20 years ago, the comic book industry was listing and about to capsize. Marvel filed for bankruptcy. Shortly thereafter, Warner Bros released the critically-panned movie, Batman & Robin. The film’s financial struggles seemed to herald the end of silver screen superheroes. As the 90s drew to a close, the comics business itself needed a reboot.
“The culture was dead,” James Farnsworth, co-owner of Aurora’s All C’s Comics and Collectibles said. “The industry was just oversaturated.”
The revival would follow two tracks. In Hollywood, the 2000 film X-Men would earn four times its production budget, surpassing any of 20th Century Fox’s expectations. But a new excitement was also needed among young readers and local retailers. After all, they had been the original catalyst for the genre. Just as Marvel had nearly gone under a few years before, local comic shops were fretting the rumored entry of giants like Walmart and Blockbuster into the business. Born out of these concerns was Free Comic Book Day, a nationwide tradition that reached its 15th birthday this weekend.
“It came out of the worst times,” Farnsworth reflected, “but it really was a grassroots movement.”
That movement has grown into a well-organized affair. Books ranging from Captain America and Suicide Squad to SpongeBob and Strawberry Shortcake get ordered up to six months in advance so they can be laid out and ready for the customers streaming through the shop. The effects of the investment were readily apparent. By the estimates at All C’s, Saturday’s promotion drew 10 times the normal foot traffic. Conceived by Image Comics and Diamond Comic Distributors as a national event to coincide with the 2002 Spiderman film, Free Comic Book Day’s chief purpose was to reconnect kids with the experience of getting that first comic book in their hands.
Felix Sanchez, a 29-year-old combat artist from Denver, remembered the power of that moment as he recounted discovering a box of Machine Man comics in his grandmother’s basement as a child. His love affair with the art form has stayed with him through today.
“I travel a lot and I pop in to stores when I can,” Sanchez as he looked at the crowd. “This is really awesome!”
Proving the real payoff, Sanchez didn’t come alone. His girlfriend Stefanie, a Denver photographer, toured the store with her 5-year old son Emmett. Emmett cosplayed as Heath Ledger’s Joker from the 2008 Batman film, The Dark Knight.
“He first wanted to dress up in Joker’s nurse outfit,” she recalled laughingly.
Oscar Casas, a 34-year old limousine driver for the Denver area, also had his son in tow. With the release of Captain America: Civil War, Casas now has the chance to share the same fandom for Spiderman he felt as a kid. Cartoons have been developing his boy’s interest in comics, and he recalled following the same path into the storylines of Peter Parker.
“I watched Voltron and Thundercats, but Spiderman was the only one who had a comic that I could read too,” Casas said.
Picking up Spiderman issues at discounted rates wasn’t the only way for fans to encounter Ol’ Web Head. Customers could also get pictures taken with a Spidey cosplayer from Heroes Alliance, a volunteer organization of costumers who entertain children at hospitals, charity functions and other community events. The alliance also featured cosplayers of Ant-Man, Cyclops, and Captain America. Further adding to the festivities, nearly a dozen local artists packed the All C’s gaming area to provide attendees, young and old, with custom prints of their favorite comic heroes.
It’s the ability to attract families and more diverse audiences that, for Farnsworth, is spurring the rebirth of superhero entertainment. In particular, the industry is taking note of how many more women are consuming the art form. Farnsworth stated that one-fifth of his on-hold orders now come from female buyers, which a few years ago was almost exclusively male.
“Comics are telling more human stories now,” he observed. “It’s not just men in tights.”
Some of the patrons in attendance also noted that the migration of heroes from the page to the screen is greater than it’s ever been. Majors Jeremy Nutz and Monte Carpenter from Buckley Air Force Base singled out Marvel’s recent series in streaming entertainment as a particular bright spot.
“Daredevil on Netflix is some of the best TV-watching of any genre,” Nutz said.
Regardless of why comics have been reborn in popular culture, Farnsworth still remembers the dark days that precipitated the need for a Free Comic Book Day. The difference between then and now can almost seem too vast to fully grasp.
“It’s a 110-fold different from back then,” Farnsworth said. “It’s so big now, you just hope it doesn’t blow.”
If the lines entering ALL C’s or the theaters this past weekend are any indication, there’s still a lot more room to give.