May 2, 2010

Adventures in Free Comics

My son and I have shared a long and storied Geek History throughout the last 12 years. From bed-time comic book reading marathons to regular visits to the comic shop, from three visits to WonderCon to a crazy weekend at GenCon (to help sell Thugs! – buy one today), from a family outing to BlizzCon to MST3K weekend jags, even to long philosophical discussions concerning the potential outcome of a fight between Invincible and The Thing, our relationship has grown stronger and tighter through our shared Nerdage. But my son is going to be a teenager soon, and opportunities for us to bond in this way, I fear, will be slowly diminishing as friends, girls, and cars loom in the distance. It is with this fear in mind that I decided to make this year’s Free Comic Book Day especially memorable.

For those of you who don’t know, started in 2002, Free Comic Book Day (according to the web site) “is a single day when participating comic book specialty shops across North America and around the world give away comic books absolutely free to anyone who comes into their shops.” While we have done FCBD once before, it was never really an event for us, hardly even an outing. This year, though, we were going to celebrate it like it was (and is) a national holiday.

After building up excitement for FCBD for the last two weeks before the date, by the night of April 30th my son and I were practically frothing at the mouth in anticipation. That evening, we mapped out our route – four different shops to visit in a 92 mile carefully plotted circle – gotta love Mapquest. Before he went to sleep that night, after I said goodnight, my son looked at me and tiredly mumbled, “Tomorrow should be fun.”

On May 1st, at 6:00 in the morning, my son threw open the bedroom door and shouted “Free Comic Book Day!” In the ensuing three hours that I spent trying to get out of bed and unfog my brain, he was feverishly web searching everything he could about FCBD. Of particular interest to him were the Iron Man/Thor issue and the re-issue of The Tick #1, a long time favorite. Finally, after I shuddered down two cups of coffee, we were ready to head out to our first stop, what my son and I consider our local shop, A-1 Comics in Roseville, CA.

A-1 was scheduled to open at 10:00. We got there around 9:40, when there was still plenty of parking and only around 10 people milling about. By about 9:50, though, the parking lot was full and about 35 people had shown up (an interesting sociological side note: without any prompting or instruction, we all ended up forming a line to wait to get in – I guess Comics fans are, by nature, orderly and polite. Either that or queuing is such a part of our event mentality that it has become second nature). By the time the doors opened, the line was probably about 50 people deep.

Ron and the rest of the staff at A-1 had certainly embraced the trappings of the event – from the banner sign hanging on the front of their store, to everyone wearing FCBD t-shirts, to the store-wide sale they were putting on in conjunction with the day – it had all the makings of a happening. After the doors opened, we all orderly and politely shuffled down the main corridor of the store to the Free Comic Book table, where we were reminded that each customer could take two books of their choice. My son was able to complete his advanced planning by scoring both of the books in which he was most interested: Iron Man/Thor and The Tick. I chose Marvel’s Moon Knight Saga and a reprint of Boom! Studio’s Irredeemable #1 (one of the best series going right now, in my opinion). My son also scored a Bat Man Heroclix in the deal. We then perused the sale offerings and took advantage of the 20% off all new comics. My son got Image United #2 and all 5 issues of Marvel’s Prelude to Deadpool Corps. I grabbed issue 1 of Image’s Turf and IDW’s ZVR Adventure.

My son and I both agreed that this was a great way to start our FCBD adventure. Our only complaint was the layout/presentation of the store didn’t have any real thought out traffic flow. There was an instantaneous bottleneck at the FCBD offerings table, and after you got to grab your goodies (nice alliteration, eh?), the rest of the store was sort of a void. Instead of a natural progression from Free Comics to Sale Comics, we had to zig and zag our way around the bottleneck. I, for one, really wanted to take a peek at the new release Graphic Novel section, but this was totally blocked by the people waiting to get their freebies, which in turn meant lost sales for the great people at A-1. Had the FCBD table been moved closer to the front door and maybe some stanchions set up to guide the traffic, more people would have had more product in their hands by the time they hit the register.

Still, a great start to a full day, and we were eager for more. Our next stop was World’s Best Comics in Sacramento, CA. This store, like the rest of our journey this day, was new territory for us. We were both excited not only to grab more freebies, but also to get a look at the different layouts of new shops. We got a little lost on our way to World’s Best (hands clenching at Mapquest, hands clapping for GPS), so we didn’t get there until close to 11:00.

At World’s Best, there was a short, maybe 10 person line at the door waiting to get in. They had no outside the shop advertising (at one point while we were waiting an elderly gentleman walked by and asked what was going on), and it didn’t seem like there were any other events tied in to the day. The store itself was pretty cramped, and the FCBD offerings were stacked on an open box of other comics. If we hadn’t seen other people grabbing them, we would probably have missed them entirely. As it were, my son grabbed Bongo’s Simpson’s offering and Kevin Smith’s Green Hornet from Dynamite. I grabbed Dark Horse Publishing’s Doctor Solar/Magnus and DC’s War of the Supermen. We could have grabbed more, but both of us kinda felt that two each were enough – some sort of unwritten code among Elkin Geeks, I guess.

