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21 Years of Free Comic Book Day 

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Comic book stores across the country celebrated the 21st annual “Free Comic Book Day” (FCBD), an event intended to introduce people to the comic book medium, on May 6.

Its origins date back to Aug. 2001, when Joe Field — the owner of the Flying Colors comic book store and columnist for Comes And Games Retailer magazine — wrote an article suggesting that comic book stores should hand out free comic books to customers as an incentive to increase sales. At the time, the comic book industry had just fallen to record lows due to The Great Comics Crash of 1996, an overabundance of poorly written, overly dark comics that many people bought as collectibles. In 2002, the first Free Comic Book Day commenced on May 4 of the following year. It took place on that day because the first “Spider-Man” movie was released the previous day. There were four comic books available at that event, all reprints of previously-released titles: Marvel’s “Ultimate Spider-man,” DC Comics’ “Justice League Adventures,” Image Comics’ “Laura Croft: Tomb Raider” and Dark Horse Comics’ “Star Wars Tales.” 

Since then, the event has only grown. Today, the event has expanded to 43 titles from 33 publishers. One significant change from the initial version is that most of the comic titles released contain new material. These titles range from mainstream titles from prominent publishers — such as Marvel’s “Avengers XMen #1” — to mature works from indie companies like Opus Comic’s “Frazzettaverse #0”. Possibly because of marketing synergy, it has usually coincided with the release of a comic book movie in theaters. This year, the tradition continues, with the event commencing a day after the release of Marvel Studios’ “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3.” 

In previous years, comic book publishers have stressed the connections between the adaptations and their original medium. For instance, in 2016, Marvel’s main Free Comic Book Day release was “Civil War II,” a sequel to “Civil War”, the 2005 storyline that pitted Iron Man against Captain America. But another Marvel product released that week was Marvel Studios’ “Captain America: Civil War,” an adaption of that very comic book arc. In this way, companies help to build synergy between comic books and their adaptations, introducing many to the medium.  

But what do these comic books contain? As promotional materials, most of them share the goal of serving as an introduction to new storylines and characters. They are an ideal starting point for new readers, as modern comics are notorious for being an intimidating, continuity-heavy medium. But these comics start at the beginning. Therefore, the reader can learn about the story with the characters. But how each comic executes this plan is different. For instance, because major comic book publishers release significant crossover events in the summer, their comics serve as prequels. But other companies like Scholastic and Viz Media do not release traditional comics, so their FCBD wares are promotions for upcoming books. To demonstrate the former, DC Comics’ main entry in this year’s FCBD festivities was “Dawn of DC: Knight Terrors,” which prepares readers for a new horror-themed Batman story that is part of the new “Dawn of DC” initiative, intended as a good jumping-on point for new readers. An example of the latter is Scholastic’s “Dog Man and the League of Misfits,” which reprints material from author Dav Pilkey’s “Captain Underpants 25th and ½ Anniversary Edition.” In this way, the event shows the medium’s variety, as books from many genres appear at the event. 

With the wide variety of comic books available for Free Comic Book Day, it caters to all conceivable fan demographics. Past years have included titles such as a comic based on the Nickelodeon preschool show “Yo Gabba Gabba” and an issue introducing readers to the “Something is Killing the Children” spin-off “House of Slaughter.” But with such a large variety of comics of so many different genres, how can consumers decide which books are right for them? 

In 2020, Free Comic Book Day began its rating system, with the logo’s color indicating its target demographic. A green logo means that the comic is for an all-ages demographic, a blue logo if the comic has a teen demographic, and a red logo for mature-oriented comics. 

Free Comic Book Day is an event that introduces many types of people to comic books. From its humble origins to the notable event that it is today, it is a gateway to the medium.  

Bailey Kanthatham is an Entertainment Contributing Writer. He can be reached at bkanthat@uci.edu.