Many comics readers take the annual celebration of Free Comic Book Day for granted. Each year stores across the United and the rest of the world open their doors to patrons and new customers in order to share free comics on the first Saturday of May. It’s a grand festival that creates a lot of new comics readers, and one we should relish.
It didn’t appear from thin air though. Free Comic Book Day was created by Joe Field, the owner of Flying Colors Comics in Concord, CA. It began in 2002 and has grown exponentially in the decade and a half since its inception.
We sat down before Free Comic Book Day 2017 to ask Field a few questions about his store and what he thinks of the national holiday he began.
ComicBook.Com: How do you characterize the goal of your shop and has that changed from when it was established?
Joe Field: Flying Colors first opened for business in October 1988 and so much has changed in the business of comics since then. Our goal then was to be “the one comics shop for the whole family.” My wife and three young daughters were my “marketing research” team as we looked at all kinds of stores, including dozens of comic shops, to come up with a plan to make Flying Colors welcome and accessible for everyone.
Now, 28+ years later, it’s like the comics market has caught up to us. We have more families, and a higher percentage of female customers than ever. Some of that is due to our work and some of that is the welcome diversity of comics material for readers of all ages and interests.
ComicBook.Com: What do you think the most interesting aspect of your store's history is?
Field: That’s probably better left to others to say. I got into the business largely thanks to Stan Lee. I worked for KJOY Radio in Stockton CA and did a publicity campaign for the Fantastic Four’s 25th anniversary in 1986. Stan loved it and invited me to do some freelance public relations for his wife’s first novel. That led to me becoming the advertising and promotions guy for WonderCon at its beginning. From there, my radio career faded into the background as I moved into comics retail.
In our early days, I was very fortunate to be in touch with some young comics creators who would hang out here, and all of them have good comics careers. Those artists include Dan Brereton, Jeff Johnson, Ken Hooper, Darick Robertson, and Jim Lee, who did his first professional store signing here for our grand opening.
Another reason Flying Colors has continued to be in the spotlight is that this is the shop where Free Comic Book Day was born.
ComicBook.Com: There are so many stores that now participate in Free Comic Book Day. What is one thing your store does that sets it apart from others?
Field: It’s more a confluence of different things that hopefully sets Flying Colors apart from other comic shops and other small businesses. I have been very blessed with having some great people on staff here. Now over 28 years, we’ve only had 52 people total employed here. That’s very low turnover for any small business.
One other important thing that continues to set us apart is that we’ve never swayed from our mission of providing comics entertainment to as wide an audience as possible. We’re not a toy store, though we do carry some toys. We’re not a game store, even though we carry a few card games. We are first, last and always a full service Comic Book Store, and everything we do spins out of that.
ComicBook.Com: How would you characterize your current reader base and has that changed since you began the tradition of Free Comic Book Day?
Field: Our shop is located near three high schools, a couple of middle schools and is squarely in a suburban residential area. All those years ago in the late ‘80s, the average age of a Flying Colors customer was about 20 and about 80% male. These days, due to the comics' market maturing in many different ways, the average age of our customers is about 33, with the male to female percentage narrowing to 65-35%.
ComicBook.Com: What are the most important elements in creating a successful comic store and community to you? How do you make this happen at your store?
Field: A lot of it is in building trust with our great FlyCo Faithful. We really only push the comics we love. We try to deliver great events and keep our fans engaged in-store and via social media. We’re in the community in different ways, including helping charities with fund-raisers and working with schools and libraries. When we get to know our FlyCo Faithful that allows us the opportunity to make personal recommendations. Our goal is to make lifelong comics fans and we do that by trying to keep them happy week in and week out.
ComicBook.Com: What do you expect from the future of your store?
Field: We have some fun things planned as we approach our 30th anniversary in October 2018. We’re hoping to expand our flexibility and modularity in the coming months. I’ve also been working ahead on some different kinds of events. It’s impossible to predict the future of the comics business given how many ups and downs there have been in the nearly 30 years we’ve been open. So it’s vital for us to stay low to the ground, and be flexible enough to charge hard when we can and pull back when we need to.
ComicBook.Com: Can you offer some history on how FCBD came about and how it has impacted your store?
Field: Back in 2001, I wrote a column in Comics & Games Retailer, an industry trade magazine. In that column, I asked everyone in the comics’ biz to take an age-old method of promotion--- the freebie--- and apply it to comics. At that point, we had just come out of the depths of a bad late ‘90s market. Things were starting to turn around, but we had no mechanism for inviting new people to try comics or bring back those who fell out of comics over the years.
The first FCBD was in May 2002. It debuted with just four special edition FCBD comics and maybe eight publishers involved. Now, in 2017, we’ll have nearly six million comics from more than two dozen publishers to give away at over 2300 shops in over 60 countries. In that span of 16 years, we’ve seen the best period of sustained health in the comics biz, while we’ve also seen the phenomenal growth of comics culture.
I still believe there are comics for anyone who likes to read. And there are millions of people that’ve seen the comics related movies in theaters that have never read a comic book or graphic novel. I’d love to see more of those casual comics culture fans seek out the source material.
ComicBook.Com: Has the success of FCBD changed how you look at the idea of a local comics shop? Do you think it has changed how others do the same?
Field: I’m very gratified to learn that many new comics shops have opened up in the last 16 years and a good percentage of those seem to time their grand openings to Free Comic Book Day. Before FCBD, we were never able to get all facets of the comics industry working toward a common goal.
Since FCBD started, I know it has spurred many retailers and the larger comics industry to keep looking for ways to do events that draw more live warm bodies to comics shops. In 2004, 24 Hour Comics Day got going. A couple of years ago, Local Comic Shop Day was born. Both of those events are administered and promoted by ComicsPRO, the retailer trade organization, a group I’m proud to have been involved with since its start. Other events, from publisher directed deals like Batman Day and Wonder Woman Day to Coast to Coast ComicCon, are good additions to keeping the spotlight on comics shops.
Free Comic Book Day continues to be a catalyst for retailers to reach out creatively and I’m proud of that. But I also recognize that it is the work of so many across the comics business, retailers, publishers, Diamond and the creative community, that continue to make these events a success and continue to push the comics business forward.
My hope is that Free Comic Book Day 2017 will see another great worldwide turn-out. I hope long-time fans will bring their friends who are not yet readers of comics because more readers makes for a more vibrant comics community. I hope all those people new to comics shops will find engaging comics to bring them back to their local comic shop week after week.
Be sure to support your local comic book store this Saturday (May 6th) for Free Comic Book Day.