Saturday was Free Comic Book Day, the amazing annual event where the world celebrates comics by giving away a few free comics to one and all. And by a few comics, I mean millions!
Fifteen years ago, Joe Field had a wonderful idea that was inspired by a Free Ice Cream Cone Day, and it became a reality. And now it’s grown each year to the delight of fans young and old. Kids, parents, teens, hardcore fans, casual fans, curious potential new fans, advertisers, publishers and retailers helped celebrate the 15th Annual Free Comic Book Day.
This year, I broke my personal record and visited eight amazing comic shops in northern NJ, just outside of New York City. And it was really nine if you count my visit to Main Street Comics on FCBD’s Eve.
It was a great day, as witnessed in many stores.
More than ever, cosplay was an integral part of Geek Culture. I could see that more this year than other years. It’s almost a given that every store will have some excellent cosplayers on the premises. The crowd oohs and ahs while taking photos. It’s all about celebrating the creativity and skills of the cosplayers while providing a bit of live theater.
But it doesn’t end there, as many fans, especially kids, are proud to bring their own cosplay to Free Comic Book Day.
All Ages Means ALL Ages
Free Comic Book Day summons fans of all ages. Families with young kids are a staple, but many of the comic shops, like East Side Mags and Funny Books, lured the curious into the fray from their respective downtowns. We used to use phrases like “the young and the young at heart” as a euphemism for “old”, but we don’t have to beat around that bush any more do we?
I saw more than a few older fans, and they were just as eager to pick up comics as the preschoolers.
Cool Folks Doing Cool Things
Several stores, like A & S Comics, Zapp Comics and Dewey’s Comic City had artists on hand to provide sketches and drawings for fans. Other shops had some very interesting folks on premises, including:
Time Warp hosted Jennifer Lynn Parson, the editor of Luna Station Publishing, a line of books by female creators.
Region 99, a magazine that celebrates creativity through diversity, was also at the Time Warp store. Important to aspiring artists – Region 99 sponsors artists at New York Comic Con, and are now accepting submissions. It sounds like a great way for artists to get onto the convention floor.
The Einhorn’s Epic Cookies team was at East Side Mags, selling their unique cookie and comic product. I hadn’t had one in a while, and I was glad I did. Yum!
Comic Explosion hosted Mike Stein of the Starfleet, a Star Trek club that meets monthly across New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Paradox Comics offered their annual Coloring Contest – encouraging fans to bring back their colored pages in one week.
In the East Side Mags tents was Keiki Explorer’s Club – a summertime club that takes kids on daytrip adventures!
A Yearly Expectation of Geek Culture
After 15 years, Free Comic Book Day is now at that point where all the fans seemed to get it. And they look forward to the fun in a patient way.
The fans seemed to understand that only designated comics were free. They all seemed to know where to go and how to navigate the stores.
But it’s also worth noting that by the 15th year, all the stores seemed very prepared for the crowds. There was plenty of staff on hand and just about all the stores seemed as geared up and ready to sell comics and other merchandise, as they were ready to give away free comics.
And most amazing to me is the diverse crowd of comic fans and how they seemed to get along. And I don’t think that only happens on a day like today. There were so many different people attending FCBD, people that would not typically have the opportunity to speak to one another during a typical day. But here they all were – grabbing their comics, debating the latest comic book movie, marveling over the amazing discounts and sweet deals – and enjoying a moment with other people who share a similar passion.
It was a great event and a great party. I’m already looking forward to FCBD’s Sweet Sixteen!
For the record, I’d like to thank the following New Jersey comic shops, and their hard -working staff, for throwing some great parties today:
A & S Comics, Teaneck
Paradox Comics, North Arlington
Comics Explosion, Nutley
East Side Mags, Montclair
Time Warp, Cedar Grove
Dewey’s Comic City, Madison
Funny Books, Lake Hiawatha
Zapp! Comics Cards and Toys, Wayne
And one more thank you to Main Street Comics in East Middletown, NY and More Fun Comics and Games in Denton TX, where my brother and my nieces celebrated FCBD.
