5.06.2011

Free Comic Book Day 2011 Pre-Report

Tomorrow will mark the very first year that I will not be attending Free Comic Book Day. Since Joe Field dreamed it up in 2001 (leave it to the Bay Area to be innovative, we’ll hit that topic again soon) and the first official event was held in 2002, I’ve attended every single one in one form or another for the last 9 years. Sure, I actually have other pre-existing family engagements to attend instead this weekend, but when I found out those were on the same day as FCBD this year, I was honestly kind of relieved that it gave me an easy excuse not to attend, since I was already questioning it around 2008 or 2009, and then seriously considering it after 2010’s experience. My involvement with the day has kind of shifted from being a thrilling ride when I lived in the SF Bay Area, hitting multiple events with friends and industry types, killing it at innovative deep discount sales, and attending coordinated creator signings and release parties, to kind of dutifully going out to show support once I moved to San Diego basically since I was bored and had nothing else to do, to now not enjoying it in the slightest, being disappointed by greedy people and lazy LCS practices that don’t quite seem to comprehend the spirit of the day, and essentially feeling like it’s no longer for me and largely a waste of my time.

The books themselves basically break down into three categories for me, none of which are particularly appealing. One, there are kid friendly books, which I obviously fall outside of the target demo for (Sonic The Hedgehog? Really?); two, they are competent books I have already tried and have opted not to support regularly (Locke & Key, Atomic Robo, both perfectly ok, just not built for my particular taste); or, three, attempted media/crossover hooks that I have absolutely no interest in (Green Lantern: Flashpoint, I’m looking at you). Now, of course, the day isn’t solely about the free books. It’s about cultivating no risk interest and an LCS potentially capitalizing on that interest to generate long term readership and the corresponding spike in the revenue stream. In theory. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are some varieties of LCS which do this and do it well, Lee’s Comics in Mountain View, CA comes to mind. It’s one of the flagship retail establishments (a chain, no less!) in the San Francisco Bay Area that I used to frequent. Lee will typically entertain all sorts of deep discount opportunities, line up creator signings, spike the free books with bin after bin after bin of quarter comics, achieve market penetration with radio stations on site, be quoted in the local paper, coordinate with other non-comic retail establishments (ie: free doughnuts or discounted menu items at the restaurants next door), etc, etc. He schmoozes with the kids, the moms, and the entire clientele base. You can literally see him converting new readers. He just gets it. His actions, the continued existence of his stores for decades, and the emotional high you get when you enter one of his stores are the proof.

In San Diego, home of the world famous San Diego Comic-Con International I might ironically add, my choices are essentially limited to: LCS 1) which has most of the free books, though there is usually some pettily imposed limit of 2, monitored for consumption by deputized Comic Cops, along with byzantine check out practices where they form lines and attempt to corral the masses, actually wanting to scan your free “purchases” and chalk it up to some vague inventory control measure, which is totally illogical. Said LCS makes a paltry attempt at a sale, though it is usually a 10% or 20% discount, but there are so many exclusions to the sale (no current issues, no trades over X price, valid between this time and that time, no this, no that, etc.) that you’re lucky if you walk away with some trade you’re marginally interested in and have only managed to avoid paying the sales tax. That’s all the discount amounts to. If I want something that bad, I’ll just purchase it on a regular day, thanks, and not contend with the dopey crowd. I can sport the sales tax myself, but thanks for that generous offer. In the immortal words of Ricky Roma: “Hey, lemme buy you a pack of gum, then show you how to chew it.” Or, there’s: LCS 2) which imposes no limit on the official free books (huzzah!), but tends to only carry the mainstream titles, which are probably the ones I’m least interested in. So I can expect to see the annual DC and Marvel selections, but they probably won’t have ordered the Bongo Comics offering (which honestly looks like the only thing I’d even want to read this year), and I don’t have the strength of will to schlep back to LCS 1 to get it. LCS 2 also usually spikes the free books with additional back stock. When I say “back stock” here though, I mean dusty copies of ROM: Space Knight from 1983 and mixed in books with adult content that I’ve seen kids unwittingly pick up and wander off with. Sometimes there’s a guy selling his old G.I. JOE toys. Sometimes there’s a guy “live-blogging,” which is oversold as adding some type of value or relevance. Psst! Yeah, here’s a hot stock tip for you. The Internet. I heard it’s going to be the next big thing. Not sure what any of that has to do with converting people’s fixation with FREE into a sustainable readership and an enhanced revenue stream.

If you take a look at the three stated purposes of FCBD, they are:
1) To introduce everyone to the joys of reading comics.
2) To call back former comic book readers.
3) To thank current comic book buyers for their continued support.

If you take a look at my reaction to the three stated purposes of FCBD, they are:
1) I am obviously aware of the joys of reading comics, so this does not apply.
2) I am a current comic book reader, so this does not apply.
3) I do not feel “thanked” by what I encounter, only disappointed and mildly annoyed, so this fails.

I don’t dislike the day conceptually, only my recent experiences with it. I still think it’s a fun idea, and it can be of value, provided an LCS has its act together and some semblance of a plan or a goal beyond “I guess I have to give out these free comics, which I’ve paid 12 to 50 cents each for, grumble, grumble.” It just doesn’t work any more for me personally, because of my particular circumstances. I guess I probably sound cynical, but barring true innovation on the LCS side that I could get out and support, I just don’t feel the need to attend. I’m not the target audience for the books to begin with and my personal LCS options do not incentivize attendance for me with any additional activities.

Creatively, it would take a real honest-to-goodness loss-leader sample of something I was interested in, like a #1 of a new property that was intriguing (the last substantive one I remember was Kirkman and Howard’s The Astounding Wolf-Man, and that was 2007, I actually bought the first couple of issues of that and wouldn’t have otherwise without the freebie on FCBD), or a creator attachment that showed promise (Marvel should totally tease us with that first Warren Ellis written issue of Secret Avengers). I mean, give me something to jump onto and support. By my rough guesstimate with a quick glance, half of the titles this year don’t even have an ongoing counterpart to latch on to. So, what’s the point? How does a free issue of title x generate sales if I can’t actually go out and buy title x regularly?

On the retailer side, it would take some form of deep discount sale (ie: quarter bins of 0 to 5 year old stock, at least 40% or 50% off trades before it really got my attention), a creator signing of note, or some type of effort beyond the pass through of the free books. At the very least, show me a friendly, articulate, and professional staff working the room and recommending books to the civilians. I’d go out just to watch that, hell, I’d even help, screw the discount sale. FCBD only gets people into your store. It’s up to the LCS to then do something with them. I’m tired of being bored by the books and disappointed by the squandered consumer potential of the day. I just don’t get anything out of it. Sorry, a comp copy of The Darkness 2 Video Game Prequel doesn’t count.

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