Just forget the words and sing along

Monday, May 04, 2009

Musings on Free Comic Book Day

So, this past weekend, I found myself once again in Red Deer for a family function. Looking for something to occupy myself on Saturday, I was reminded that it’s that worldwide nerd holiday known as Free Comic Book Day. So I decided to seek out Red Deer’s only comic book store and get my hands on my free comics.

For those not in the know, Free Comic Book Day is this massive initiative started by the comic book industry to get more people reading comics...to get the point across that comics is no longer a medium just for kids. The concept is simple: on the first Saturday in May, comic book stores give away free comics. The first Saturday in May was chosen because just about every summer this decade has included a blockbuster based on a comic book, and they almost always come out on the first weekend in May. Since interest in comics is high that weekend anyway, why not take advantage of it? The comic book publishers got on board with this, and most produce an exclusive comic book to be given away on Free Comic Book Day.

I found Red Deer’s only comic book store in the heart of Red Deer’s downtown. With my Google map in hand, I wandered up and down the street until I realized it was probably the store with the neon Superman and Batman logos in the window. I stepped inside, and found myself in the stereotypical comic book store. Row upon row of longboxes, stuffed full of old comics. A simple newsstand to the side where the new stuff was displayed. It was dark...windowless and narrow. The scent of old newsprint filled the air. And, behind the counter, a fat, bearded nerd sipping a Slurpee. I browsed through the store before approaching the lord of this manor. “Pardon me, sir, but I understand that today is Free Comic Book Day.” He motioned to a box by the front door. “They’re right there. Limit 5.”

I started looking through the box, and realized that even with the glee of Free Comic Book Day, the Red Deer comic book store doesn’t get a lot of business. I flipped through the box and found this year’s free comics...and last year’s free comics...and the free comics from two years ago...and three years ago...and so on.
This is actually indicative of a problem I’ve been having with Free Comic Book Day. My first one was two years ago. I stopped by my favourite comic book store in West Edmonton Mall, as I was in town for Spider-Man 3. I entered the store, walked up to the clerk, and said “Pardon me, sir, but I understand that today is Free Comic Book Day.” He replied with a heavy sigh, reached into a box behind the counter, slapped a comic book in front of me and said, “Here.” Needless to say, I was turned off by the whole experience. If the whole point of Free Comic Book Day is to get people into the stores and buying comics again, and experience like this really didn’t encourage me to come back.

Things were much better when I was back there last year for Free Comic Book Day. I walked in the front door, and was immediately greeted by a friendly clerk. “Hello! Did you know it’s Free Comic Book Day? The free comics are laid out on a table in the back. Help yourself to two! And while you’re here, we’ve got this on sale, and that’s on sale...it’s all kinds of Free Comic Book Day specials! So please, enjoy!”
THAT’S how you do Free Comic Book Day. Make it an event! Make your stores warm and inviting so people want to come back! Because some times, free comic books aren’t enough. And advertise it a little bit, too. Balloons and a big banner outside never hurt anyone...except in that unfortunate incident in Boise, Idaho.

Let's see now...what did I make off with on Free Comic Book Day? I was only expecting to get one comic, but with their limit of 5, I decided to load up. I got DC's Offering, Blackest Night #0, Marvel's offering, a special edition of The Avengers, a G.I. Joe/Transformers flipbook, issue #1 of the Transformers movie adaptation (from 2 years ago) and, the coolest one of all....

This year, 2009, marks the 25th anniversary of the media franchise known as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So, to celebrate, Mirage Studios' offering for Free Comic Book Day was a special re-print of the comic that started it all, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1.

I still remember the tale of how the Ninja Turtles came to be. It was recounted quite a bit in various news outlets at the height of turtlemania back in 1990. The Turtles' creators, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, even recount it in their own words in the intro to their special Free Comic Book Day re-print. And I'm sure it still represents "the dream" to a lot of struggling young artists.

There they were, Eastman and Laird, a couple of starving artists. They kept knocking on the doors of all the major comic book publishers, but no one would let them in. Then, finally, they went, "Screw it! We'll form our own comic book company, and do our own independent comic!" They formed their company, Mirage Studios. But then, what should their first comic be? Eastman pulled out a sketch he did a few months earlier of an anthropomorphic turtle wielding a pair of nunchucks and said, "Let's do this! Let's do turtle ninjas!"

The end product: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a one-shot comic designed to be a highly-intricate parody of/homage to the comics of the day, particularly Frank Miller's work on Daredevil. It hit comic book stores in May 1984. To their surprise, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a massive hit, leading them to do a second issue, and then another, and turn it into a regular series. In 1986, it had become big enough that it was brought to Playmates Toys as a potential action figure line. The toys, and a cartoon to promote them, came out in time for Christmas of 1987, and the rest is history.

I often wonder what happened to Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird and what other contributions they made to comics. Thanks to the Internet, that's really easy to do.

Peter Laird decided to pay it forward. He formed a non-profit organization dedicating to handing out grants to starving artists to they can self-publish their work. And, he's also become the current guardian of the Ninja Turtles franchise. He bought out Eastman's share as this decade began, and Laird has kept a watchful eye over every iteration of the Ninja Turtles from around 2002 and on.

Kevin Eastman fulfilled a lifelong dream by purchasing and become publisher of his favourite comic, the legendary Heavy Metal magazine. He also went on to party like a rock star, marrying former Penthouse pet and B-movie superstar Julie Strain.

And leafing through the special Free Comic Book Day re-print, there's all kinds of merch coming this year to celebrate the Turtles' 25th. The first 6 seasons of the original cartoon are on DVD, with the 7th coming this year. The original Eastman and Laird comics are coming in trade paperback form, along with the Archie comics that were popular in the early-1990s. And the live-action movies are getting all-new super-special editions due out this August.

And before I go, just one last thing about Free Comic Book Day. It's nice to see that the marketing concept is starting to catch on. Two years ago, a group of record stores decided to take the concept and create Record Store Day.

As we all know, between the big box retailers selling CDs at ridiculously low prices and piracy, the small, independent mom and pop record store is dying out. So, to help battle this, the creation of Record Store Day, celebrated on the third Saturday in April.

Recording artists release exclusive albums on this day, along with special in-store promotions like album signings and performing. The stores get in on it with free hotdogs and balloons and, well, everything that I said that Free Comic Book Day should include.

Makes me wish there some small, independent record stores closer to where I live so I can take part. I'll have to keep my eye open for participating stores in Edmonton next year.

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