DC Cathro, who works at Beyond Comics in Frederick, reaches over the counter and hands a stack of comics to a customer who appears to be there with his son. The man reaches back and hands a new issue of Iron Man to a young boy appearing to be 5 years old.
“That used to be me many, many years ago,” Cathro said.
More children and thousands of grown ups will be waiting in line this Saturday at comic book stores around the country as shops prepare for Free Comic Book Day.
Free Comic Book Day, which started in 2002 and was set to coincide with big movie releases of comic book characters, has become a wide-reaching phenomenon that involves people dressing up like their favorite superhero — or villain — and fans and families alike going into stores to pick out free comic books.
“[Free Comic Book Day] is our busiest day of the year,” said Jon Cohen, owner of Beyond Comics in Frederick and Gaithersburg. “It destroys the whole Christmas holiday. We have more people come in for the event than any day of the year — by a landslide. We had almost 1,200 people last year in each store. Being small stores, we usually had 40 to 50 people in the store constantly. For a draw, a national level draw, there’s nothing that touches it. So as a retailer, it’s fantastic.”
It wasn’t that way in the beginning, Cohen said. People who weren’t into comic books really had no idea what to make of the event. Comic book fans seemed to be cool on the idea.
“Obviously it’s grown, and the recognition’s grown and unfortunately, Americans love their free,” Cohen said. “Last year, we actually ran out of free comics. By 4 o’clock, we were wiped. We have access — because of where we’ve done for years and from what we had from inventory — we have access to backup stuff. We ran out of the stuff that we had to buy for this Free Comic Book Day and had stuff that we’d bought for previous ones and some excess inventory that we just filled the free stuff with for the rest of the day.”
Few people realize that while the select comics are free for people to come in and pick up, they are not free to shop owners. Owners such as Cohen end up having to pay anywhere from 15 cents to a dollar per book — and if he ends up buying a couple hundred books, it becomes a fairly expensive “free” event.
“We order a broad variety of the stuff,” Cohen said. “The biggest problem is it’s not free to us. We put out well over $1,000 in comics per store.”
The idea is simple — as a shop owner, you want to get the books into the hands of people who will be repeat customers.
“If your nephew comes in, he’s not going to know half these indie characters,” Cohen said. “So it’s harder for me to promote that. We will have SpongeBob. We’ll have Simpsons, … We tend to carry all that kind of stuff, and it makes it nice for kids. Still, Superman and the Marvel launches for their books are the top recognition ones. … Some of the stuff, we think is great. It’s so hard to judge the numbers.”
For Free Comic Book Day, companies will publish books specifically for the event. The list of books, which covers everything from Superman to Star Wars. Others on the list aren’t quite as well known, and those are the comics that have the hardest time finding traction, he said.
“If you’re a small indie creator, you want a Free Comic Book Day book,” Cohen said. “The theory is they’re available, in essence, at cost. The problem is, small press, indies, tend to have higher costs. Therefore, that free indie might cost me 50 cents, 75 cents, a dollar. I can’t afford to say, ‘Hey, we’ll get a hundred of those to give out,’ while it’s costing me less for a Marvel book. So this is the whole economic dynamic.
“I think there’s a record number of Free Comic Book Day books. But if we had 70-something to choose from? I’ve got to choose — I’m not going to order a hundred of each across the board. I just can’t afford that. So, we’ll order five and 10 of some of them, and two and three hundred of others, and we try to balance it about which ones we think we’ll be the most popular because … we’re not big enough to afford to give everybody everything they want to take.”
Stores across the country jockey for artists and celebrities to come in and sign autographs and take pictures during Free Comic Book Day. By the same token, some fans will come in dressed as their favorite characters — some even dressed up as Tony Stark, who is played by Robert Downey Jr., in the “Iron Man” films. Coincidentally, “Iron Man 3” will open the day before Free Comic Book Day.
Some artists and celebrities participate because they like going out and meeting the fans. Others like it because it gives them the opportunity to advertise their books. Either way, Cohen is glad they do it.
