Free Comic Book Day 2011: A Look Back

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(The first four Free Comic Book Day titles, 2002)

May 6, 2011, marked the tenth annual celebration of Free Comic Book Day (FCBD). Now considered a “national holiday” among comics fans and retailers, FCBD has been an incredible marketing success, encouraging the general public (and fans) to visit comics shops on the first Saturday in May, and allowing publishers big and small to promote a diversity of titles which might otherwise be ignored.

Ten years is both a long, and short, time in human history. Long in foresight as we view the time ahead, wondering “what if…”, dreaming of possibilities, and sometimes dreading the challenges to be faced. Ten years in retrospection, that passes quickly, as we look back and wonder at when we’ve been, could it really be ten years ago? Ten-year anniversaries are largely ignored by the general media. They prefer twenty-year anniversaries, as nostalgia seduces the old with remembrance and the young with the unseen.

Yet ten years is a long period of time. In comics publishing, that equals 120 monthly issues, a figure most titles rarely approach. For daily comic strips, that results in over 3600 strips! For fans, that can mean 500 visits to their local comics shop, wandering the aisles looking for something interesting, chatting with the employees, and spending thousands of dollars enjoying what the general public considers to be a rather disposable art form.

For us comixologists, who spend time analyzing the history and culture of comics and graphic novels, we try to classify and analyze the Big Picture ( Splash Page?). Is the market cyclical? Does the latest ripple from Brand X recall a similar event from a previous, long-gone publisher? Where were we when… and how do we react now to what was then?

So, this tenth Free Comic Book Day, I looked back at the first FCBD and consider it was a seminal day in the history of comics. I consider it a pivotal day, as three different aspects of comics converged into a synchronicity which continues to affect and drive the comics industry. Those three aspects: mass-market retailing among specialty comics shops, graphic novels, and comics movies. As with most historical events, there are multiple events which foreshadowed and pioneered the moments and movements which coalesced the weekend of May 3, 2002.

The most visible aspect is that of comics movies (and television). In May 2002, the big blockbuster movie was Spider-Man. Long lost in the legal limbo of movie rights, Sony Pictures had untangled the web and produced a movie which debuted at the right time. Computer animation and special effects were powerful enough to generate digital figures and buildings, allowing for an immersive experience which would not have been possible earlier. Following a lineage of movies which began with Superman in 1978, and of Marvel movies which began with the successful Blade franchise in 1998, Spider-Man was an extremely successful movie. Generating a buzz which packed movie houses the opening weekend, Spider-Man set box office records (it is still #10 on the all-time box office list), created a franchise of multiple films, and encouraged Marvel to create their own film studio. Marvel’s successful adaptations of their most popular characters eventually was noticed by the Walt Disney Company, which subsequently acquired Marvel for $4.24 Billion dollars in 2009.

In the ten years following Spider-Man, multiple comics properties have been adapted to the Silver Screen. Where once there might be only one comics-based film a year to look forward to (such as Howard the Duck or Supergirl), now there is, on average, a movie a month, as the Summer blockbuster season features a movie every two weeks, with more scheduled for the winter holiday at the end of the year. As superhero movies become popular and lucrative, they inspire original works in film and television. The general public understands the genre conventions of a superhero. Weekly series explore the “real world” of superheroes, and independent filmmakers mix the marvelous with the mundane, creating original works. Just as a silent Spider-Man on the Electric Company encouraged a young boy from Omaha to read and dream about superheroes thirty-five years ago, so does every episode on television and every screening in a Cineplex tempt children to wonder, “What happens next?”

Free Comic Book Day is, of course, one of the most important developments of the Direct Market of comics retailing. After the disastrous speculator collapse triggered by the return of Superman in Adventures of Superman #500, followed by the debacle of Marvel purchasing Heroes World which almost destroyed the Direct Market system, many stores which had thrived in the 1980s and early 1990s either went out of business, or scaled back their offerings. Many collectors felt betrayed by publishers pushing variant covers and dreams of instant wealth. Many stopped collecting (and reading) comics, taking their cash flow with them.

