Recently, I had the privilege of speaking with Joe Field, owner of Flying Colors in Concord, CA, winner of the Will Eisner “Spirit of Comics” Award for Comics Specialty Retailing Excellence, recent recipient of the Bob Clampett Humanitarian Award, and overall lover of comic books.
Joe very kindly shared some of his busy day with me to explain some of the history and benefits of Free Comic Book Day, now entering its fourteenth year, and to share his enthusiasm for this amazing event that he started.
MJ: In the August 2001 issue of Krause Publications’ “Comics and Games Retailer” Magazine, you proposed Free Comic Book Day. The first Free Comic Book Day happened less than a year later in May to coincide with the first Spider-Man movie. What was it like seeing something that you suggested come to life?
JF: It was pretty amazing actually because four years earlier I had suggested doing an industry-wide open house. I was asked by Diamond to write a short piece for their year-end review in 1997. And I wrote something saying, “Ya know, there are some things that are going good in comics, but we have no mechanism for inviting people into the stores. Why don’t we do an industry-wide open house?” Well, they liked the idea, but it met with resounding silence. So I kinda put that on the backburner.
And then when I was writing columns for “Comics and Games Retailer” Magazine, I came up with the idea to do Free Comic Book Day. I wrote that column in early May of 2001. And I think it was published in June, even though it was an August issue. And then we had the meeting in October of 2001 to decide whether it would happen.
MJ: So who was in attendance at the meeting?
JF: At that point, once there was some sort of agreement that it was an idea worth exploring, Diamond Comic Distributors did a trade show in Las Vegas, just three weeks after 9-11. And it was the first flight out of New York for a lot of the publishers. Tensions were still pretty high, and there was a lot of rawness to what was going on at the time. But meeting there in Vegas, we had a conference room to have a talk about whether there would be this Free Comic Book Day. And in that room was Maggie Thompson, who was the editor of Comics Buyers’ Guide Magazine which was also owned by Krause Publications, my publisher. There were executives from DC, from Diamond, from Marvel, from Dark Horse, and from Image. And me.
So the idea was bandied about, “Do we do this?” And it was a really unusual feeling in the room. Because I’ve been in meetings like that before where things devolve into “your lawyer needs to talk to our lawyer.” But at that point, the spirit of cooperation was at that point, I think, an all-time high. And all of them said, “This is something we have to do.” Essentially, it was too easy not to do. It’s a difficult undertaking, but the idea was still beautiful in its simplicity. And so they all agreed that it should be done. And then it became “let’s put the details together.”
MJ: How was it working with Diamond in those early days?
JF: Diamond is a good company to work with. They have the infrastructure to be able to deal with all the publishers as well as all the retailers. So they’re really at the central point of the comics industry. They distribute more than 90% of all the English language comic books throughout the world. They have contracts with all the largest publishers. And all the retailers who want to buy American comic books on a monthly basis need to buy them from Diamond. So with that kind of weight behind them, it just made a whole lot of sense for them to coordinate the promotion. Working with them has always been a very enjoyable experience. And I really tip my cap to them for all that they’ve done to keep this thing going so strongly.
MJ: Did you know Barry Lyga before he became the point man for Free Comic Book Day?
JF: I knew him just briefly as one of Diamond’s inside people in their marketing department, but then got to know him better when he became the Free Comic Book Day coordinator. He was in that position for the first two or three years, I think. And there have been several others who have been Diamond coordinators since. Deborah Mooreland is the coordinator for Free Comic Book Day now.
It’s been really interesting. There’s a lot of talent that floats through this business. And now to see Barry as a best-selling author is very exciting.
MJ: Except for the third one (which was moved to July to coincide with the Spider-Man 2 movie), all Free Comic Book Days have been held the first weekend of May. Two of those years didn’t have super-hero movies to piggy-back on. Did that have any noticeable effect on Free Comic Book Day?
JF: First, the one that was moved to July was moved to coincide with the Hulk movie, not Spider-Man. Because the Hulk movie was a new Marvel movie and not a sequel like Spider-Man. So Marvel wanted to move it to July. I didn’t want it moved to July. I thought the first Saturday in May was the way to go. There was a vote among retailers when it should be, and the retailers voted against me and moved it to July. I was patient enough. July was okay. We did fine that year.
