Monday, May 08, 2006

Frankly Cranky Bemused Digressions

I've got a confession to make which may seem unusual to some who read this blog. It may come as a shock, but I have never been to a Free Comic Book Day.
To explain why I have uniformly abstained throughout this event's five-year history, I should probably go back in time a bit, to the event's initial conception and announcement. Back in the dark days of the late 90s and early 00s, the industry -- all corners of the industry -- were in the doldrums. Manga was still a blip. The alt-comics revolution that would eventually land comics in the pages of The New York Times was still nascent. The "new mainstream" had not, I don't believe, even been coined. Now, things are better for a number of reasons which don't directly impact on actual circumstances in the direct market. The manga explosion, the beachhead of alt-comics within the mainstream book world (and the concomitant critical acceptance), as well as the consistent success (despite some underperforming flops) of big superhero blockbusters have provided reasons for fans of all kinds of comics to be happy. There's still a lot of crap out there (as much crap, if not more, as there has ever been), the direct market mechanism is as creaky and one-sided as ever, and the runaway success of the Spider-Man movies have hardly translated into a proportionate increase in sales of Spider-Man comics . . . but people in all fields of comicdom have legitimate reasons to be happy for the present and optimistic for the future.
But when FCBD was first announced, it looked, to me, like the silliest idea to come along in quite some time. I mean, on paper, it had all the makings of a fiasco: an industry-wide initiative to get free comics into the hands of new readers, with the hopes of turning those new readers into recurring readers and, the idea goes, recurring customers. These things never work as planned. People love free stuff, but giving away free stuff for which there is not already a predetermined audience didn't seem like a fertile idea. For instance, people give away candy every year at Halloween, but it doesn't encourage people to buy more or less candy than they otherwise would, because candy is something everyone knows exists, which is available in convenient retail outlets in every urban center in America. Giving away free comics with the hopes of attracting new business sounded, to me, a bit like giving away free model trains in the hope of creating new train fetishists: most people, if pressed, are loathe to turn down anything free, but one plastic caboose will not turn someone into a lifelong trainspotter, anymore than a free issue of Ultimate Spider-Man is going to inspire them to open up a subscription at the local neighborhood comic shop and start dropping $50 a week every Wednesday. Given the depressing state of the industry in the years leading up to the first FCBD, it seemed like the kind of exercise in which it would be difficult to tell waving from drowning.

So, the reasoning went, I figured FCBD would have an inauspicious debut and fade into the ether from whence it came, to be filed alongside Valiant Vision staple-less comics and Crossgen as yet another idea that seemed a lot better on paper than in practice. And then a funny thing happened: not only did the event not crash & burn, but it survived into the next year, and the next and the next after that. Whereas it was initially tied to the release of a massive comic-oriented blockbuster release (a smart cross-promotion, actually) it eventually outgrew the connection to become an industry event in its own right. All of which made me scratch my head in wonder.

Because, ultimately, I can't really understand why people who already know comics get so excited about FCBD. When the date was first announced I resolved to stay away from comic shops for the very simple reason that I knew I would be superfluous to the day's stated goals. I'm a lifelong comics fans. Even if I don't spend as much money on comics as I used to (which is really an understatement), I still know way more about the industry and artform than your average fan. Hell, I'm considered enough of an expert to have successfully tricked the Journal into letting me write a column -- imagine that! I'm the last person your average comic book store should want bumming around on a day supposedly dedicated to enticing new costumers. I'm an old costumer with established buying habits. Just about anyone in the position to be reading this comics-oriented blog is a known quantity in the minds of retailers: someone who knows what they like, what to buy and where to buy it. Giving your or I a free comic in the name of industry outreach seems like the definition of a wasted initiative.

And yet, it works. Or rather, it continues. I don't really think we can judge whether or not it "works", because there's no way to judge the success of a program like this without the kind of rigorous industry-wide tracking system that the industry is simply unable to organize. So we've got anecdotal evidence and a few informal industry surveys, all of which add up to the fact that comic book stores across the nation haven't seen their sales double or triple as a result of a massive influx of new customers. But the initiative continues, and seems to have found its focus less as a specific industry outreach program than a general day of celebration for comics fans across the country. At this point, the way people act and make plans to celebrate the day, the planning committee could probably get away with dropping "Free" from the title. People in the industry get excited about it in a way I don't quite understand. Larger and medium-size shops throw signing events with local talent -- some even fly talent in from out of the area. People make plans with friends to visit the shop on FCBD. None of which makes sense to me.

(But then, at this point, I'm so bitter and jaded the best "industry outreach" possible in my mind would probably be to raze every comic store to the ground and build "Nerd Memorials" with twenty-foot tall bronze statues of morbidly obese twenty-somethings with bad grooming and Cheeto-fingers, clutching a can of store-brand grape soda and dedicated to the continuing plight of those stricken with early-onset diabetes. But I digress.)

I guess, at the end of the day, FCBD is a rallying point, one day of the year for people who read comics to come out of their holes, be sociable, celebrate their hobby and invite outsiders to join them. Which is all well and good but it still doesn't do much for me, sorry -- boosterism is still boosterism, regardless of the cause. I shrink from public displays of enthusiasm for the very simple reason that I am not generally an enthusiastic person. My likes and dislikes are, for the most part, private likes and dislikes, and I see little profit in inviting the general public to enjoy them with me. There's a difference between making your field open and accessible to outsiders and novices, something the comics field has never excelled at, and acting like an overeager puppy-dog desperate for affection, or, in this case, public affirmation that they are not social outcasts and that their hobby has great intrinsic value to the world at large. Has an influx of new readers, inspired by free comic books to become more regular customers, prompted once-lackadaisical retailers to make their businesses more accessible to novices? Anecdotal evidence (the only kind we can really depend on in this instance) tells us that the retailers who profit from FCBD are those retailers who are already situated well ahead of the curve in these regards. The real beneficiaries of FCBD might very well be the smaller publishers who use the opportunity to get samples of their product into the hands of customers who might otherwise be hesitant to try books from an off-brand publisher like Oni or Top Shelf or Fantagraphics, but again, without any solid evidence I couldn't say one way or another. The best way to turn a friend into a comics fan is still the same as it's always been: give them a comic book you think they might like. Don't just give them a pile of free crap and ask them to wade through them all in hopes of finding a gem that will inspire life-long devotion.

So, yeah, I guess I'm still indifferent. I don't begrudge anyone their right to have a good time, but I have to wonder if the general purpose of FCBD hasn't evolved into something less coherent than it was initially proposed, as more of an all-purpose Up With Comics! day than any concentrated industry outreach. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but giving free comics to people who would probably buy them anyway seems slightly . . . useless? But then, that brings to mind a pithy aphorism I once gave my father: I don't necessarily think that the glass is half-empty or half-full so much as filled with rotting dog shit. So, if I seem surly and disgruntled, don't mind me and go about your business.

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