So, in 2001, Joe Field of Flying Colors Comics developed a simple idea: create a specific event to encourage former readers and the general public to visit a comics shop. Entice them with free comic books, in the hopes that they will become collectors and readers and fans. Publicize the free comics in the media, and hope for large crowds.  Would it work?  The first time of any promotion is always met with trepidation and doubts, but the event was wildly successful. Of course, if the actual comics aren’t any good, no amount of publicity, marketing, and showmanship will help.

Which brings me to the third connection: graphic novels.

For bookstores and libraries, books about comics, and collections of comic books were considered curiosities, generally shunted off to collectibles, or humor, or science fiction (if the store stocked the books at all). Libraries might have a shelf of titles located next to the books on drawing, but these were usually New Yorker collections, how-to-draw instructionals, a few comic strip collections, and the rare history of the art form. Libraries were hesitant to shelve titles not reviewed by literary magazines, and major reviews for books about comics were about as rare as comic book movies. While comics were stereotyped as popular culture (at best) or disposable pulp (at worst), part of the problem was that there were few comics worthy of review.

This changed in the mid-1980s, as Maus, The Dark Knight Returns, and Watchmen were published. Art Spiegelman, the author of Maus, was influenced by the underground comics movement of the 1960s and 1970s. His stories were published and sold not via comics shops, but thorough the literary and artistic communities. The chapters were then collected into a book, and marketed by Random House’s Pantheon imprint. A comic book about the Holocaust, with the characters depicted as animals, telling the author’s experience with his father, a holocaust survivor, gained tremendous press, and eventually was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize.

DC Comics had started a graphic album line in 1984. Via the Direct Market, they had sold exclusive finite “maxi-series” which were not viable in the more competitive and costly newsstand market. These titles were more mature in content, and offered better story and art in a more expensive package which complimented the artwork. Based on the sales and reception amongst fans, DC then collected these issues into paperbacks, and offered them via their corporate cousin, Warner Books (a division of Little, Brown and Company) to libraries and bookstores. Watchmen, a “real world” analysis of superheroes and their effect on the general populace; and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, a tale of an elderly Batman once more donning the cape and cowl, both generated significant publicity. These three titles convinced other mainstream publishers to also offer various comics in book form. Unfortunately, there was a scarcity of interesting stories, and comics still suffered from subliterature stereotypes. However, these titles influenced a new generation of creators who exploited the advantages of the Direct Market, and produced distinct and diverse stories previously unseen in the superhero-centric market of comics shops.

Bookstores continued to stock and sell the occasional graphic novel, usually displayed in the Humor section next to the more popular comic strip collections. Comics publishers continued to offer trade collections for sales to libraries and bookstores, although the bulk of the sales were via comics shops.

A small change occurred in 1999, when Viz released the first titles in the Pokemon series. Although manga and anime had been popular for years before Pokemon (Viz started publishing in 1986), Pokemon was the first mass-market Japanese property to exploit comics, games, toys, and animation, and become a pop culture phenomenon. Having difficulty marketing their titles to comics shops, Viz had developed a successful book trade clientele, and was well-suited to sell these titles to bookstores. (Libraries tend to avoid popular media; the properties are short-lived and tend to be of questionable quality.) As the popularity of Pokemon increased, other publishers licensed properties from Japan, bookstores noticed the increased sales of comics, and what was once an overlooked segment of publishing became very popular. Librarians began to notice the popularity, and using reviews and book clubs, began to stock and distribute large numbers of graphic novels. Most librarians are bibliophiles, usually of a specific genre or subject, and are eager to share their passion for books with anyone. Some librarians, naturally, are comics fans, and thus situated to not only advocate for more comics and graphic novels in their own libraries, but to produce statistics and papers on the effective use of these books to serve library patrons’ needs.

So, by May 2002, there were numerous publishers offering graphic novel titles to the bookstore trade. Some were established publishers such as Dark Horse, DC, Marvel, and Viz, while others were newcomers such as Lerner and Capstone. With the increased interest among booksellers and librarians, BookExpo America created a Graphic Novel pavilion, showcasing graphic novels and comics in a dedicated area of the show floor in New York City.

