ASSESSING THE VALUE OF FREE COMIC BOOK DAY
Opinions and evaluation from a long-term fan, based on the belief that the future of this original American art form is dependent on a steady influx of new and younger readers . . . . . .
If you share that belief and agree with me, then you probably view Free Comic Book Day as an opportunity to grab the attention of those prospective readers and attempt to make some converts to the cause. And, as you may suspect, the degree of success attained is most often in direct proportion to the amount of effort and creativity each individual comics shop owner and staff apply to this special day. Free Comic Book Day is but a template or outline, and those who seize that opportunity and plan and create a special event that builds off that platform have a chance to realize new goals. We can only hope that the majority of comics shop owners understand the power behind Free Comic Book Day and act accordingly.
I’ve been visiting my local comics source on the first Saturday of May ever since Free Comic Book Day (FCBD) began, the same weekend that the first SPIDER-MAN movie debuted. For many of those years my visit has been rather short, maybe a bit longer than normal but with nothing out of the ordinary happening. Last year I changed my comics source and the FCBD visit was a little longer and also intriguing, as there were events to prompt my staying longer. This year I made a day of it and found inspiration and hope.
The very first FCBD on the first Saturday of May 2002 had an “amazing” web to help ensnare some “ flies” = it occurred on the day following the premiere of the SPIDER-MAN movie. I remember the staff of BC Sports & Collectibles in Downingtown, PA (then my weekly source for comics) putting displays in the entrance of the store to feature SPIDER-MAN merchandise as well as draw attention to FCBD’s offerings. They also obtained permission from the Regal Cinemas in the same shopping center to put some posters in the theater lobby drawing attention to FCBD and their nearby store. Some BC employees also handed out FCBD flyers inviting SPIDER-MAN movie-goers to visit the comics section at BC right after the movie ended. I remember hearing afterwards that the BC staff were appreciative of the increased store traffic and new business they picked up that day - - not record-breaking numbers but still well above averages.
In the following years there wasn’t always a comics movie premiere tie-in to help promote the event. Movies based on comics generally debuted in May but you couldn’t count on Hollywood to have that occur on the first Saturday each and every May (something that the FCBD organizers agreed was important to preserve the continuity of the event). BC enjoyed some increased business when FCBD occurred near the openings of the X-MEN and BATMAN movies, but nothing near that first year’s results. So FCBD at BC then became just another business day, the only exception being it provided the opportunity to give out some free books to new visitors as well as reward the steady customers. (To be fair to BC, selling sports collectibles, clothing and trading cards was their main business - - - and comics was just a secondary enterprise at this one location due to a staffer’s considerable knowledge and interest.)
After BC closed their doors in 2009, I found myself at CAPTAIN BLUE HEN COMICS (just one month new to me then, but now my regular comics source) in Newark, Delaware on FCBD. I recall seeing more people inside a comics store than I can remember at any one time (even more than that 1980’s day the first issue of WEB OF SPIDER-MAN came out when I lived in New Jersey). There were activities for children, costumed character appearances, and artists presenting workshops and seminars. I stayed longer, took in some of the events, and obtained a renewed appreciation for FCBD.
On Saturday, May 1, 2010 I returned to CAPTAIN BLUE HEN COMICS (CBH) on FCBD and stayed to watch and participate in as many presentations, workshops, activities, and artist meetings as possible. It was a great day! I wish you could have been there to see this. Most impressive - - and a great day for promoting the benefits of comics to new readers.
Too many times I have visited comics stores in various cities and failed to see even one young adult during my time there. What I found especially encouraging on this day was seeing young children with their parents as well as teen-agers, both attending in large numbers. And they were buying comics! Parents were helping their children make choices and getting advice and recommendations from the staff. There is hope!
CBH has a special wide section near the front entrance dedicated to books for younger readers. When I arrived at 11 a.m. on FCBD this was well stocked and merchandised. When I checked it again at 4 p.m. it was getting rather sparse with empty slots on the shelves. CBH was doing a good business with comics designed for “kids” (loosely applied) all day long.
