Free Comic Book Day:
"The first taste always comes free".
That’s what Judge Dredd once grumbled as he arrested a fast-food restauranteur for giving away sachets of sugar. Comics can be addictive too, so working on the same principle, specialist stores across America and Canada chose a Saturday each year to hold a Free Comic Book Day. From superheroes to slice-of-life, from Mickey Mouse to manga, nearly all the big and not-so-big publishers offer unique free issues on the day containing reprints, previews, even new content, all intended to hook more readers.
Now you might not have noticed this in UK comic shops. A few do get a range in, but the big snag is that, while these freebies are genuinely free in the US, over here retailers have to pay to ship them over. It costs them to give them away. Let’s hope there’s some way to make this brilliant promotion happen here too.
I feel we need incentives like this, because comics, especially graphic novels, can be too pricey and unknown for many ‘civilians’ or novices to gamble their money buying. And regular readers only have so much income and may prefer to stick to characters or creators they know.
Still, there are other ways you can explore comics you’re unfamiliar with, that can help make it a Free Comic Book Day - Every Day! Don’t overlook your local library. I’ve long been convinced that graphic novels in libraries are a perfect way to bring more people to the medium. In 1990 I was very involved with Camden Arts on one of the earliest initiatives to push comics into the British library system. This was an exhibition and guide called Strip Search which toured all over the country and spurred many librarians into carrying graphic novels for the first time.
True, there are librarians who are not all that wild about comics, and a few who frankly dislike them. But remember, the bottom line is they need people like you to use their facilities, because their ‘issue figures’ for books on loan have to look healthy. Judging by the many fresh date stamps in the graphic novels in my local libraries, these must be some of the most regularly borrowed titles on offer. Go on and borrow something you’ve never tried yourself. As several Comics International correspondents have been commenting, with the right encouragement librarians may well enlarge their selection further.
The internet is another great resource to read about and sample graphic novels for little or no cost. There’s no excuse saying you don’t have web access at home, because there is usually some outlet where you can pay £1 for an hour, or try your library, as many offer this service too and often for free.
Several publishers’ sites let you read some preview pages, even whole episodes and exclusives, online. Those who don’t are really missing an opportunity. I sometimes wonder how anyone decides to pre-order an original, unserialised $10-$30 graphic novel from Diamond Previews phone directory, when often all you are given is a postage stamp-sized illo of the front cover and a sentence or two of hype. That’s rarely enough to go on, unless you know and follow the creators’ work already. Websites should be the cheapest way to tease with some pages, like a movie trailer or an online ashcan.
Plenty of graphic novels, like MegaTokyo, Scarygoround or Shutterbug Follies, started out and sometimes continue online, building up a readership who generally want to buy the eventual printed versions. I’d also recommend review sites like Art Bomb and Time.Comix where you can read perceptive appraisals of titles, old and new.
The Japanese have come up with a clever solution: 24-hour manga cafes, where you can read on the premises from a vast selection of manga, usually for a very modest membership or entrance charge for an hour, or much longer, anytime day or night. The publishers and artists have been anxious that this will reduce the number of copies they sell, but how many books can any of us find room for in our homes? I think it’s more likely to have a positive effect in getting more people to try different series and, if they really enjoy them, to buy copies of their own.
And here’s a radical idea: why not lend out some of your graphic novels, the ones you really enjoy, to a friend (one you can trust!) to discover, and maybe they or someone you know will lend you their favourites? Because, as Hollywood execs hate to admit, in the end no amount of advertising will ever beat this sort of word-of-mouth recommendation.
In an update to his original article on Free Comic Book Day, Paul Gravett adds a news feature originally written for Neo, the UK magazine of Manga, Anime, Asian Films, Games & more:
The UK’s First Manga Café:
Step inside Bodhi, Britain’s first genuine Manga Café, and you’ll discover shelves stacked floor to ceiling with more than 10,000 manga, complete sets of classic and current favourites, mostly in Japanese, plus some magazines and a few English-language graphic novels too. Because some manga sagas like Takao Saito’s Golgo 13 or Akimoto’s Kochikame can clock up over one hundred volumes and people’s storage space and spending power are under pressure in Japan, manga cafés have become hugely popular and are now spreading worldwide. Bodhi opened in the UK in late April 2007 in Brick Lane, London’s lively market street, in the basement of the Bodhi Cafe & Gallery, which offers scrumptious sushi and changing art exhibitions upstairs. Staff member Isao Saito used to be an avid customer of Tokyo’s manga cafés himself, before he started working in one there, so he brings with him lots of know-how to make sure everyone can relax and read manga in separate, secluded comfy chairs with free hot and cold drinks and internet access. For all of this you pay just one inclusive rate for the first half hour, then an extra amount for every additional ten minutes, or you can opt for a 3- or 5-hour bargain deal. Ring them on 020 7749 0750 for their latest prices. Isao can also take your requests for series not currently stocked. Readers from all over London and no doubt further afield will be heading down to Bodhi to get their manga fix.
Bodhi Cafe & Gallery
214 Brick Lane
Closest Tube: Liverpool Street or Aldgate East
Tel: 020 7749 0750
Posted: April 29, 2007
Isao Saito, staff member from the Bodhi Manga Cafe,
standing with some of the thousands of manga available.
Photo © Kazuyo Yasuda.
The original version of this article appeared in 2005 in Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics, graphic novels and manga.