Possible big changes are ahead for Free Comic Book Day (FCBD) next year. Since 2002, FCBD is an annual event–traditionally the first weekend in way–in which comics publishers and shops give away free sample books to customers in an effort to shake hands, say hello, and convince you to keep coming into the store. The first year was a paltry half-dozen offerings, but has ballooned over a decade and a half to an annual 50 or more books from a gamut of publishers. Shops have turned the day from a small freebie day to large-scale events with sales, signings, cosplay, and more. In short, FCBD is a great day for the comics industry at large, as loyal customers are rewarded with prizes and newcomers have a low-cost opportunity to step into the world of comics.
However, potential restrictions are ahead for the publishers that want to stay in the game. Word on the street has it that the committee behind FCBD wants publishers to avoid “anthology” books which have a broad sampling of titles packed into 22 pages. Instead, they want publishers to give away either single-issue books, or at best, a mid-sized story with a short backup. To be clear, this doesn’t appear to be a mandate yet, but the rumor does seem to indicate that FCBD wants publishers to move in this direction.
If this is true, it seems bad for the industry at large.
Why? The problem with this kind of move is that it could hurt many of the smaller-scale publishers who aren’t named “Marvel” or “DC.” FCBD could ultimately be described as “speed dating for comics consumers.” Many of the customers on FCBD are setting foot in a comic shop for the first time, and odds are, Marvel and DC will be the only retailer names they know. It’s very likely that they won’t know much about Dark Horse, Image, Boom!, Dynamite, or Oni…to say nothing of even smaller labels like Top Shelf, Fantagraphics, Th3rd World, or others. It’s a big dating pool and everyone’s going to be gravitating towards the prom king and queen: Marvel and DC.
The thing is, Marvel and DC mostly operate with a “shared universe” where almost all of their titles are set in the same continuity. If Marvel brings in a new reader to Captain America or Spider-Man, for example, it’s likely that said reader will eventually learn about the X-Men or Avengers and has an easy gateway into those titles as well.
That’s not so easy for the other publishers. Most of them do not operate under a single continuity and don’t have the marketing advantage Marvel and DC do. Let’s take Dark Horse as an example. Dark Horse Comics has a broad range of titles, many licensed (like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Aliens and Predator) and lots of original ones, too. If Dark Horse wants to bring in new readers, what should its “push” title be? The solution in recent years has been to do at least partial anthologies. Dark Horse has offered two books every year, and in 2016, it had Serenity/Hellboy/Aliens for older readers and The Legend of Korra/Plants vs. Zombies/How to Train Your Dragon for kids. That allowed Dark Horse to offer samples of six of its titles to readers and cast a wider net than it could with two single-story books.
Boom! Studios has been similarly anthology-oriented in the past few years by offering titles with multiple snippets of its wide range of titles. Boom! is a diverse publisher with three imprints, and none of the books in those sub-imprints are linked. So this year’s 2016 Boom! sampler included bits of Lumberjanes, Goldie Vance, Mouse Guard, Adventure Time, Cloud, and others. This didn’t necessarily give readers a full story, but it did give them a thorough glimpse of the diversity of titles the company has to offer.
If you’ve been to a FCBD event, you’ll know that it can be a crazy, crowded event where you’re quickly shuffled through a store trying to grab your limit in freebies before you’re squeezed out. Odds are, you or the kids won’t really get to digest your stack of books until you get home. But that’s OK, because the goal of FCBD is to get you to come back to the store for more, and more specifically, to the publisher. That’s going to be harder for the smaller presses to do if they’re restricted in what they can offer on FCBD.
A publisher like Boom!, for example, is going to have to figure out what its “push” title would be. They can offer a Lumberjanes or an Adventure Time, but that means they’re not necessarily making their readers aware of their books that don’t have licensed-property backing behind them like Giant Days or Lucas Stand or any of their other vast array of offerings. Sure, they could put an ad in the back of the book, but that’s just not the same as giving the readers an actual taste of what’s available.
FCBD is, for many publishers, their one opportunity all year to present themselves to customers, new and old. Marvel and DC are always going to go to the dance with a new date. They’re already pretty and know how to play this game. The smaller presses don’t have Marvel and DC’s wardrobe or hairdressers and have one chance to make an impression on their potential suitors. It’d be nice if they could maintain the freedom to figure out how to do that, and the anthology isn’t a bad way to go.
Let’s hope that Diamond Comics and the FCBD committee keep this recommendation just that, but give publishers the final say in what they want to offer readers every year.