Current owners Joe and Danielle Murray bought CBH from the original owner in September 2001 and have participated in FCBD since the first one in 2002, which drew 500 customers. They have watched attendance grow from 500 to 800 to 1,000 and seem to have reached a current plateau between 1,300 to 1,500. Joe Murray estimated Saturday’s attendance at 1,400 individuals. He did not have a sales total for the day, as they were still waiting to add the proceeds from their $1 book sidewalk sales outside the front entrance. But he knew that approximately 300 transactions were processed, a very respectable number considering that one transaction might represent a family of four.
Joe judged FCBD 2010 to be a “really good business day! This definitely pays for itself.” (For the record, the day before Thanksgiving is usually their biggest day for sales totals. ) “It’s certainly the most kids we see on a single day, and that’s a great result. “ Joe says he sees more families bringing their children into the store for the first time and picking up books. He recognizes the value of new business, and says that FCBD offers the best potential to obtain this, along with the work CBH does to promote comics at local schools and libraries.
Joe estimates that between 20-40% of attendees stay for hours. Some of course will obtain their free books and leave. However, about 70% stay and do something else and approximately 50% will pick up at least 1 other book to purchase - -and this is usually people with kids.
CBH uses television advertising on the New Castle, Delaware Comcast cable stations and used the weeks surrounding FCBD to promote the event. Joe also does presentations on comics as literature to various schools in the area. He had just finished doing a presentation at West Park Elementary School the week prior, and mentioned some of those young schoolchildren coming to FCBD with their parents and asking about “Mister Joe”.
To facilitate the large crowds and create a reasonable flow of traffic through the store, CBH has customers line up outside the building and enter through the back door (which leads conveniently to the FCBD free comic counter where staff members help with the selections). By 12 noon I observed that this line trailed along the exterior back wall of the store, around the corner and down the alleyway towards the front entrance. By 1 p.m. this line had snaked across the alleyway and was running in the reverse direction down the other side of the storefronts, making a giant “U”.
To keep those crowds from getting restless, costumed characters parade along the lines, offering photo opportunities and entertaining. The Chick-Fil-A Cow, Spider-Man, Darth Vader, Bobba Fett and two Storm Troopers all made appearances as well as a dragon dance troupe from the local martial arts studio. There were face-painting and make-a-mask activities at the nearby Newark Arts Council as well as afternoon how-to-draw workshops conducted by some of the the guest artists. The Mayor of Newark, DE also made an appearance to support FCBD and CBH.
Eight guest artists were stationed at various places around the store to meet and greet with attendees and draw free sketches per request. I heard a large number of children asking for Iron Man, Spider-Man, Bat-Man, Scooby-Do0 and other cartoon characters. Artists included Neil Vokes, Scott Neely, Rich Faber, Jamar Nicholas, Ben Harvey, Buz Hasson, Ken Haeser and John Gallagher. I had an opportunity to chat with many of them and plan to post some artist profiles on this blog in the upcoming days.
Over at the free comics counter, CBH ran out of several titles in spite of their planning and best order estimates. They still had copies of the FCBD IRON MAN titles left, but that was because they “bumped up” the order for them. However, they did not anticipate the popularity of OWLY (which didn’t run out in the years prior to 2010) as well as THE STUFF OF LEGEND (perhaps due to the appearance of Th3rd World Studios at CBH’s FCBD 2009). They also ran out of copies of MOUSE GUARD /FRAGGLE ROCK before day’s end, as well as SONIC THE HEDGEHOG and BONGO COMICS (Simpsons). They doubled up their order of ATOMIC ROBO from 2009 and still ran out of copies. And all their copies of GREEN HORNET were gone after the first hour.
Individuals were able to obtain as many as 3 free comic books by showing a library card and /or donating a canned food item. CBH collects these and gives to the Newark Food Bank. During FCBD 2009, they donated 32 cubic feet of canned goods as a result of the promotion.
FCBD at CBH was a day for smiles. The folks at CBH certainly know what to do to maximize the benefits of this opportunity. Sorry I missed you. Wish you could have been there with me to see it as well.