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#0005 21 JUNE 2004

Free Comic Book Day III -- My friends, I have been to the mountain of comics that awaits you on Free Comic Book Day, Saturday, July 3rd, 2004, and it is, indeed, a mountain of comics.

It's an impressive stack -- I've got 27 individual issues sitting here, a good couple of inches high. My feeling about FCBD is that publishers (and retailers, of course) should be putting their best foot forward to represent their product and make sure that readers are hooked by what they offer up on the big day.

Right off the bat, the first thing I thought about all these comics is that the folks at Keenspot are either exaggerating when they claim to be the "biggest publisher of webcomics," or things in that arena look grim indeed. I am hooked on just a handful of webcomics, like James Kochalka's American Elf, and the mostly badly-drawn examples of the artform in the three separate Keenspot offerings for FCBD provide strong motivation not to look much further to see what is out there. Two of them are in an ungainly Soap Opera Digest format that they want you to think of as "manga-sized," but, well, having suffered through their subpar FCBD efforts three years in a row now, I just wish they'd make the pain stop. These are unattractive and bizarre little publications, the worst offender being a pseudo-manga about politics and attempted murder. Look for the angry Bush/Cheney supporter on the cover so you know what to leave behind on FCBD.

One problem that made itself prominent to me as I perused the stack was that FCBD is a family-oriented event. A good comics shop (and there are precious few, my friends) welcome readers of all ages and interests, and at my family's comics shop kids are always much in evidence on FCBD, a good sign for the future health of the artform. I'm not saying that all FCBD comics should be G-Rated and aimed at readers of all ages, but I do think that when the covers are colourful and attractive to the eyes of children like Oni's Barry Ween offering, the insides should be child-safe. The Barry Ween FCBD offering has a simple, attractive picture of the Boy Genius and his pal Jeremy on the cover. Kids are going to want to pick it up, and I imagine most parents would not be happy if their child started quoting lines like "You want a piece of me, fucker?" in school. Yeah, it's funny, grown-up stuff, but that should be indicated on the cover on a day when dozens of people may be vying for comics and there's little time for oversight of what kids are grabbing and putting in their bags. I'm not generally an advocate of labeling comics, but making the cover kid-friendly and including clearly adult content on what should be the biggest, most inclusive day of the comics year is just asking for trouble. Just a thought. Oni also offers a Love Fights issue for FCBD, an Andi Watson charmer about love and superheroes with a flip-book preview of Greg Rucka and Scott Morse's Everest: Facing the Goddess, which looks from the pencil art featured here like it might be of interest in its more complete release.

Astonish Comics seems to get FCBD right, with a full-colour offering packed with variety that has strong kid-appeal, with stories ranging from Herobear and the Kid to The Lab and Awesome Man, the Astonish FCBD comic looks like a real winner and well-represents their output. The same goes for Amelia Rules, a gorgeous and enticing comic that should please readers of all ages.

Typical of past years are the offerings from Marvel, DC, and Archie, all of which appeal to kids and are no-brainers to grab extras of if you can on FCBD. Last year I asked my retailer for some extras after the event for the kids at the daycare my children attend, and if nothing else you can count on them knowing about and wanting comics involving some or all of these characters. DC's Teen Titans Go reprints #1 of that title, while Marvel represents its all-ages Marvel Age Spider-Man book, which I hadn't read before. I was left thinking that it's not a bad reinterpretation for younger readers, although for older readers neither the writing nor the art is anything to write home about.

From Image Comics, we have an anthology collecting four previously unpublished stories about some of their most well-known characters. The stories about Invincible and Savage Dragon are witty and well-done, being created by their regular, gifted creative teams. The Spawn and Top Cow stories (unfortunately dominating the first half of the issue) also represent accurately their parent titles -- that is to say, they are ugly and awful. Poor Erik Larsen has a thankless task trying to give everyone a moment in the spotlight here, and it's a keen reminder that Image could be so much more if only the Spawn and Top Cow corners of their publishing universe would splinter off and do their own thing.

Gemstone once again offers up a Disney-themed issue, a flip-book co-featuring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. They get bonus points for blowing-in a subscription card, which nearly induced a heart attack in me when I saw a 12-issue subscription to one of their titles is nearly ninety fucking dollars. What's wrong with this picture, folks?

I remember last year's Dark Horse offering (or was it the year before?) as a flimsy pamphlet with a newsprint-stock cover. This year they've moved to full-colour on heavy paper stock, so it's a nice presentation. Unfortunately for me, it's Star Wars material, which interests me not at all. I don't know any kids that are interested in it at all either, but this Clone Wars story is in an animated style that just might appeal to someone. The colour and paper stock upgrade get them some slack from me, anyway; if you're gonna do it, do it right. I think it's a mistake not to highlight the diversity in the DH line, but hopefully retailers will have some 25-cent Hellboy comics leftover to make up for it on FCBD. Better retailers will supplement the FCBD slate of titles with intelligently-picked backstock offered up for free, anyway.

A trio of noteworthy indy offerings are from Highwater Books, Top Shelf and Alternative Comics. The latter two are anthologies that offer up a terrific assortment from a wide range of cartoonists. Both also include the work of James Kochalka, so you know I'm not going to complain overmuch. These are must-reads for grown-up comics readers. Highwater's Reggie 12 is maybe the strongest title to be released for FCBD, an issue full of Brian Ralph's comic strips about a robot named Reggie 12, his inventor and fellow robots. It's witty, fun and energetic, and even though a couple of other creators contribute to the book, Ralph's creative vision shines through. The book is also slightly oversized, recalling an earlier age of comics and putting Ralph's delightful cartooning on display in the manner it deserves. Look for the bright blue cover with the robots on it and grab extras if you can to hand out to anyone you think might be interested in good comics.

You can get a full rundown of FCBD titles here and find your local dealer here. Free Comic Book Day has proven to be an exciting day of discovery for me and my family since its inception three years ago, and although the quality and creative vision varies wildly from publisher to publisher, there are many gems to be found in this huge stack of comics. I hope you'll make a day of it and see what's out there waiting for you, and remember to bring a friend. Or a dozen.

Thanks to JC at Earthworld Comics in Albany, NY for my early look at this year's offerings. You can't go wrong bringing your family to Earthworld on FCBD, and this year Catwoman will be on hand to meet everyone who stops in.

-- Alan David Doane


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