waiting for a reason to get the books they’ve been eyeing previously for less (and not for free, young me).

It’s not an unworthy cause or a disingenuous one, but it further shows how much distance has been put between the event and its original goal of creating a new comic book readers.

Put simply, FCBD’s aims are just too scattered. It currently represent a disunited effort to both get new readers into comics or please existing readers with original content. It discombobulates the very concept of free comics and even paves the way for another crucial question that also needs discussion: should Free Comic Book Day continue to exist?

FCBD

Never forget, the free comics are free only for guests. Stores still need to buy the “free” comics in the hopes they bring more people in. Is the investment still worth it if it only affects a single day’s sales output? Are store discounts the real driving force behind FCBD or are the free comics reason enough to warrant further purchases throughout the day?

These comics need to be read first before they inspire readers to subscribe to a series. That reading process usually happens after customers get to their homes or have a chance to sit down and focus on the books. A simple exchange of books at the store doesn’t automatically create informed readers that know what to look for, no matter how good the discounts are. Furthermore, do stores that offer no discounts at all still view FCBD as a great help for their stores? Does the value of FCBD diminish if it’s not accompanied by lower prices on what they’ve had in stock?

It seems there’s a line that can be traced from the time FCBD aimed at creating new fans just as they finished watching superheroes on the big screen to the current event-centered version we find ourselves in today. Reprints, samplers, and short stories that also lay the groundwork for future stories have remained a staple of FCBD, with no sign of change coming any time soon. Self-contained stories can prove to be more successful at pulling in new fans given they can exalt the storytelling prowess of a publisher’s line of comics and the possibilities within it. It should be the next step in the event’s evolutionary path. As it stands, it’s only fair to say that FCBD doesn’t entirely know who its audience is. It had a better idea of ​​who that was in the beginning, though. Great things will come if it figures it out once more.

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