Saturday May 7 is Free Comic Book Day (FCBD) this year, and across the country comic specialy retailers will be giving away free comic books. It's a program designed to promote comic books by giving away special free editions to customers, presumably those people who don't regularly buy comics. How could anyone have a problem with that?
It's not the basic concept of FCBD that I have a problem with. Giving away comics as a promotional tool is, at its core, not a terrible idea. I don't think it's been very effective--it's been running for a few years now, and I haven't seen any sign that any significant number of new customers have been pulled in to comic shops. (Most of the growth in the comic publishing sector has been in bookstores who don't participate in FCBD.)
No, the problem I have with FCBD is the way that it is run in practice. You see, despite its name, the comics aren't really free, at least to the comic shops. The stores are required to purchase the comics that they give away (at a discount, mind you, but they still cost money).
Now a more enlightened comic store (and there are some out there!) will see FCBD as an opportunity to have a variety of different comics available to give away, both to bring new customers into the store, and to interest current customers in new comics they might not have tried before. There are after all 27 different publishers participating, with free comics from all sorts of different artists in many different genres. However, most stores, if they participate at all (my LCS didn't last year) will order comics for FCBD the same way that they order comics regularly, i.e. out of the front of the catalog. They'll get a limited number of the offerings from DC & Marvel, and maybe Dark Horse. They'll put them out on a table on May 7 with a ltitle sign, maybe with a sign in the store window; some of their regualr customers will wander in and pick one up, and that'll be it. Hardly a smashing success.
But my point here isn't to rip on bad comic stores. No, the reason I've really grown to dislike FCBD is the way in which some publishers approach it. Some of the publishers offer special FCBD editions with brand new stories not available anywhere else. And if your LCS either doesn't participate in FCBD or only gets the comics from DC & Marvel--a very likely scenario--well then, you're out of luck.
Renaissance Press has a special Amelia Rules #0 FCBD Edition, with an all-new story about the first meeting of the cast. Amelia Rules is one of my favorite comics, but if my retailer doesn't participate in FCBD or order Amelia Rules #0, I'm out of luck.
Top Shelf has the Owly Splashin Around FCBD Edition, with an "all-new, heartwarming tale". I haven't read Owly but I've heard good things about it. It would be the perfect opportunity to get me to try it, but if my retailer doesn't participate, then no dice.
Aracana Studios Presents #2 FCBD Edition has 3 all-new stories. But guess what? Sorry Charlie.
Dark Horse's Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith FCBD Edition offers a special prequel to the movie, but even if you're a huge Star Wars fan, you won't get to read this story unless your retailer participates.
Gemestone's Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge FCBD Edition reprints Carl Barks' first full-length Uncle Scrooge adventure, something I'd really like a chace to read. But sorry, no can do.
The worst offender is Beckett Comics. Last year they offered the first issue of The Ballad of Sleeping Beauty as their FCBD offering. Not a reprint of the first issue, the actual first issue. The only way to get the first issue of The Ballad of Sleeping Beauty was if your LCS orders copies of the FCBD edition. As I mentioned earlier, my LCS didn't participate in FCBD at all, and thus no copies of The Ballad of Sleeping Beauty #1 were available for customers. Amazingly, LCS ordered several copies of the regularly priced second issue, and unsurpringly they all sat on the shelf unpurchased. This year Beckett is doing it again, with the first issue of Ronin Hood of 47 Samurai--apparently they didn't learn their lesson the first time around.
That all said, there are some publishers approaching FCBD correctly. DC & Marvel are both offering reprints of first issues of their all-ages super-hero titles (Batman Strikes & Marvel Age Spider-Man Team-Up respectively). Bongo Comics has a sampler edition reprinting stories from their Simpsons family of titles. Image is reprinting selected stories from the Flight anthologies. G.T. Labs's offering showcases the frist 20-odd pages of the upcoming Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards graphic novel. These publishers are offering either reprints of previously published material or previews of forthcoming material. So you're not at the mercy of your LCS--there are other avenues available for you to read and enjoy these stories.
Frankly, I'd be perfectly happy to see FCBD go away. It was a good idea, at least for something to try, but it doesn't really seem to be working, and in some instances serves to alienate existing fans and customers. But if we're going to continue with FCBD in the future, I'd like to offer the following suggestions:
Publishers: Enough with the special FCBD editions with stories not available anywhere else--it only serves to alienate your existing clientele. Instead, reprint material you already have on hand, or showcase material from an upcoming project. Your target audience, people who don't read your comics, haven't seen this material yet (by defintion!) And heck, after FCBD is over, why not put your free comics online for people to read? That'll surely reach more potential readers than a few pamphlets scattered about a few comic shops.
Retailers: Think outside the box. Don't just order those FCBD titles that appeal to your existing customers. If the non-customers in your community were interested in super-hero comics, they would have found you already. Use the oppornity to get cheap editions of comics maybe you don't ordinarily get, and promote the diversity of comics to both your existing and potential customers. (And then be sure to have the regaular merchandise avaiable, so that mother of the kid who liked the free Owly can come back and purchase the Owly GN!)
As for me? Heck, I'd be willing to pay for some of those FCBD editions; but as an individual consumer, that's not an option for me. So I'll be sitting at home on May 7, thinking about all those wonderful free comics that I'll never have a chance to read.