Saturday, May 3, free

California comic book retailer Joe Field had an epiphany when he saw the long line for a free-scoop promotion at a Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlor. “I thought, ‘This could easily be adapted to comics,’” he says. He realized that to lure more customers into his shop, Flying Colors, all he had to do was to give the books away.

In 2001, Field published a column about his idea in Comics & Games Retailer magazine, and the next year, Free Comic Book Day started spreading through North America and beyond. Now one of the industry’s biggest annual events, coordinated by dominant distributor Diamond Comics, it happens on the first Saturday of every May. That’s this Saturday, when you can walk into any Triangle comic shop and find free stuff by the table-full.

Field estimates that the event reaches shops in 65 countries, a sign of the renewed strength of the comics industry. “After comics fell on hard times in the late 1990s,” says Field, remembering when mega-hyped events such as “The Death of Superman” resulted in a surplus of unsold issues and the shuttering of many shops, “things started to turn around in the early 2000s. Good material was coming out, but it was sort of a secret to the general public.”

The secret got out by way of Hollywood. Thanks to the event’s spring scheduling, shops can usually count on a new comics-related movie to bolster interest. The first event shortly followed the release of the 2002 Spider-Man movie, and this 13th installment coincides with The Amazing Spider-Man 2. The success of superhero movies is a big driver of renewed popular interest in comics.

“There were a few years where there wasn’t a superhero movie opening around Free Comic Book Day, and honestly, I’m glad Hollywood saw the error of its ways,” says Field, only half-joking.

The popularity of superheroes such as Captain America and the zombie survivors of The Walking Dead doesn’t always extend to the books where they originated, which makes such outreach events necessary. “Comic books have been replaced by video games in the minds of many young readers,” says Jennifer Bedell, owner of Atomic Empire in Durham. “Events like this are important for determining where the next generation of readers will come from.”

But Ken Pleasant, owner of Capitol Comics in Raleigh, sees encouraging signs in the evolving public perception of comics. “I think with the different movies and TV shows coming out, it’s not looked upon as being quite as geeky as it used to be,” he says. “More and more people are coming through the doors, and more and more people are collecting comics.”

In addition to being an opportunity for stores to draw in new customers, the day is a chance for publishers to get people hooked on new titles. They manufacture comics specifically for the eventsometimes reprints or excerpts, sometimes all-new, exclusive materialand sell them cheaply to retailers. The retailers eat the loss and make their money back when freebie-seekers come back for more, cash in hand.

That’s the idea, anyway.

“We actually lost money the first few years because we had to pay for all the comics and not enough people turned out to justify the costs,” says Richard McGee, co-owner of Foundation’s Edge in Raleigh. “The last three or four years, we’ve been more successful. The biggest issue is that people come in to take free comics, but they won’t come back in to buy anythingthey’ll just come back the next year for more free comics.”

Chapel Hill Comics owner Andrew Neal says he chooses which free books to order according to what’s most likely to bring customers back for similar items. His most heavily ordered book this year is Fantagraphics’ Hip Hop Family Tree, a sampler of Ed Piskor’s graphical history of the musical genre. It’s a strategy that’s worked well in the past. “We had probably one of our three or four biggest days in sales last year, even with all the giveaway books,” Neal says.

Many retailers program additional events and sales. This year, Atomic Empire is doing a “Tap Takeover” with beers from Hillsborough’s Mystery Brewing Company, while Durham’s Ultimate Comics has live music, a 5K run for the children’s cancer charity Alex’s Lemonade Stand and signings by local creators such as Tommy Lee Edwards (Vandroid) and Jeremy Whitley (Princeless).

Ultimate Comics owner Alan Gill says that last year’s event drew “a small convention” of about 2,000 people into his shop over the course of the day. “Since we’ve done Free Comic Book Day big, our sales have been up approximately 15 percent every year over the last three,” he says. “In this comic book market and this economy, those are amazing numbers.”

As old-school brick-and-mortar stores face increasing competition from digital comics on tablets and from tie-ins with film, TV and video games, the sight of people lining up outside a comics shop remains a welcome one for retailers, especially Field. “Any time we can get more than a million people to come to comic book stores on a single day,” he says, “we know we’re doing something right.”

Check out our Free Comic Book Day swag picks.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Superhero swag.”