I moderated a panel at New York Comic Con called The 7 Archetypes of Comic Shops. My All-Star panelists included several outstanding comic shop retailers. It was a fascinating time with lots of surprises – remind me to tell you about Marc (Aw, Yeah) Hammond’s Frank Gorshin story someday. We had a packed room and it evolved into a celebration of smart retailing and Geek Culture.
The new kid on the block was Jeff Beck, an ambitious retailer who just opened a comic shop called East Side Mags in Montclair, NJ. It’s a great store and you might remember I was impressed when I visited it during my marathon comic shop travels on Free Comic Book Day. I sat down with Jeff and here’s what he had to say:
Ed Catto: Jeff, your store looks great. Can you tell me how long you’ve been retailing, and the backstory of how you decided to open East Side Mags?
Jeff Beck: ESM has been open for almost a year and half now. I worked retail when I was in high school and college but never in a management position. Just a floor guy or stock room guy. Nothing special. I went to college for music recording/radio/audio engineering and ended up in the Audio Visual industry while trying to find a job more geared to what I studied. I ended up working for a major corporation that provides AV services in hospitality environments. My position was Sales Manager but I had extensive knowledge in setting up equipment, operation, etc.
I worked in this capacity for about a decade – working in hotels and conference centers. I met my mentor (and one of my closest friends) Nicholas Cox, whose open door policy of management exposed me to the ins and outs of running a business. We discussed P&L statements, payroll, management tactics, operational details, etc. and he really gave me the opportunity to understand what it was like to run a multi-million-dollar department. My last “tour of duty” was with a privately owned conference center company (startup) in Manhattan in which I worked (again) as Nick’s right hand man after we both had left PSAV. I loved working with Nick and we saw high levels of success.
I wasn’t satisfied though. I needed to be my own boss and had always dreamed of owning and/or running a comic store, as I’ve been a collector for over 20 years. With the knowledge I had, I began to work behind the scenes of my regular job to put a business plan together. Studying sales statistics, perusing websites, blogs and message boards for 2½ years, I finally had a viable business plan and saw growth in an industry most thought would “go the way of the buffalo” in this digital age. The day came, I dropped five resignation letters, and I was off.
Having been turned down for small business loans by five banks, three co-ops and a government agency whose management “switched hands” and froze their loan program, I decided to cash out every account I had in my name and went all in! And here we are today – each day better than the last – and from here, the sky’s the limit!
EC: It’s cool that your store name doesn’t have the word “comics” in it. Was that intentional?
JB: Yes. I guess. I needed a cool name that reflected my rise to being my own boss so I chose East Side Mags. East Side Mags is the name of a song by a NJ punk band called The Bouncing Souls. When I first saw them play, it was in a skating rink in West Orange called JT SkateZone! Now they tour the world and play with big name acts, the Warped Tour, etc. They went from being grassroots to being a highly successful musical act and that’s what I wanted to achieve as well. That this particular song came on in my car while waiting to meet with another prominent retailer who had agreed to meet with me and, being off one my favorite albums, seemed fitting. Especially where the “Mags” is concerned. I have had one person – a food delivery guy – who thought I was a gun store. He couldn’t have been more wrong!
EC: What type of clientele do you have? Is that what you expected?
JB: My clientele is really very diverse. It reflects the research I did but you never really expect to see what you see until you’re there. It’s like seeing pictures of the Grand Canyon then actually going to the Grand Canyon! I would say that my customer base is almost half female – showing a greater number of female readers as per the reporting I had seen from several news outlets. Also, I have a lot of kids and families as we have an extensive kids section of all ages material – great for kids to come in and grab whatever they see that interests them – without parents having to be concerned about content.
EC: It looks like you are very involved in the local community. Is that important to you?
