Reading Nick's post again the other day got me thinking about my experiences with Free Comic Book Day. There are two instances in particular I'm remembering, and I think both shed some light on the importance of retailers in the comics industry. I'll tell you about them chronologically.
Waaaay back in 2008, my boyfriend and I traveled to Deerfield, Massachusetts to spend the weekend with one of my best friends and her boyfriend. Deerfield was her hometown and we had a grand time getting shown around all the cute shops and cool boutiques and rural walkways of the area. One morning, we drove to an adjacent town for no specific reason I can remember, and looking for something to do, we wandered into a storefront that had large posters of comic superheroes plastered all over the front windows.
Upon entering, the store immediately reminded me of the comic stores I avoided when I was a little kid. The walls were painted a dark color and books were stacked everywhere, with boxes upon boxes filling tables with cardboard-supported back issues. Instead of having a delightful, stuffed ambiance like every used bookstore ever, leaving me ready for a browsing adventure, these crammed comics shops usually filled me with a sense of dread. If I ever passed one and looked in the window, I often saw bunches of middle-aged men flipping through books intensely, or searching for something intensely, never looking or talking to anyone around them. Or if they did talk, they were loud and opinionated; I could hear their voices rattling through the glass sometimes. I bought all my "Batman: The Animated Series" comics at Media Play, so scared was I to enter these grim places.
Anyway, L, Z, R (R being my boyfriend) and I entered this shop and started to browse. There was a group of three guys hanging out at the front counter, but I didn't pay much attention, since such shops turn me into one of those intently staring people. I've become convinced over the years that you never look up in crowded comics shops because if you did, all the superheroes in the posters slapped up on the walls would jump all over you. And who wants Wolverine to poke you in the eye with one of his claws?
So, there I was browsing, and I came upon a book I'd been meaning to read for a while. It was Superman: Secret Identity, written by Kurt Busiek and with art by Stuart Immonen. If you like Superman and haven't read this miniseries about a Superman growing up on an Earth without other superheroes, you're missing out! Busiek's exploration of identity and maturation through the eyes of a being with miraculous powers is pretty breathtaking, so I'd recommend it to everybody. Here's Immonen's amazing art and inks to entice you, in Clark's first flight:
"THAT'S A GREAT BOOK," he said way too loudly.
"Uh, thanks," I said, taking out my credit card to be swiped.
"NO, SERIOUSLY. IT'S -- LIKE -- REALLY, REALLY GOOD."
"That's good to hear. It looks good."
"LIKE, ONE OF THE BEST SUPERMAN BOOKS OUT THERE. I BET YOU DIDN'T KNOW THAT."
I sighed, mentally. Oh, here we go. There's a girl in the comic shop, she must not know anything about comics. "Well, I'd heard a lot about it and read about it and Busiek's had a really good run on Superman and Astro City, so ..."
"IT'S REALLY UNDERRATED. IT'S REALLY AWESOME THAT YOU'VE GOT GOOD TASTE LIKE THAT."
I looked to the back of the store. There was L, Z and R. And no one was lifting their heads up at this guy's voice. I thought his tone was really kind of endearing in its enthusiasm, when I got right down to it, and I wanted others to witness it for themselves.
"YOU KNOW, IF YOU EVER WANTED ANY GOOD RECOMMENDATIONS, YOU KNOW, THERE'S CARDS RIGHT HERE WITH THE STORE'S NUMBER AND STUFF ON HERE. IF YOU WANTED TO GET IN TOUCH."
He stared at me without blinking, like he was trying to tell me something.
Wait a minute. Was this dude hitting on me?
"YOU KNOW, IF YOU WANTED TO TAKE ONE."
"Thanks, but I don't really live in the area."
"OH. WELL, IF YOU'RE EVER BACK HERE ..."
By this point, my card had been swiped and my brown bag was ready to go. But the register guy hadn't handed it back yet. He had put his hand over its brown surface so I couldn't just grab it from the counter, and I wasn't sure why, but he seemed to be sizing me up with his eyes. Then he finally spoke: "I've got something for you."
"Oh, yeah?" I said. "Well, I really just wanted this, so--"
He waved my words away with a hand and walked out from behind the counter to one of the black wire racks nearby. "No, you like good comics, you deserve something extra." He plucked a thin issue out of the racks and handed it to me. The cover read something about the DC universe and a crisis and it was labelled zero and it wasn't something I'd ever pick up for myself in a million years, even though it had Superman on the cover bestriding a sky full of stars. I looked up at the register dude. He looked back at me solemnly as my hands closed around the book.
"That's for Free Comic Book Day," he said. (First I'd ever heard of the event, which had been earlier that month; he explained the concept to me, which I thought was rad, because -- free stuff!) "Right now this issue's supposed to be fifty cents. But you're cool, you can have it for free."
"Yeah. Like the man said, you've got good taste."
I shuffled over to the counter, slid the issue into my brown bag and creased the opening shut. "Gee, thanks, guys," I said, trying not to answer their serious and genuine offer of street cred with a giggle or something else they might deem inappropriate. It was actually kinda nice they made a fuss over something that cost fifty cents (something that at this moment I realize I may have given away or tossed in the trash within a year or two of receiving it).
What I'm really saying is that it's nice they made a fuss over me. Lots of times, girls in comics shops raise eyebrows of all varieties, but for once I didn't feel put-off by loud talking or serious study of books. These three guys just cared A LOT about what they were reading, and what's more, they cared a lot about what I was reading and they wanted to help me read more (the book I'd gotten for free was a preview for events that would affect the next three years of DC comics; it put me ahead of the curve on continuity). That doesn't happen often, even in used bookstores. And it's worth mentioning now, because it shows the marks of smart businessmen, who are vital to the comics industry ...
