Jim Valentino, then publisher of Image Comics, suggested holding the first Free Comic Book Day [FCBD] on the same weekend Sony‘s Spider-Man film premiered to take advantage of the film’s publicity, so the inaugural FCBD event took place on May 4, 2002, the day after the film opened.
Organizers eventually settled on holding the event on the first Saturday in May each year, regardless of available film premieres to piggyback. However, given the current trends of Hollywood productions and release schedules, there’s nearly always a comic-themed film generating extra buzz in May to kick-start the summer. After a record domestic and worldwide opening bow, Avengers: Infinity War clearly fits the bill, despite opening the weekend before this year’s FCBD.
Converting fans of the blockbuster films, who may not even be aware of the comics they’re based on, into readers, is critical if the art form is going to survive. Despite the continued success of FCBD, readership isn’t increasing at a proportionate level. The event celebrates the independent comic book shops, and organizers seek to promote these mainstays of the hobby and bolster their sales. Increased traffic due to additional hype or free stuff means prospective new customers to pitch books to—or in some cases, recapturing readers who’ve abandoned comics, but are drawn back in because of nostalgia elicited by the films.
Many stores turn FCBD into mini-conventions, bringing in artists for signings or holding cosplay events and the like. They also often collaborate with their local libraries for the event. That last element casts FCBD in a more serious light that goes unnoticed by the majority of those who attend events at their local store. The sad truth is FCBD touches upon a more demoralizing issue, the alarming levels of illiteracy in the United States.
An unacknowledged epidemic
There are currently 35 million adults in the US whose reading skills are below a fourth-grade level. That staggering number equates to 1 in 6 US adults.
Let those numbers sink in for a moment.
Considering that literacy rates have held steady for over 25 years, the problem seems insurmountable. Persistent social issues that affect many communities—underfunded and failing schools, or a population trapped in apparently inescapable poverty—are contributing factors. An inability to read severely limits what a person can aspire to or achieve. Automation is eliminating scores of jobs, most often those that people with limited literacy once held. What are their prospects if they can’t read? How will they advance or earn a living wage?
The irony that comics, a momentary escape from such a situation, as well as a platform for aspirational stories originally created in the 30s and 40s predominantly by people on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder, can’t be read and enjoyed by millions of people in similar circumstances, is disheartening.
It’s personal for me. My fascination with comics was one of the main reasons I learned how to read at an early age. The illustrations were what initially captivated me, but I soon recognized I’d enjoy the stories more once I could truly follow what was happening. The best pencilers tell a clear story with their pictures alone, but the unique alchemy of the medium is the blending of the illustrations with prose that pulls readers into a spell that lasts from cover to last panel, and leaves them desperately waiting for the next issue.
For generations, comics were a first step in a lifelong journey of reading. Though it’s incumbent on everyone involved in the hobby to promote it, grow it and thereby maintain it, the problem of illiteracy is a greater concern for society as a whole. We can’t just focus on getting more people to read comics, we have to make sure everyone can simply read.
Free Comic Book Day is a celebration of our beloved pastime.
It’s an entry point for new readers and an opportunity to raise awareness and appreciation for the medium. Nevertheless, it can be so much more than that if it’s part of an effort to increase literacy.
So this Saturday, help celebrate and preserve this art form. Visit your local store and bring along a friend who may be new to comic books… and if you really want to make a difference, donate to or volunteer with a literacy program.
If comics disappear, it will be a sad footnote in history.
If literacy continues to decline, it will be a societal catastrophe.
Make sure you visit your local participating Comic Book shop May 5th for FCBD!
Watch: Comic Fans Celebrate Free Comic Book Day 2017 via Free Comic Book Day on YouTube