JB: Community is very important to me. Anyone can open a shop anywhere but they’ll close their doors just as fast as they open if the community doesn’t find value in what the business does. Because of this I am very focused on the community at large, constantly adjusting our products and services to accommodate a diverse community.
EC: What are some of the activities you’ve planned at ESM?
JB: We host a monthly movie night where I rent a 6’ screen, projector and sound system, but instead of collecting money, admission consists of healthy food donations that are then brought to local food pantries. Bring a bag of brown rice – you get to see a movie! That deal can’t be beat!
We also host local (and affordable) art from local artists around North Jersey/Central Jersey and constantly rotate it to keep things fresh. We sell the artwork on a consignment basis so that the artists’ costs are covered and the remainder is split 50/50, ensuring the cost doesn’t come out of the artists’ half of the sale. We also work with the Montclair BID (Business Improvement District, also known as Montclair Center) and host art walks, sidewalk stroll sales, etc. and we stuff shopping bags with menus and business cards of other businesses around Montclair to help promote other businesses to our customers.
EC: What activities are ahead?
JB: We continue to do all the things already mentioned and I’m also looking into hosting vintage video game tournaments and free play as a possibility.
EC: Can you talk a little about how you’ve laid out your store, and what you feel the ideal mix of Geek Culture items is?
JB: Comic book stores, by default, are visually overwhelming. If you’re a fan or even know a little about it, you walk in and are immediately floored by the variety of comics, toys, accessories, t-shirts, etc. that are available. We have a large wall clearly marked with new arrival tags where the new issues are put up each week. We have large, customized bins to hold back issues – some going back to the 60s or earlier. On the opposite side of the store we have a large wall housing toys, action figures and novelty items. Trade paperbacks and graphic novels make up the other part of that large wall, with mature trades separated from Teen or Teen Plus trades. Above the toys and trades, we have shelving that displays the local artwork mentioned earlier with tags showing the artists’ names and where they are from in New Jersey.
We have a few glass cases housing statues and the more interesting or expensive/breakable items and a few spinner racks with more action figures and toys. We utilize some of the space for pop up tables with featured items. Right now Star Wars is pretty big deal, so we have a table of all different kinds of Star Wars merchandise.
We have two large chalkboard walls as well. One, right next to the new issues, is used for listing all the new comics that arrive each week to allow customers an easy (and colorful) layout of “what’s new” that week and roughly where they can find it along the new release wall. The second chalkboard wall is for the customers and kids. We keep a small bucket of chalk next to it that kids can use to draw absolutely anything they want.
Then we take a picture of the wall post it on our website. The sales counter, where the register is, has cards, some art and smaller items that people can look through. Behind the counter, on wall shelves, we have the “wall books” – basically any comic valued at $10 and up that we display and sell but do not leave in the bins due to the overall value of the comics themselves. Some items include or have included Iron Man #55 (first appearance of Thanos), Amazing Spider-Man #300, X-Men #1 from 1963, etc.
EC: During FCBD, you had the most extensive offering of Free Comics. Can you explain your strategy and provide any results or follow-up?
JB: Diamond Distribution has a number of titles available for retailers to purchase on FCBD. Some retailers, I guess, don’t get copies of everything and everyone has their own strategy when it comes to picking comics for FCBD. I got X number of every single comic that was available to me to purchase and essentially got rid of everything!
Granted they are free, but we also had a ton of people buy things in addition to the free comics. I think people saw the generosity in making the widest selection available and minimal prohibition (customers could take one copy of as many titles as they wanted) so they bought items as well to show support back to us for the great spread! It was a very “Do unto others” type situation. People felt the love so they showed us love in turn and it was an amazing day!
EC: What are some of the most surprising things you’ve learned?
JB: I’m surprised at the number of indie comic book writers and artists there are out there! In a digital age when so many publications are being pushed to iPhones, tablets, etc. there are so many people out there with pen and paper, writing, drawing and marketing their own works on paper! I get at least two emails/phone calls per week with someone asking if we’re interesting in carrying their comics. I’m also surprised at how many people come into the shop and are interested but have never read a comic! We make first time recommendations for so many people. A lot of people must have had some negative experiences or something because they always tell us they wanted to [get into comics] but didn’t for some reason – someone must have turned them off to it.