... Even if I did return to the counter with R a few minutes later when he wanted to purchase a trade and I mentioned that he was my boyfriend eighty times in two minutes, just to make things clear to Mr. Loud Talking Leather Jacket. Because I'm a spaz.
Anyway, moving forward. It's 2010 and I'm working in the tourist industry in Philadelphia. Now in the tourist industry, you always work weekends; it's impossible not to work weekends. That's when people want to see stuff. So I was in a pickle on Free Comic Book Day that year; I had to work that weekend. And it might not have been important to me, except I'd found a home at a lovely comics store on South Street called Showcase Comics (sometimes referred to as Atomic City Comics, depending on what sign you look at).
This shop is one of the friendliest places I've ever frequented on a regular basis (now semi-regular; I go back on breaks from school; they still recognize me there). The staff is charming and fun, more than willing to show off the low-budget ninja movies they're making on the side via their big screen TV, and yet ready to help you search for anything you could possibly want if you look lost. When checking out, they will strike up great conversations about what you've purchased, what's comparable to it, what they like about the artist or writer, and also how you found the artist, writer or story. When I came in week after week to buy a new Astro City trade (seriously, I bought the entire available run of that book in about three weeks), they understood my excitement and argued the pros and cons of what Busiek was doing with the series, instead of looking at me like I was a happy-spending, obsessed freak.
To boot, the store's selection was (and still is) great; the manager clearly had his head to the ground and adjusted his selection layout based on what was popular, but didn't let the upcoming comic movie of the summer take over the whole place. They also had racks of indie comics, back issues, memoir comics, an amazing trades section and a great little section for kids. And everything was painted white or bright primary colors! Plus, for a while, they had the X-Men arcade game from the 1980s!
I loved this store and its staff, I always felt safe in the family-friendly environment they created (there were always lots of kids running around, many belonging to staff members, who were basically all adults with family, etc.), and I loved being able to talk about comics stuff with professional people. So missing out on FCBD was a bummer in Philly, because it meant I wouldn't be able to talk about what was hip and happening with some of the most knowledgeable people in comics I had access to. Not that I knew any of the staff members' names; I was always too timid to ask. But on FCBD, I felt like I should be spending part of my day with them.
But I couldn't; I had to make that money, son. So instead, I went in on my day off, which was probably some random day like the next Wednesday. I wandered into the store, picked up whatever I felt like buying, etc. The manager was at the counter, and he looked up when I stepped over to pay. He smiled and said, "Hey, we missed you this weekend."
"Yeah," I said. "Had to work. I bet it was a madhouse in here."
"You bet. Every year, this thing gets more popular. We ran outta books! Kids're just ripping stuff off the shelves, you know."
"That's awesome," I said.
"Yeah, well, like I said, you didn't come in. And when I didn't see you, I saved some stuff for you."
"What?" The whole point of FCBD is to give away a bunch of crap in order to get people to buy more crap. Why save something for someone who isn't going to show and doesn't want to buy Green Lantern comics? That's losing you money.
"I mean, there were some little kids that came in this week who missed the free books, and I mean, they're little kids, so they had to get into the stash first, but ..."
The manager turned to the back rack of comics behind the counter and pulled out three or four books for me (a Spiderman, a Green Lantern I ended up giving to R, and some other things I can't remember exactly). He slipped them into my brown bag as he continued to check me out.
"Hey, we gotta look out for our own, don't we? I mean, you're a regular, we gotta keep you up to date."
I was a regular, I'd never been a regular anywhere before that ever.
I stuck out a hand for a shake, which he took, and I slowed down.
"I dig this store so much and I think you guys do a great job."
"Oh. No problem." And he handed me my comics.
See, both the Massachusetts store and the Philly store have something in common. The free books didn't matter, marketing-wise or industry-wise; more often than not, they were filler. But both these memories mean something to me because of the gesture involved in each. We can get mad at DC and Marvel for not giving their audiences what they want because they're corporations, but when it comes right down to it, retailers are the first line of defense in their arsenal, and they should give retailers more credit and give them better stock, as Nick suggested.
Because I've been to the comics store in my current grad school town once. R and I went in on one of my breaks and the sales people sat back by their gaming tables the whole time, never said hi, never wanted to chat, nothing. They stared at us like we should leave, so we did. And I've never gone back there. And I never will.
Running a good business means being good to your customers. And when you're working in a niche market like comics, the little gestures, the little kindnesses pay out for you in the end. I know they meant everything to me. These two stories are yarns I still tell years down the line, and they're part of what makes me love comics culture, despite my constant anger and frustrated expectations at major comics companies in general. The people are what make things go, however.
It's good to remember that once in a while. That there are people out there who love what you love and see the possibilities that you see in something. And it's worth reaching out to them the same way they reach out to you.
In that spirit, I'd like to take a moment to thank everyone in these two stores I mentioned, though I doubt they'll ever read this blog. But if they do, they should know they made one comics fan happen one day or another, and she's tried to spread that enthusiasm on to others. Trick of the trade, you know.
POST-SCRIPT: On that note, I tell you with extreme excitement that in the next few weeks, I will be doing round-table reviews with my learned friend and fellow comics fanatic Ed. We aim to read a gaggle of the DCnu 52 books, like JLA 1, Action Comics 1, Batwoman 1, etc., etc.
I'm looking forward to it, even if this company decision causes me a lot of pain. Talking out this new direction should be fun for us, and I hope it's fun for you. Stay tuned for the first set of reviews!
Superman: Secret Identity: Stuart Immomen, Artist; Todd Klein, Letterer.