Like I said, World’s Best was pretty cramped, and there appeared to be only one staff member on hand (locked behind the cash/wrap ringing up things). There was a good layout to the store, though. In order to get out, we pretty much had to look at everything there was to see in the store. While seemingly a back issue and toy heavy retail operation, there was a nice wall display of new comics. Their graphic novel section, though, seemed to consist of a couple of book shelves with all their titles spine out. Not real conducive to browsing, as it were. It’s always great to go to new shops, though, just to see what they’ve got. My son and I both agreed, though, that we probably weren’t going back to World’s Best any time soon.

Next on our list was a stop at Adventures in Comics and Games in Carmichael, CA. The GPS guided us perfectly, but the moment we pulled in to the parking lot and saw the bars on the windows and door, we knew we were in for a pretty serious old-school comic shop experience. And old school is what we got. Walking into Adventures in Comics and Games was not what I would call a welcoming experience on first sight. There was a seedy combination of stained carpet, tattered long boxes, musty odor, and plastic gaming tables that overwhelmed us as we entered. The fact that we were the only customers in there (on FCBD, mind you), only added to our trepidation.

Our mutual uneasiness with our surroundings, though, dissipated quickly the moment that one of the staff, a gentleman both my son and I assumed was the owner, greeted us warmly and engaged us quickly in the business at hand. His affability and accessibility may have been a result of us being the only patrons in the shop, but for whatever reason, his customer service was first rate. We talked a bit about the FCBD comics. I grabbed Image Comics’ Fractured Fables (mostly because of the Mike Allred cover), and David Peterson’s Mouse Guard from Archaia Press (both of which I would highly recommend to parents considering getting their youngsters into comics) which was paired with their launch of a new Fraggle Rock series (come on, admit it, you remember Jim Henson’s Fraggles – and have a secret special place in your heart for them). Our friendly gentleman answered my son’s questions about WarHammer 40K and directed us to their new release section, extolling the merits of some other titles based on our conversation up to that point. What would have probably been a quick “grab the freebies and run” experience turned into probably the most pleasant time my son and I had during the day. My son purchased a Punisher comic and Beta Ray Bill comic (both from Marvel), while I settled for a Marvel One-shot: X-Men Origins Nightcrawler. There were two other young people on staff, and they couldn’t have been nicer as well. What Adventures in Comics and Games lacked in aesthetics, they made up for in customer service. It was a bit disheartening to see the lack of turnout for FCBD at Adventures (this was at about 11:30 A.M.), and I hope this is not indicative of their normal flow of customers. If you happen to live nearby, drop on in and at least say hi.

Our final stop was a much newer store in Folsom, CA: GamersCircle Comics. GamersCircle was making the best of FCBD and turned it into a real event. Greeting us at the door were members of 501st Legion (“The World’s Definitive Imperial Costuming Organization”): a couple of Storm Troopers, an impressive Darth Vader, and what was either a Jawa or a Jedi. There were balloons and signs everywhere. Not a whole lot of people though. The store itself was bright, well laid out, and very welcoming, with new comics displayed on the walls, back issues in the middle, and toys and games sprinkled here and there. Their graphic novel section, much like World’s Best before it, consisted of 3 bookshelves, and all the books were displayed spine out (I still say this is really a terrible way to merchandise what could be a meat-and-potato product for the store – but I digress). A young man sitting at a table in the back pointed out the store’s FCBD offerings of which we were each allowed 2 choices. My son had pretty much scored all the books he was interested at this point, but I grabbed Image’s Savage Dragon and Red 5 Comics’ Atomic Robo. From the sale shelves, my son got the first issue of Geoff Johns’ The Flash (from DC), and I grabbed Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger one-shot.

For all the festive trappings of FCBD at GamersCircle and the nice open welcoming layout of the store, our customer service experience was not the greatest. No personalized conversation or sell-through to be found, no encouragement to purchase anything more or even come back. My son and I both agreed that we did not feel particularly welcomed at GamersCircle, and for that reason, we probably wouldn’t be going back.

This was our last stop for Free Comic Book Day. At around 12:30, we stopped at Urban Dog (good food this!) for lunch and reflected on our experience together. Both of us were glad we made a day of it. We chatted about the different characteristics of the stores we had seen. We talked about our dreams of opening our own shop someday (if anyone is interested in funding us, we’ve got a Business Plan all ready to go!) and how we could use the lessons we learned today. We both looked forward to heading home to read our new goodies. We both decided that it was a good day, and what really made it the best was that we got to spend it together.

My hope is that as the years pass and puberty really hits and girls and cars wash through his poor hormone addled brain, my son will look back on this year’s Free Comic Book Day, a day he spent with his dad, and remember it as a good time. With all the distractions there are already in his life, having the opportunity to spend five unadulterated hours with my son questing after comics and enjoying the experience of just being together is priceless. Free Comic Book Day is the first Saturday in May. I hope it can continue to be a family holiday at our house for years to come.

Post Script: This evening at bed time, I asked my son to tell me about his favorite part of the day. He quickly pointed to a moment we had in the car while waiting at a red light. To our left was one of those sign-spinning guys you see advertising sales or liquidations at various places of business. Right before the light turned green, this guy stopped spinning his sign and started … for lack of a better term … “humping” it. The initial shock we experienced after seeing this occur subsided into a fit of pure puerile giggling on both our parts and then swelled into full-on belly laughs for a good 2 or 3 minutes. When I asked my son why this was his favorite part of the day, he replied, “Because we laughed so hard together.” Free Comic Book Day 2010 was a good day, a very good day indeed.