But we thrive on a welcoming atmosphere where people of any level of comic knowledge can feel comfortable and our recommendations make it easy to get into the books! Like superheroes? No problem. Like love stories? No problem. Like zombies? Vampires? War stories? Different takes on historical events? Kung Fu? Music? Animals? Robots? Outer Space? Clowns? Feminism? Masculinity? We can find something for ALL OF THOSE!
EC: What’s your favorite comic and do you market it extra hard at your store? JB: I don’t know if I have a favorite per se but there is definitely a strategy to the comics I read each week. Yes. I read each week to keep up on what’s going on. I make sure I read the more popular titles like Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, etc. I read as many #1s as I can get my hands on and try to keep reading into the #4 or #5 issues to get a handle on the story arc so when customers inevitably ask about a title, I have an answer for them instead of “Well, a lot of people buy it so it must be good” mentality. I also have a lot of indie/self-published works that I read as well and probably push those more than major titles – based on the fact that they are written and drawn both by an indie writer/artist who doesn’t have the benefit of DC or Marvel or Image putting out and distributing their work. I can’t say I push any titles in particular extra hard but try to see what the customer likes and focus on that. Being that I read a wide range of titles, I honestly feel that I can find something for anyone based on their taste in movies and/or TV shows.
EC: What’s your experience with comic conventions and where do you see them going in the next few years?
JB: I think comic cons are great! There seem to be an awful lot of them these days but when they’re done right – they exceed expectations! Organized, lots of talent, focusing more on the comics with a little media thrown in is where it’s at! I think as long as comics are accessible to people and tie into movies and TV (mainstream), comic cons aren’t going anywhere any time soon! It’s also great for comic fans because it gives them a chance to meet the minds behind their favorite comics and get their comics signed or get a sketch or commission done by their favorite artists, ask questions with regards to inspiration or favorite story and really interact with the people who make/create the things they love so much. Where else can you do that?
EC: Is it true you are a newlywed and had a unique Pop Culture theme for your wedding?
JB: I’m a big Star Wars fan so once we were announced man and wife, I grabbed my original Han Solo plastic blaster from my childhood, my wife put on a headband that gave her Princess Leia buns, my best man put on a Chewbacca mask and my wife’s man of honor held a plastic light saber. The audio guys played the throne room music from Episode IV and we marched down the aisle as man and wife! We also gave out Lego Star Wars key chains to all our family and friends as wedding favors!
You’ve doubtlessly heard of Dante’s Inferno and his seven circles of hell. But did you know he had a couple of sequels, including Paradiso (i.e., Paradise)? I touch upon this I think that for so many geeks across the world, Free Comic Book Day is a uniquely shared day of celebration. This year, for this mini-paradise, I embarked on what was a sort of Circle of Free Comic Book Day: a seven store marathon FCBD pilgrimage to learn how it’s changed and why it’s a bigger deal each and every year.
I live just outside of New York City in New Jersey, so I mapped out a plan of action to visit several stores for the 14th Annual Free Comic Book Day. Created by entrepreneur, retailer, visionary and all-around-great-guy, Joe Fields, this holiday has now grown to a worldwide event, distributing an estimated 5.3 million comics, engaging national sponsors and rivaling Black Friday as a geek-centric retail blockbuster.
By its very nature, reading is a solitary event. On the other hand, comics, graphic novels and geek culture are inherently social. Free Comic Book Day offers a bridge across this divide. One of the magical transformations of FCBD is that it turns the experiences of reading/collecting, and typical one-on-one experience between the retailer and the customer, into a shared, event-like experience.
