Before there were animated television series and big-budget blockbusters, before Comic-Cons and cosplay, there was simply the comic book. Introduced in the 1930s, it was one of the first forms of American entertainment that created a lineup of some of the most beloved and enduring characters of all-time, including Superman, Hulk, even Archie Andrews. Now, with the advent of the annual Free Comic Book Day—a one-day-only celebration launched in 2002 where participating stores offer dozens of free titles, special in-store events, sales and contests — publishers and shops are putting forth a superhero effort to ensure the legacy of the plastic-wrapped paperback lives on.
“Comic books seem to be off people’s radar with all the new forms of media that exist today, but there are still those with fond memories of reading and collecting their favorite titles, and Free Comic Book Day may be that boost to remind them to come back and check us out,” says Matt Fagan, co-owner of Wicker Park’s boutique Brainstorm Comics. For him, Saturday’s event is especially important since it’s the first in the store’s new site in the Flat Iron Arts Building. Although smaller than its former North Avenue storefront, the location allowed the 10-year-old store to remain operational as it rides out the shifting industry. “Our new space is a little less obvious than before, so Free Comic Book Day is even more important to attract a customer base.”
That base is still pretty strong if you ask Eric Thornton, owner of Lakeview’s veteran Chicago Comics, who sees a repeat clientele nearly 400 strong who come “rain, sleet, snow and shine” to pick up their titles every week. While it used to be a stronghold of young adult and middle-aged men who were the main customers, the demographics are shifting, he says. “Pop culture and nerd culture are combining more and more into one form, and so the exposure provided by movies and new titles and genres has widened the array of collectors. We’re seeing a lot more female readers and a vast group of ages, especially children.”
The interest of children is much of the motivation for Free Comic Book Day. While many of the store owners admit they don’t see a huge sales boost from the event or benefit from the overall goal to develop a new group of repeat business, “if we can even reach three kids and turn it into their new lifelong passion, it’s a success,” says Thornton.
Fagan agrees. “We’re moving further and further away from comics being a common medium that kids read because it’s not electronic, so for a lot of them coming into the store, it’s their first experience, which is great if we can foster an interest not only in comics but reading in general.”
Over at one of the city’s newer spots, Challengers Comics + Conversation on Western Avenue in Bucktown, co-owner Patrick Brower is so engaged in developing younger readers that he has a second, connected storefront just for kids with titles like “Jellaby” (about a lost purple dinosaur) that he continually promotes in-house. So much so that the creator, Kean Soo, will make a special appearance at the store on Free Comic Book Day. “The great thing about having a comic book store today is meeting those who will experience this art form for the first time,” says Brower. “Today’s stores are not just to cater to yesterday’s fans but to continually find new readers in whatever ways we can.”