We’ve done fine when there was movie attached to it, and there has been years when there hasn’t been a movie attached to it. But I like to think that Hollywood has seen the power of Free Comic Book Day as extra marketing for their movies and now has that first weekend in May as a big debut weekend. And realistically, prior to Free Comic Book Day, the kick-off to the summer movie season wasn’t until Memorial Day weekend. And so to a certain extent, Free Comic Book Day has influenced Hollywood to move up the beginning of the summer movie season by coinciding with Free Comic Book Day.
MJ: I’ve noticed that Hollywood tends to fight for position as to who gets to release their big movie on the first weekend in May now.
JF: It’s an incredibly important weekend now.
MJ: Diamond’s web-site for Free Comic Book Day is very informative. And according to their news page, last year’s Free Comic Book Day generated over $3.2 million in free publicity. And over 108,000 “tweets” have referenced Free Comic Book Day. The answer to this is probably obvious, but how would you say that Free Comic Book Day benefits direct market retailers?
JF: As far as we’ve been able to figure, Free Comic Book Day is the single largest business day in the comics business for direct market retailers. More than a million people come to Free Comic Book Day events all over the world. Last year, it was in 2,100 stores in sixty-plus countries. This year it’ll be over 2,300 stores in more than sixty-five countries. Every year we add more stores, and we add more countries, and we add more comics. So this year, the number of comics in the giveaway has also grown by more than 20%. This year more than 5.6 million comics were ordered to be given away on Free Comic Book Day.
MJ: You mentioned earlier that both Marvel and DC have always supported Free Comic Book Day. This year both Secret Wars and Divergence are debuting at Free Comic Book Day, which is a huge show of faith. How has their participation been in the past?
JF: All of the publishers have been very supportive of Free Comic Book Day. Everyone wants to be a part of this day. It has become the single most important launch day for comics. And I think that’s due to the efforts of the publishers and creators in bringing out great stuff.
Initially, the idea behind Free Comic Book Day was not necessarily to make it a day for fans who were already dyed-in-the-wool and here every week. It was “call back all these other people who left in the 90’s when things got difficult, and call in new people who’ve never tried this great stuff before.” The idea is really to open the doors wide and let everybody in. And so there are things that are for new fans. There are things for returning fans. There are things for people who’ve never read comics. And working with the publishers has been pretty easy because they’re delivering stories that people want to read.
From the outset, Free Comic Book Day has always been about putting our best foot forward. It was not “we’re going to give you these samplers where you read the first eight pages of a story and have to come back and buy something later.” It’s “give us complete stories, give us a sense of the wonder that you’re putting into your comics every single week.” And if you deliver a complete experience, it is a much more powerful thing than to give away just a sample.
MJ: Especially when they create something specifically for Free Comic Book Day.
JF: Right, or use Free Comic Book Day as a time to launch a new series, like Marvel is doing with Secret Wars and DC with Divergence. There’s a lot of great stuff that’s being introduced there.
Part of it is also a little bit of a challenge in that there are so many publishers that want to be involved. This year we made the decision to limit the total number of comics that are a part of Free Comic Book Day. Part of it was that we were finding that there were publishers that were coming in wanting to debut themselves as publishers on that day, and using Free Comic Book Day as their marketing budget to launch their new companies. Well, that’s not really what Free Comic Book Day is. We want to know what’s behind them. Yes, to a degree we want properties that are attractive and well-known. Not to say that there aren’t new things are brought out on Free Comic Book Day, but there has to be some larger plan behind it than “we’re debuting our entire business on this day.”
This year, we’ve limited the total number of comics to fifty. It had been growing every year, and last year I think we were up over sixty. And it’s a little bit unwieldy. So the decision was made that we would have twelve gold-level publishers, and we would have thirty-eight silver. And what that means is that the comics from gold-level publishers can be found in every store that does Free Comic Book Day. And the silver ones are essentially a smorgasbord of titles in which retailers can make the decision to order or not to order or order a lot or not order a lot on those thirty-eight titles. We had seventy applications to be a part of Free Comic Book Day. So it was up to us to decide which ones made it in and which ones did not.
MJ: My favorite thing is coming in and seeing many comics that are made specifically for kids. Because I think that kind of thing brings in new readers and introduces new kids to the wonder of comics.