“This year, we’ve got Gene Ha [an award-winning artist best known for his work with the Batman graphic novel ‘Fortunate Son’] in Frederick, and he’s doing it because he likes doing these kinds of events,” Cohen said. “He gets to meet people — he doesn’t come out to the East Coast a lot. He’s using it in conjunction with some vacation. He’s a high-end artist who’s good enough to pick and choose what he’s doing. So, someone like that, he’s doing it just to get the opportunity to get out and meet the fans. That’s something he can do.”
At the Beyond Comics store in Gaithersburg, three local artists, John Shine, Mike Imboden and Rafer Roberts will be signing autographs and taking pictures. Shine and Imboden wrote and illustrated ‘FUBAR,’ which is one of the free books being given out.
“We’ve got both ends of the spectrum — we’ve got guys who are trying to promote their work and then others who don’t need to promote their work but they like to get out and meet people,” Cohen said. “It’s just a matter of trying to coordinate the creators that want to come around their schedule. There’s a competition for different creators and things like that to come to your stores because everybody wants to get someone … we’ve been trying to get Alex Ross and people like that, but they don’t do Free Comic Book Day.”
One might think comic books are for children. In fact, only a handful of comics today are available for all ages. The average customer is between 17 and 25 years old, if not skewing a little higher, Cohen said. Basically, publishers make more money on books for teenagers and young adults than they do printing a book for children. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t books available for children — even on Free Comic Book Day.
“I have a lot of nieces and nephews and friends with kids, and I always end up getting them books,” Cathro said. “There should be more for the kids, to be honest. It’s turned into such a huge, mature thing. Most of the comics we get in there are rated Teen and above. We have three of these double-sided wooden racks, so six sides are comic books plus the wall over there — of all those seven areas of new comics, one of them is devoted to all ages readers. At least they’re still publishing for all ages. That’s a good thing. But they just don’t get the readership that everything else does. It’s definitely become more of an adult phenomenon.”
Cohen takes pride in doing everything he can to attract younger readers. Stores that embrace Free Comic Book Day, he said, the goal is bring in young readers.
“We want the kids coming in,” Cohen said. “We actually fight with the publishers to do more young reader, quality young reader, books. Unfortunately, it’s a Catch-22. They don’t make as much money. A lot of times, they don’t make any money on a young readers book. But there’s a lot of stuff, if you’re able to pick and choose, and you’re not looking for the monthly Marvel comic or DC comic, you can find a wider selection of young readers.
“For Free Comic Book Day, we’ve got some members of the Star Wars Rebel Legion ... coming in. I’ve got a Spider-Man for sure coming here. Then he’s going to Frederick. We’re working on several of the Avengers cosplay guys. We’ve got a Mandarin and a Nick Fury for sure. That’s not aimed for my 17- to 25-year-olds. That’s aimed for my kids — and actually women and girls … teenage girls love that kind of stuff. We try to be an all-ages, non-gender type draw. And that’s a lot of work in an industry that’s predominantly male and oriented to a male readership.”
Despite the amount of work it takes most store owners when it comes to advertising, setting up guests, buying the free comics, etc., Cohen believes events such as Free Comic Book Day are essential.
“I would rather have every day be Free Comic Book Day,” Cohen said. “I will honestly tell you I was one of the first retailers in the region to ever do Free Comic Book Day. We never felt that it was, initially, worth it. It really wasn’t. ... We stuck with it. Right now, we’re one of the largest regional Free Comic Book Day events. ... For me, it’s a must. If you want to present yourself as a great comic book shop, you have to do Free Comic Book Day and do it right.
“There are so many of the other stores around that just buy a couple of books, put a little sign in the window and pile the books up. We think it’s more fun to have way more things going on. It’s a celebration of what comics are, and I think over the last couple of years we’ve had a resurgence of people picking comics up again. So yes, we love it, and we’ll continue to do it.”