Based on my own very geocentric observations, here’s a few emerging trends I saw in my day long pilgrimage:
More Women, and more Moms. There’s been a lot written about the very healthy explosion of women participating in geek culture, and I saw so much evidence to support this. There many women – on their own, with kids, with other women and with significant others. Of particular note were the moms with whom I spoke. They are a new breed. They are fans that keep up with it along with their kids. The first mom I spoke with, Erika, brought her son Quincy and his friend. She revealed they’ve been buying comics since last free comics day, and was a lapsed Elfquest reader. The boys liked Spider-Man and Batman, but she showed her true colors when she explained she was going to pick up the last two issues of Saga because she was a month behind.
Lauren, another mom, kept here two adorable daughters from getting unruly as she explained she loves Vertigo’s Fables, the Avengers and Saga. Gladys, a mother of two making a mid-day FCBD stop with her family (and another young family), explained that he loves Harley Quinn and was ravenous to read anything with this breakout character.
Twenty-something fan girls were out in force as well. One woman, waiting in line at 4:30 during my final visit of the day, explained she’s a regular buyer, but had to miss last year’s FCBD as she was scheduled to work. She had just finished her shift and headed straight the The Joker’s Child comic store. At Funny Books, cosplay was encouraged and one woman was cosplaying Harley Quinn while another young woman proudly showed off the skirt she had made – and the fabric was adorned with female-empowerment magic items.
Sales Stronger than Ever. Dan Veltre of Dewey’s Comic City said that this year’s FCBD looked to eclipse last year’s event, and that “Free Comic Book Day is now bigger than Black Friday, bigger than Midnight Madness.” But FCBD is more than just a big one-day party. Every retailer realized it’s either the start of a new relationship or a way to strengthen existing ones, and then plans accordingly. Some offer coupons, some provided extra free comic books and one retailer, A&S Comics, encouraged customers at checkout to join their Belly loyalty program.
Creative Cosplay. A few years ago, FCBD might be a time break out a comic-themed T-shirt. This year, it’s an opportunity for many fans and retailers to cosplay. What a fun day for so many kids to cosplay, or the parents who encouraged them. Lego and DK Publishing, two Free Comic Book Day Sponsors, held costume contests in select stores. (Full Disclosure: Bonfire/GeekRiotMedia developed and managed this sponsorship.)
And many retailers got into the act too. Paradox Comics had a bouncer Harley Quinn and a Captain Marvel, with a FCBD, enticing drivers to stop by. Funny Books’ Spider-Man and Black Widow posed with fans, and the storeowner joined the fun as Captain America.
Community Focused. As more and more traditional retailers become less connected to their community, comic book shops seem to be taking the opposite approach. East Side Mags’ owner Jeff Beck worked with the local library to create a banner that fans were invited to draw on during FCBD. This will be on display thorough the summer. Other retailers, like A&S comics, worked out deals to create special coupon offers with other local businesses.
Long Lines and Deep Passion. Every store, throughout the day, I visited had a line full of fans waiting to join the celebration. Zapp Comics explained they had fans camping out starting at 3:30 am Saturday Morning, and there was a long line when they opened their doors at 8:00 am. They ran out of their FCBD comics by 12:30, and by afternoon were offering select current titles they had pulled off the rack so as to not disappoint fans. Some stores, like Dewey’s Comic City used the line wisely, with tents and free sketching from up-and-coming artists from the nearby Kubert Art School. Funny Books hauled the back issues out onto the sidewalk for a 50% sale. “The Free Comic Book Day Weather Gods are smiling upon us once again, “ said Steve Conte. And at the Joker’s Child, there was still a 20-minute wait to get in at 4:30 n Saturday afternoon.
A Busy Day. And as usual, the comic shop retailers were ones that customers turned to for help and recommendations. And sometimes retailers were simply the person with whom they could share the joy of the day. For most of us, neighborhood grocers, pharmacists, barbers and bookstore owners are a thing of the past. I’m glad, as were all the folks in the communities I visited, that we still have local comic shop retailers.
Special thanks to these great retailers (listed in the order of my FCBD visits):