The first Saturday of every May sees massive swaths of people flock to one of the least likely places for a crowd: comic book stores.
Initially pitched by magazine columnist Joe Fields in 2001 as a way to reinvigorate the struggling comic book industry, Free Comic Book Day provides the few remaining local comics shops with their busiest day of the year. It provides the recently re-emerging comics industry with the opportunity to connect with the community.
Comic book publishers sell special comics made just for Free Comic Book Day to shops at a discounted price. Retailers then give them away for free, bringing in more customers and boosting the shop’s profile.
“It’s helpful, and it really gives a wider audience,” said Ty Denton, employee at Austin Books & Comics. “Somebody hears ‘free comics’ and they come running.”
Megan Borges, employee at Dragon’s Lair Comics & Fantasy, said she sees it as the perfect opportunity to introduce new readers to a new hobby.
“It can be kind of intimidating to just go into a place and not know where to start,” Borges said. “But our distributors and publishers recognize that as well, and they will print a number one (issue) or a special. They really try to make it easy and accessible.”
In the late 1990s, the comic book industry was taking a nosedive, and even industry giant Marvel declared bankruptcy in 1997. Publishers saw the success of comic book films and decided to use their popularity to boost comic books back into popular culture. The first-ever Free Comic Book Day took place on May 4, 2002, the day after the release of Marvel’s “Spider-Man.”
The initial event’s success led to the day becoming an annual event, almost always tied to the release of a major comic book film. This year the promotion will fall on the day after “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” premieres, and Marvel has a special comic book to tie in to this release.
Although special editions provide a perfect starting point for new readers, they can also have the unintended effect of turning away dedicated fans. UT alumnus Greg Poe, an avid comic book reader, has never held any interest in the event.
“I am not and have never been excited for Free Comic Book Day; I don’t pay attention to it,” Poe said. “It is the opposite of reading a comic book. I don’t hate it, and I enjoy reading, but I don’t want to be in an extremely crowded place with a bunch of strangers.”
For readers like Poe, the idea of comics presented as jumping-on points have no appeal, so the comic book shops add special promotions on top of the giveaways. Many stores discount all of their products, and some even bring in local writers, artists and cosplayers.
The promotion’s impact on the comic book industry is undeniable, and business has stabilized just 15 years after the initial Free Comic Book Day. Sales topped a billion dollars in 2015, and last June was the highest-grossing month since 1997.
“Do I think that comic book stores will go out of business if there’s no Free Comic Book Day? Probably not,” Borges said. “It probably wouldn’t be just that. But it’s absolutely an important thing that encourages growth in the marketplace.”
This year’s iteration of Free Comic Book Day is on Saturday, May 6. Dragon’s Lair and Austin Books & Comics are both celebrating with promotions including cosplayers, creators, food and, of course, free comic books.