JF: I absolutely agree with that, but I also think that there are still so many people of all ages who have not tried comics yet. And I firmly believe that anybody who likes to read can come in here and find something that they’re going to want to come back to week after week and month after month. No matter what their age, no matter what backgrounds they come from, if they’re a committed reader, or if they like good art, we’re going to be able to deliver something to them on a weekly basis. So given that less than one percent of the people in the United States are regular comic book readers, we’ve got a long way to go. I’m not going to be satisfied until we get that number up a whole lot higher.
MJ: So let’s bring it down to a personal level with Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff. Every year Flying Colors celebrates this event with comics, artist appearances, snacks, sales and costumed guests. Last year we were visited by a few Avengers. And this year sees the return of a heavy-breathing badass in black, the original Dark Lord, Darth Vader.
JF: I’m thrilled to have Darth Vader back. We’re going to try to make sure that he doesn’t put the choke-hold on anyone. But in addition, there are going to be other characters here. Thor will return. I believe we’ll have Wolverine here. There may be some surprises along the way here. The call has gone out to superheroes everywhere to be here on Free Comic Book Day. And I think we’re gonna have some fun.
MJ: Your wife, Libby’s mint-fudge brownies are AMAZING.
JF: Yes, her crème-de-menthe brownies, we call them “Hulk Smash Brownies.”
MJ: Is there any chance we’ll see some of those again?
JF: I would not be surprised if they are here. And they’re always here in some limited amount because she generally takes all day Friday to bake.
But in addition to that, we have things going all day. We know that there are people who come to wait in line for Free Comic Book Day. And as someone who is always somewhat impatient waiting in lines, my goal has always been, “If they’re going to wait in line, make the wait in line entertaining. Do something with it.” So what we try to do is make sure that even the wait in line on that day is fun. And that’s why we have some of the superheroes here to take photos. And we have a baker who bakes homemade cookies and passes them out through the line. And we try to work with other merchants in the shopping center to do specials that are related to Free Comic Book Day. In the past we’ve had Trader Joe’s do trivia contests and sampling out from the store. There are all kinds of different things.
And we also try to make the wait as short as possible. We have a limited amount of space in the store, and we want to make sure that the store environment is comfortable for everyone. So we try to keep things going. One of the things we’ve done is we’ve moved some of our sale out to the front of the store so that there’s an extra space for being able to take a look at some of the cool stuff we have. There’s a lot of planning and a lot of careful thought that goes into trying to make this as fun and comfortable for everyone as possible.
MJ: Believe it or not, some parents still look down on comics.
JF: Which ones? Lemme go after them!
MJ: I know, me too! But I believe that anything that can get kids to read more than 140 characters and is spelled correctly is healthy and beneficial. What do you think?
JF: Well, I am happy to do a fair amount of work with the Contra Costa Library system, with educators and media specialists in some of the schools. And we’ve found that when kids especially are given high-interest reading material, they get energized as readers. And when we have readers that are energized about reading more, we have better reading test scores, we have better overall grades, we have better students. We also have thinkers who are looking at things a little bit differently than those who just read books that are full of text because comics are the only form of entertainment that works both right-brain and left-brain.
It’s both cognitive and interpretive. It’s the only form of entertainment that is working your brain on both sides at the same time. Because you, as the reader, are essentially the director of the story. You change the pace of how fast things go between panel to panel. You put the character voices in your head. You interpret the artist’s artwork, for the expressions and for the movement. There’s a whole lot of interpretive stuff that goes along with the cognitive things in reading the words from panel to panel. So in that way, comics are an incredibly powerful form of education, one that really ignites the imagination and the love of reading for so many people.
MJ: I wish you would’ve been able to tell that to my Mom thirty years ago.
JF: Or my Mom fifty years ago.
MJ: I only have one question left, and this is for my own personal edification.
In 1986, you spear-headed the project to have Stockton, California designated as the “Central City, California” referenced in Fantastic Four #1, the birthplace of the Fantastic Four. This was actually confirmed during John Byrne’s legendary run in Fantastic Four #286. Now… get that Stockton had suffered a lot of bad press that year, but… really… why Stockton?
