Free Comic Book Day 2011: An Overview

The month of May brings more than just warm weather and summer blockbusters. For comic book fans the world over, especially those in Chicago, Free Comic Book Day is the shining beacon that marks the end of a long, cold winter. FCBD means those much touted event books from the Big Two are right around the corner, and comic book movie adaptations aren't far behind either. This year saw the release of Thor the same weekend as FCBD, while past releases have included Wolverine and Star Trek. Despite a large amount of store participation across the world, many fans still do not know what this wonderful event is about. Speaking from retail experience, many casual comic readers see posters for FCBD and think, "What's the catch?" Though every store has different criteria, the main idea remains the same. Stop in to your local comic book store on the first Saturday in May and you can get 1 or more free books specifically released for FCBD, no purchase necessary. These books are not free for retailers, but they are a great promotional tool for comic shops to introduce new readers to hot titles, especially younger fans. It's a wonderful event that I eagerly await every year, and 2011 was no exception. I managed to visit four stores in the Chicagoland area, though I would have liked to go to more. Here's a rundown of the exciting events, and of course, the free goodies that were obtained!

Graham Crackers in Edgewater

This guy means business. Take the free books already!
Starting with the store closest to my home, Graham Crackers was already packed and bustling with activity less than an hour after opening their doors. In case passers by were unaware of the event, a fan dressed as a stormtrooper standing on the sidewalk gave the hint that fun was underway. My visit was short, yet I saw several young fans walking by that were overjoyed by the prospect of free comics. For shop owners, seeing even a few unsuspecting pedestrians discover your store makes the event worth the cost. Free comics weren't the only draw for Graham Crackers either; plenty of other freebies were available as well from Hero Clix to movie passes. Also in attendance, local writer Matt Anderson was on site to sign copies of his recent all-ages release Kung Fu Panda, a perfect fit for FCBD. This being my first stop of the day, I made sure to pick up the books I knew I wanted: Locke & Key, Giant Sized Action; Super Dinosaur, Origin Special; and the B.P.R.D. Seattle One-Shot, an Emerald City Comic-Con exclusive that Graham Crackers had on hand as an extra for the day.
Seen at top right, writer Matt Anderson. These crowds made me glad I stopped in first, as they surely ran out of a few titles early on.

Dark Tower in Lincoln Square
FCBD adverts dominated Dark Tower's windows for weeks beforehand.
Another crowded venue, Dark Tower still had plenty of books to give away at noon. One of the best parts of FCBD is that publishers offer such a wide range of titles for the event that it is nearly impossible for a store to carry every single release, making it worth your while to visit more than one shop. Dark Tower generously had a few hefty stacks of titles that were not released for FCBD, full price books that they were happily giving away to fans. This included the first issue of Locke & Key: Keys to the Kingdom. Considering this is a $4 issue of a fantastic ongoing series, I felt compelled to show my gratitude by picking up Locke & Key: Head Games as well as Jeffrey Brown's Cats Are Weird. (It was tempting to pick up more books considering all trades were 40% off.) Dark Tower also had two artists on hand, Chris Burnham and Hillary Barta, though they had yet to arrive when I was there. I didn't stick around as I wanted to visit as many stores as possible. I did catch an appearance of Zatanna before I left! The official FCBD books I picked up included Discovery Channel's Top 10 Deadliest Sharks; Top Shelf's Kid's Club; and the Dark Horse flip book with Baltimore and Criminal Macabre.
For those that aren't familiar with Zatanna, she is famous for her spell-casting backward speak. Also above, the as-yet-to-be-filled table for Burnham and Barta, and the large stack of free Locke & Key issues.

Of all of the stores on FCBD, Dark Tower was the easiest to navigate despite the crowds.

Challengers Comics + Conversation in Bucktown
Step 1. Find free comics. Step 2. Pick free comics. Step 3. Enjoy.
I arrived just in time for the re-stocking of Challenger's free comic book shelves. As co-owner Pat Brower pointed out, this gives participants an equal opportunity of free books to choose from no matter when they stop by. Some stores such as Ohio's Bookery Fantasy even give away pre-selected packages of the books to ensure late comers get a variety of titles. Pat and company also gave me a few recommendations for the best books to grab while they re-stocked. I picked up Captain America and Thor, The Mighty Fighting Avengers; Oni Press' Rated Free For Everyone; Atomic Robo; The Intrepid Escape Goat; and Young Justice and Batman Brave and the Bold Super Sampler. Two artists with books being released for FCBD were on hand to do sketches, and it was amazing to see these guys in action. Both Chris Mitten of Criminal Macabre and Mike Norton of Young Justice happily met every and any request for fans willing to stand in line. My request for a femme fatale with tentacles was granted by Mitten, while Norton's Kid Flash will make a fine present for a certain Flash fan I know with a 7th birthday on the horizon. Seeing these pros in action was a highlight of the day. For fans in a hurry, one could stop in Challenger's Rouge's Gallery to view original artwork from both Mitten and Norton. Still currently on display, the works are available for purchase.
From top left: Mike Norton documents a sketch before giving it away; Mitten and Norton hard at work; Mitten's tentacle mistress in progress; another Mitten sketch, Iron Man, handed out; Norton puts the final touches on Kid Flash.
At right, Chris Mitten shows off the final product. I love love loved this sketch!

Comic Vault in Uptown
From top left: FCBD is made a family affair at Comic Vault; Jonathan Hickman with his S.H.I.E.L.D hardcover; Hickman signs a copy of FF for a young fan; a Hickman sketch for FF; and of course, free books!
I told myself I would visit at least two more stores after Comic Vault*, but this ended up being my final destination. With six creators on hand, it is no wonder that I stayed longer than expected. Two artists began the "Creator Death Match" shortly after my arrival, which made it even harder to pull myself away and head to the next store on my list. I was most looking forward to meeting Jonathan Hickman, a writer that has quickly become one of Marvel's most important creators. Without a doubt, I have a much easier time meeting artists in person. One can request a sketch, or simply watch them in action if reluctant to chat. When I meet writers I turn into Chris Farley from those SNL sketches where he interviews celebrities only to prove himself a nervous starstruck amateur. I felt more in my element photographing Hickman rather than chatting about his recent work on Fantastic Four. Awkwardness in action! The "sketch-off" between artists Dave Lasso and Tom Kelly was judged by the additional creators in attendance including Hickman, Tom StillwellMike Moreci, and Brian Crowley. The lucky winner Tom Kelly received a Thor Slurpee topper / hood ornament of The Destroyer. Not to be overshadowed by the events of the day, free comics were also enjoyed, including the Archaia double feature of Mouse Guard and The Dark Crystal; Toy Boy (being distributed for free by writer Stillwell), and Green Lantern: Special Edition.
From Left: Mike Moreci and Brian Crowley judging the final works; Lasso's work begins to overtake Kelly's; Lastly, victor Tom Kelly with his prize and Dave Lasso looking crushed.

Top Left: artist Brian Crowley works on a watercolor; At bottom, Tom Stillwell with his book Toy Boy; Hickman and Comic Vault owner Matt Sardo let their inner 12-year-old loose; A young fan peaks in during the Hulk match.
Finally, a special thanks to all of the stores that I was able to visit, and the ones I didn't get a chance to see as well, such as Third Coast Comics and Evil Squirrel just to name a few. FCBD is only possible because these stores are willing to give away the books and organize the events. Show them your appreciation by stopping by and picking up a few extra titles!

*For those that missed the announcement, I am now a current employee of Comic Vault, though I was not working the day of FCBD,