I’m very lucky to live in London in general, but particularly on Free Comic Book Day: in the centre of town, three shops in very close proximity were all participating. What’s interesting to me is that I think that each shop represents different aspects of the comic book audience, so I thought I’d share my experience of the day and describe my thoughts on the different shops and the different audiences to which they cater.
My day started with Gosh!, the shop where I have my subscription list and from which I have purchased comic books pretty much since they opened over 30 years ago. Gosh! is a small shop but they put on an amazing Free Comic Book Day – the morning was all about kids getting the opportunity to make art while professional comic book creators painted the shop’s windows, while the afternoon was dedicated to comic book signings from a variety of high-profile creators.
All of this meant the shop was incredibly busy (we’d missed last year because the stupid Catholic church had scheduled my nephew’s first holy communion on the same day, so we didn’t know how popular it had become) and it was weird having to wait in a line of people outside the shop but on the other side of the street, especially as it was slightly chilly and windy, and other people seemed to be going in and out of the shop without noticing the line. I should have known better: the queue was being expertly managed by the excellent staff as it lined down the stairs to the basement where the new comics are kept, so that nobody was jumping ahead, and it was typical of the friendly atmosphere in the shop that people weren’t being hurried when selecting their pick of five books from the available free comic books, which particularly slowed down when young children were taking their time to make their choices. My partner and I picked our free books, I picked up my new books (I hadn’t been in six weeks, so there were a few) and we left happy.
The audience of Gosh! represents the artier end of comic books, people more appreciative of the medium as a whole – you might call it the hipster market if you were being cruel – and that comic books are for everyone. Yes, there are people like myself who buy from the mainstream publishers, but the upstairs is devoted to collections and graphic novels from all publishers, particularly the independents, and the outreach programme of launches and discussion groups is extremely broad and diverse.
The next stop on the FCBD tour was Forbidden Planet. While Gosh! is a small shop on a small street in Soho, Forbidden Planet is a megastore on a busy road, and their approach was much larger: assistants at the front entrance handing out bags containing a mix of five free comic books (or, in my bag, accidentally getting ten different comic books). You didn’t even have to go into the shop: some people just took the bag and walked on without going in. We would see people with several Forbidden Planet bags waiting in the line outside Gosh!, not caring how greedy they looked or how much they were missing the point of FCBD. The shop was still busy – it’s always fairly busy – both upstairs in the merchandise section and downstairs in the comic books and books section. In addition to my free comic books, I bought a trade paperback from the sales shelves downstairs because I believe that you should support the shop you get free comic books from, but I understand that’s a minority opinion in a dog-eat-dog world.
Forbidden Planet represents the mainstream comic book audience – aware of comic books but more aware of the movies, television shows and associated geek-related merchandise; buying and reading comics books are not on their agenda. There were lots of families and tourists and people who had no interest or knowledge of comic books or the concept of FCBD; Forbidden Planet didn’t seem particularly bothered that it was Free Comic Book Day apart from the fact that it was a good promotional tool to get the undiscerning mainstream audience through the door.
The final leg on the tour was Orbital – the last time we’d been to FCBD, the queue outside Orbital had been down the street and around the corner, so we hadn’t bothered. This time, the queue was only a little bit out of the door, so we joined the line – there were various people dressed in superhero costumes (Batman, Superman, Deadpool) brought along as an entertainment by the shop to keep people amused while they waited. As we stood patiently, we were handed a slip of paper that had a list of the free books, with the ones already gone redacted, so that we could be prepared. The queue went through to the back of the shop, where you could select any five books of those still available – it was a friendly atmosphere and the staff was very helpful and seemingly enjoying the process, one complimenting my girlfriend on her choices. After, I went to the cheap sets boxes – my favourite part of Orbital, I have to confess – where I was able to pick up a bagged set of all issues of the Mystery Society, a book I really enjoyed when I discovered it in a library, and thus bring a perfect ending to a lovely day.
The Orbital audience I see as the hardcore superhero comic book fan: the people who go every Wednesday to buy their books, mostly from the two main publishers, and then peruse the massive back issue collection in the rear of the store. There is a small room dedicated to the independent publishers to the side, but the shop caters for the comic book fan who wants to get specific books. They know and understand their audience, with the massive wall of new comic books as you come in and variant cover books on the wall behind the till, and their audience knows that it will be served well.
It was interesting to see these three facets of the comic book audience and the different ways the three shops did Free Comic Book Day. Although there are other comic book shops in London (Mega-City Comics isn’t too far away in Camden), three was enough for one day, especially after all the queueing up, and I’m extremely grateful to the staff of the three shops for the effort they put in to making it a great day for everyone. I hope that it continues to be a success for them, although I worry that, much like Open House weekend, the day itself will become too successful for its own good and I won’t be able to enjoy it as much. However, I won’t mind if it means that comic book shops continue to thrive.
As the previous paragraphs detail, we were able to get our hands on quite a lot of the FCBD books, so I thought I’d finish with special mentions for my favourites:
Drawn & Quarterly Presents: Hostage by Guy Delisle and Poppies of Iraq by Brigitte Findalke and Lewis Trondheim
Oni Press: Bad Machinery by John Allison
Image Comics: I Hate Image by Skottie Young
Archie Comics: Betty & Veronica #1 by Adam Hughes
Nobrow: Hilda’s Back by Luke Pearson and Garbage Night by Jen Lee
Boom! Studios 2017 Summer Blast: Mouse Guard by David Petersen, Brave Chef Brianna by Sam Sykes and Selina Espiritu, Coady and the Creepies by Liz Prince and Amanda Kirk