Unlike the boom and bust of the 1980s, the popularity of graphic novels in the new millennium has not waned. Educators praise the seductive quality of comics with reluctant readers and non-native speakers. Librarians appreciate the high circulation figures of manga and comics, as well as the ability to attract teens to engage with reading clubs and advisory groups. (Yes, librarians actually ask their patrons which series they should acquire!) Bookstores value the popularity of any pop-culture book, especially those which are adapted into critically-acclaimed movies. As each generation becomes more acclimatized to comics, older prejudices die out, and new creativity flourishes.

So, the synchroneity of Spider-Man, BookExpo America, and Free Comic Book Day marked a significant turning point in the history of American comics. While all three events were marketed to different audiences, they all helped make a more popular and accepted medium. Ten years later, it is easy to look back and notice the changes inspired by these three simple events.

Comic book stores are more diverse and professional, supported by the visionary leadership of ComicsPro and the Comic Book Industry Alliance. Library organizations honor graphic novels not as comics, but as worthwhile literature, suitable for all libraries. Educators champion the unique qualities of comics, not just in schools and classrooms, but also at conferences around the world. Bookstores market comics to those who love to read, and to those who search for new ideas regardless of media. Movie companies spend millions of dollars advertising movies based on comic books, which serves to advertise comics worldwide (as proven by the Watchmen movie trailer which preceded The Dark Knight).

So what do the next ten years offer? This year might be pivotal as well, as various initiatives and possibilities foreshadow and overshadow the Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow… In the meantime, I’ve got some free comics to read!

Comments

  1. Great summary. I might suggest a mention about Dark Horse Digital Comics, which launched around the same time and which also published their FCBD in digital format.

  2. Kat Kan says:

    Librarians were acquiring – and promoting – graphic novels and comics since before the 1980s. I started in 1983, when I started working in a public library. By 2002, with the Young Adult Library Services Association Preconference, “Getting Graphic @ the Library,” speakers Art Spiegelman, Neil Gaiman, Jeff Smith, and Colleen Doran were surprised at how many librarians already knew who they were, already had their books in the library, and treated them like rock stars. These were, of course, young adult librarians – librarians who work with teens. Some librarians worked with their local comics shops to have FCBD programs in their libraries for the first FCBD.

  3. Torsten Adair says:

    You are correct, Kat. I neglected to mention the precedence of librarians such as yourself and others, including Rory Root.

    The ALA conference was late May?

    Has anyone written an evolutionary timeline of comics and libraries/schools?

    When I left Omaha (and my student position at OPL) in 1994, the comics were all non-fiction, and occupied two shelves at the main library, and fewer at the eight branches. I suspect other libraries had similar collections. When did it shift? Probably when more publishers entered the book trade, and Pantheon restarted their GN line, circa 1997.

  4. “After the disastrous speculator collapse triggered by the return of Superman in Adventures of Superman #500″

    I’ve never heard the speculator collapse so directly identified with a single issue before. What’s the story there?

  5. I also remember the collapse coming after the sporging of chase-cover variants and the multi-million print runs of the original Image lines and new Marvel #1′s that left retailers with hundreds of unsellable collector’s items per customer.

    No one inside comics was fooled by the Superman death story. That was all about tricking people who didn’t buy comics into buying that one.

  6. Al™ says:

    The mention of Superman 500 caught my eye. Musty copies, still in their original plastic seal, were handed out here on FCBD.

    I opened and read my copy at home, then promptly wrapped it in plastic again to avoid the HazMat team. Then I sailed it into the recycling bin.

    I was shocked (sHoCkEd, I tell ya) at how bad the story and art was, but maybe that’s ancient history to everyone else here.

  7. Torsten Adair says:

    “I’ve never heard the speculator collapse so directly identified with a single issue before. What’s the story there?”

    The Death of Superman occurred on a “slow news day”, which meant that numerous news sources reported on the event. Retailers were caught unprepared for the demand from the general public. Not wanting to be caught unawares, many stores over-ordered on the “return” issue, speculating on the speculators.

    Here’s CBG’s analysis:
    http://cbgxtra.com/frequently-asked-questions/when-did-the-early-1990s-comics-boom-peak

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