"Free Comic Book Day" Turns 10 Years Old

Update: Learn more about the 11th Annual Comic Book Day on May 5th here.

May 5, 2011

The tenth annual “Free Comic Book Day” takes place this Saturday at comic book stores worldwide. Over two-and-a-half million comic books are expected to be given away. WDET’s Rob St. Mary has this look at how the business of graphic literature is doing as print heads from the page to the electronic tablet.

_“This is kind of our front display space… it’s our place to make a good first impression.” _

Walking among the well-organized racks, comic shop owner Dan Merritt says he has a little something for everyone…

_“So, yeah… we’re got high class and low brow right next to each other…” _

He says his lifelong passion for comics fires his business everyday.

“It started with Disney magazine and Highlights for Kids probably when I wasn’t old enough to rip it to shreds.”

For the past 12 years, Merritt along with his wife Katie have been operating Green Brain Comics in Dearborn.

_“That’s pretty much the major characteristic of this business… constant change and constant evolution of the way we do business.” _

One of the things that has changed over Merritt’s time in the comic business is the addition of a promotional idea – “Free Comic Book Day”.

“A way to call back people who used to read comics but haven’t for a while for whatever reason, to introduce new people to comics and to do sort of a thank you party to our regular readers and fans.”

That’s Joe Field – owner of Flying Colors Comics in Concord, California – who started “Free Comic Book Day” ten years ago.

_“I think we were starting in a pretty good place and continue to be in a pretty decent place even through all the economy’s ups and downs over the last ten years.” _

In 2001 the industry’s leading distributor, Diamond, say it saw about $330 million in sales. Over the past decade that number has jumped as high as $430 million before cashing in last year at $418 million.

One reason for the growth might be the battle between the biggest publishers – Marvel and DC – in a contest that’s not only taking place at the racks, but at the multiplex.

“I am Ironman, the suit and I are one. To turn over the Ironman suit would be to turn over myself which it tantamount to indentured servitude or prostitution depending on what state you are in. You can’t have it.”

_“Iron Man” is just one of the big blockbusters to spawn sequels and let’s not forget the “caped crusader” _

“It’s simple we kill the batman. (laughs) If it’s so simple, why haven’t you done it already? If you’re good at something – never do it for free.”

While Health Ledger’s “Joker” might not work without being paid, comic book stores will be giving out free samples this weekend, books the owners pay anywhere up to 50 cents a piece for in order to give people a taste of what’s happening in their world. Dan Merritt at Green Brain Comics says “Free Comic Book Day” is huge for growing his store’s clientele.

"We pick up anywhere, five to ten percent, as regular revisiting customers. We estimate a larger percentile that revisit occasionally throughout the year.”

Stores are also keeping customers through special events. Green Brain does a monthly “Comics Jam” where anyone from kids to professional artists come and draw their own books. At Detroit Comics in Ferndale, owner Brian Kelly hosts what he calls the “Nerdy Book Club” which puts a monthly spotlight on graphic novels – another key segment of the market.

_“We talk about the book, plots, devices used in it, everything. It’s… I don’t want to say highbrow… but in my opinion comics are a high source of literature and we try to give it that much respect.” _

Tonight, Kelly is hosting a discussion on a Batman graphic novel…

_“Thank you for coming everyone… “Batman: Dark Knight Returns...” _

About 20 or so people of various ages are gathered around enjoying snacks and a few beers.

_“Hi my name is Angela… Hi, Angela... oh, thanks guys..." _

That’s Angela Badgett – a comic book fan and customer at Detroit Comics.

_“Romance novels are boring. Things that are geared towards women as far as literature these days is sad.” _

Badgett says like a lot of readers she’s taken the leap into the digital world at times.

“I don’t think that we’ll ever completely lose books because they are too important but there might be a limit to the individual issue comic books… that might end at some point… but I don’t think the genre will ever go away… the medium might change.”

But Badgett brings up a good point, isn’t a comic book is just that, a book? So, when will they march into the digital world ala e-book? Well, the comics industry is already there – apps are available for the iPad and iPhone which allow readers to purchase, store and view digital comics.

Brian Kelly at Detroit Comics says he doesn’t think monthly issues heading to e-readers will damage local comics shops.

“It doesn’t bother me. It’s just how is going to be sold and how is going to be segueing in with us? It doesn’t worry me at all. I think there’s always going to be… comics and books in general are fetish items…. people want to hold them and touch them. If that was the case, comic book stores would have been gone with the invention of the Internet.”

Fellow store owner, Dan Merritt, says the plan right now is for retailers to sell digital issues through comic shops starting this fall. He says if a reader wants the latest issue of… say… “Spider-Man”… they would have to come to come to the brick and mortar store to purchase a code.

“We will have 30 days exclusivity for that download. They only way you can get that download is to come to a comics store.”

Merritt says comics retailers have learned from the drop in sales at traditional book stores. To combat it he says retailers have to provide an experience customers can’t get on-line – such as conversation, community and customer service.

“We have to go above and beyond just opening the door. We have to make it exciting… we have to make it involving.”

And Merritt says retailers are hoping their open houses this Saturday during “Free Comic Book Day” will further that involvement.