JF: Okay, so John Byrne had just left Fantastic Four, so he wasn’t able to be a part of this whole deal. His [idea] was he wanted to take Central City in his last story, and he wanted to send Central City thirty thousand years into the future. Central City, California, as it’s laid out in Marvel Comics, is actually a mistake. The original Fantastic Four #1 was supposed to take place in New York City. However, Stan Lee made a mistake in the script, or the letterer made a mistake when he lettered it, because it says instead of “in the center of the city,” it says “in Central City.” Well, they didn’t put a state with that. And years later another writer came along and said, “Well Central City’s not in New York. Central City is in California.”
And when I looked at that, 1986 was the twenty-fifth anniversary of Fantastic Four #1, the birth of the Marvel Age of comics. I thought, “What would be cooler than to bring the Fantastic Four into a real city like all the other Marvel superheroes?” At that point, the West Coast Avengers were in Palos Verdes. Daredevil had a time in San Francisco. And you had most of the heroes based in New York. Also, we had the Champions of Los Angeles. And there were a couple in Chicago.
But the Fantastic Four still had that thing sitting out there that said “Central City, California.” And there is no Central City, California. So I looked at a map. And if you put your finger in the middle of California from the top to the bottom, the town you hit is Stockton. It is the most “central” city in California.
So at that time I was working for a radio station in Stockton. I was working for KJOY, and I got the idea to do this. So I went to the local comic book store, Al’s Comics, which is still in business out there on Pacific Avenue, and started a petition. And the petition was “Stockton comic fans, don’t you want the Fantastic Four to make Stockton their official home town?” And we got hundreds of signatures.
And when I saw how that worked, I was able to get a little bit of press behind it. I got a couple of TV spots. The newspaper covered it. And then I decided to do the crazy move at that time of bringing that petition to the front of the Stockton City Council on a live city-wide televised city council meeting. And at that point, I was so dead-panned serious about making this work. And I look back, and I think, “Why was I so serious?” I was having fun with it, but I was still so steeped in that deal where comics were not cool that I wanted everyone to take me seriously. So [that] I didn’t come off as this fool. I wanted to come off as “here’s a businessperson who is working in Stockton, trying to do something good for the city, and also do something that is fun and related to comics.” Well, I was a little too serious with it, but the Stockton City Council went along with it after a few really sarcastic questions and comments.
But when the city council approved it, the next day I got a call from the Los Angeles Times. And their lead features reporter, the late Charles Hillinger, a terrific writer and a really fun guy, had called Stan Lee and gotten a reaction from him. And Stan at this point was working at Marvel Productions. He was not involved with the comics. But Stan said, “Whenever a city asks for help, Marvel Comics will be there. We’re sure to get behind Stockton on this one.” And it was awesome.
So what happened was the LA Times flew Charles Hillinger and a photographer to spend an entire day with me in Stockton going around to all of the sites, including the population sign at the edge of town. And at that point, Stockton was maybe 120,000 or something like that. And standing next to that sign, I held up four fingers because the Fantastic Four were coming. And they had me climb a fire escape of the largest building in town. There aren’t very many tall buildings in Stockton. There’s like an eight-story medical/dental building downtown, and I climbed the fire escape while the photographer took pictures of me like I was some kind of superhero. It was one of the most surreal days of my life.
Then when it was decided that Marvel would put the Fantastic Four in the comics in Stockton, I got calls from Jim Shooter [former Editor-in-Chief at Marvel], and I got media calls from all over the world. But Shooter called and said, “You know, we want to make this look like Stockton in the comics. So I want you to take a couple rolls of film and develop them, and send them to me. And we’ll make sure that the artist gets them, so that this can actually look like Stockton. Well, they didn’t really use them. The days that I was asked to do this were some of the foggiest days in Stockton, and the photos were just not very good. But they made an effort. And there, in #296, the 25th Anniversary issue of the Fantastic Four, on the first page, there’s a picture drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith of the Thing. And he’s walking by the sign that says “Welcome to Stockton.” And for me that was just a sweet little victory.
Thank you again, Joe, for your time and insight. On May 2nd 2015, go to your local direct market comic book shop for Free Comic Book Day. And if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, go to Flying Colors in Concord. Pick up your free comics, shop around, have a brownie, and take a picture with a superhero, or maybe Darth Vader. I know I’ll be there!