Ever since I was young, I've been what some would call a voracious reader and what some others would call a total dork. I learned to read early, and basically devoured whatever I could. Usually my choice of book was entirely dependent on the cover art (a lot of judging books by their covers, har har), which led me to reading a lot of somewhat lurid fiction, which probably wasn't enitely appropriate for a kid my age.
Most of the blame for that falls squarely on R.L. Stine's shoulders, because I read his adult novel, Superstition, thinking it would be like a really scary Goosebumps book. It wasn't. It was the first book I ever read with the word "masturbation" in it, and led therefore to the first of many awkward conversations with my parents as the result of reading books which were at my reading level but not necessarily my life level.
Oddly, comics books didn't really appeal to me until I was freshman in high school, even though they had some of the best cover art. I think part of it was the idea that comics only came one at a time and the stories never truly finished. Half the fun of reading, for me, is seeing the story wrap itself up, tie a bow, and finish itself off. But one day, a capricious trip to my library's Teens section yielded a new result: the graphic novel. Somewhat shockingly, my local library in suburban Cincinnati (such a small branch that it fit comfortably into a strip mall, right next to an Ace Hardware) was well-stocked with comic books, running the gamut from the entire Dragonball magna to single issues to the collected landmark series, such as The Dark Knight Returns and Crisis On Infinite Earths.
Being an awkward, unathletic teenager with no real goals in life, The Dark Knight Returns appealed to me on a gut level because Batman was everything I wasn't: focused, driven to a singular goal, and athletic as shit, not to mention had a hefty bit of Bruce Wayne swag and could have gotten all the ladies. I went home that afternoon and devoured the sucker. I think I skipped dinner, which is unusual, because if there's one thing I love, it's dinner. Now that I knew that comics could tell self-contained stories, I couldn't get enough of them. I read all of the graphic novels, the collected editions and whathaveyous I could get my hands on from the library. It didn't matter what it was, I'd read it.
Shortly thereafter, I saw on AOL's homepage (if that doesn't date me a bit, nothing will) that there was this magical day in May called Free Comic Book Day. I loved comic books! I loved free things! I loved days! What could be better?? So I dragged my friends to our local comic book store (Queen City Comics and Cards, which I'm convinced is the only comic book store in the Greater Cincinnati area, right across from the best record store in town, Everybody's) with promises of free issues of whatever comics they wanted, and hell, maybe I'd buy something, just for laughs.
And then we saw the selection of books.
Free Comic Book Day is a horrendously obvious marketing tool for the industry in general, but we let them get away with it because, God bless 'em, at least they're trying. They give away a free comic book to anyone who wants one as a sort of gateway drug into the Scarface mound of cocaine that is the comic book world. As a friend of mine once put it, "Oh, so it's like with coke, where the first one they give you is a real good batch to get you hooked and coming back for the stuff cut with milk powder." Yes. Yes, it's exactly like that, except for one difference: the first one is almost all milk powder.
Issue 0's: As a backhanded way of trying to get you involved in reading a company-wide crossover and get some of the exposition out of the way, a lot of "Issue 0's" get handed out on FCBD (I'm tired of typing that all out, forgive the abbreviation). The most recent example that comes to mind was Issue 0 of DC's Blackest Night, a crossover centered around the Green Lantern Corps, which is making a comeback in a big way, and has been for several years now. I think I can safely say that it was an entirely unnecessary issue that was basically just the Flash (Barry Allen) and Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) standing around, talking about death. It was interesting as a Platonic dialogue between two people have died before about the nature of death and the loss of friends, but it didn't move the story until the last page, when the Black Lantern showed up; basically a whole sequence that was repeated at the beginning of Issue #1 of Blackest Night. Nothing about the issue gave me a sense of urgency, of needing to read Blackest Night immediately when it hit the stands. I'm pretty sure Blackest Night started in the summer of 2009 and I didn't read it until the collected hardcover came out, which was something like winter of 2010/2011.
Reprint collections: There's usually at least one comic that's a couple old EC horror comic stories that have been reprinted with new color and whathaveyou. They're satisfying stand-alone stories, and the new color is always nice, but they're rarely the pick of the litter. I mean, I love those old horror comics, and God knows I love Creepshow, but honestly, if it's either that or an Issue 0, I'm gonna go with the Issue 0, because I don't know what's in it. It's like on Let's Make A Deal: You can either have the sweet new guitar that you've already got, or you can open the mystery door and possibly get a bitchin' new car. Unfortunately, in this scenario, usually there's a heaping pile behind the mystery door.
Dark Horse: Dark Horse is one of the few comic publishers that I think gets it right every year on FCBD. Their offering is usually something Mike Mignola-related, be it a Hellboy story (which are always fairly stand-alone to start with) or a random short that Mike cranks out, plus, they usually have something Star Wars, which is always nice. I'd venture to say that Hellboy and Star Wars are Dark Horse's two biggest properties, so it's sort of like if DC and Marvel would ball up and put a Batman, a Superman, a Spiderman and an Avengers title on the shelf. For free.
Not enough books: This isn't a kind of book, but the past couple years, I've gotten to the comic book store and they've been out of free comics, which means people even took the weird outlier books from Top Cow and whatnot. I don't know if that's the fault of whoever runs the store because they didn't order enough, or if that's even how it works, so let's not place blame for this one, we'll just say it's an unfortunate reality and we'll move along.
Alright, we've made it this far, here's where I finally deduce the problem. I feel like Free Comic Book Day is going about its marketing in a wholly wrong way, which could be extrapolated to the industry as a whole (but that's an entirely different essay). They're offering a free product to supposedly an untapped market of non-readers, but because they're offering sub-par material, they're not getting the readers they should be. There is a scummy undertone to this whole affair, where you can essentially smell the fear of the companies that they are losing a profit for a whole day.
My admonition to the industry as a whole is this: You're multi-billion companies. You put out movies that make staggering amounts of money, like, feed-a-third-world-country-for-years money, and that's not even counting the cash cows like Iron Man and The Dark Knight. Would it kill you to put some A-list talent to good use and have someone write a free comic book that would just knock it out of the park? If you want people to know what they're missing, you have to give them what they're missing. You need to get Grant Morrison to just unleash himself on a single issue, get Tim Sale to draw something rad, I don't know, SOMETHING.
But until that happens, I'll still be in line on FCBD this May, waiting for my milk powder.