Free Comic Book Day, and the Plight of the Local Comic Shop

Last week was extremely busy for me. On Tuesday after work, I went to Nick Cave’s Q&A show; on Wednesday I scrambled to go see Avengers: Infinity War after work because I didn’t want someone to spoil me on FCBD; and Thursday and Friday were, of course, all prep for said FCBD.

There has been a lot of discussion about how Free Comic Book Day is not free for comic shops. This is true, we buy tons of comics for slightly less than our usual cost with the sole purpose of giving them away with our sticker or stamp on them in the hopes that people might pick up something they really like, remember where they got it, and come back to get more. It’s part goodwill gesture, part advertising — and it can be an awful lot of work.

I’m not here to suggest alternative solutions to the current FCBD model, though I welcome such discussions. What I want to talk about is a conversation I had with a gentleman who just knew, somehow, that comics readership was up because of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After we went back and forth for a while, he apologized and recognized that his information was anecdotal, and honestly I don’t want to spend too much time talking about him in particular because he was actually very nice and clearly did care about comics.

But prior to our conversation, there were two things that he believed: that the MCU got people into comics, and that perhaps a lot of those people were getting their comics from libraries instead of buying them in shops.

I can tell you all, without hyperbole, that just about every single comic shop, even if they’re doing fairly well at the moment, feels the grip of Amazon closing in on the throat of their business. Every retailer I’ve talked to is finding ways to add alternative merchandise to their stores, or lean really hard into a niche they already have (I’m always going for “gay manga store,” myself). The only comic book films that have sparked any small interest in comics, that we’ve seen at my shop, have been Wonder Woman and Black Panther, and I think that speaks a lot more to people finally seeing themselves reflected in media and being hungry for more of that, than to any specific interest in superheroes or comics specifically.

I can also tell you that last I checked (which admittedly may have been some time ago), the best-selling Marvel trade paperback collections were Ms. Marvel, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s run on Black Panther. That’s two YA titles starring characters that haven’t yet been in a Marvel movie, and a comic run written by a well-known author who made his name outside of comics. These aren’t necessarily the Marvel trades that do best in our shop, but I’m willing to bet good money that they’re the ones that are getting checked out of your local library most often. (And I would absolutely LOVE some insider info from a librarian on how their graphic novels perform.)

So every year, FCBD gets to feeling more and more desperate as retailers all over the country (and indeed in other parts of the world) continue to throw money, effort, and time into giving away literal tons of free comics in the hope that they’ll gain a larger portion of the community — whether that community already reads comics elsewhere, or whether they’re completely new to the medium. I could say, too, that we’re not being helped by certain publishers who seem to be substituting quantity of titles for quality of writing, but I’m not sure that would be completely fair as I’m not a “superhero person,” and I haven’t been keeping up with a lot of current material.

I hate feeling selfish and petulant when I remind people to shop locally (and ideally, I’d love for us all to be able do all shopping locally, not just comics). I understand what it’s like to not have the means and the funds (I work retail, remember?). But as I was telling my husband last night, unless something dramatic changes in society or we finally get the Y2K we were promised twenty years ago, I don’t see brick and mortar shops — of any kind — surviving. The “frivilous” shops will go first: the comic shops, the toy stores, any niche specialty store. I honestly can’t say whether that’s good or bad on a grand scale, but it certainly does make me sad and worried for my own livelihood and the livelihood of so many wonderful, smart, dedicated people I know who put so much of themselves into their businesses because they were once a young person who just really loved comic books.

And completely appropos of nothing, I’m getting really tired of people saying “it’s backwards” every time I hand them a free manga sampler. But I reckon I could construct another whole post just about how reticent people are to try new things…though I will say, a remarkable number of people I offered free comics to yesterday said “oh, I don’t read comics.” So maybe that’s part of the problem, too, that people can’t see themselves reading comics, or don’t know all that comics have to offer, in these days where superhero action flicks are breaking records at box offices around the world.

“Yeah, I saw the Avengers, it was great! But….no, I don’t read comics.”

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