Free Comic Book Day 2006 - A Song of Beauty and Infamy

*Oh Free Comic Book Day, my Free Comic Book Day! Always velveteen warm is your sensuous caress! It’s no secret that FCBD 2002 was the final push that got me back into reading comics on a regular basis, so I suppose the event remains extra special in my heart of hearts. I can never miss it. And most shops make certain that I’ll never be in danger of missing it - of the three comics stores I visited today, each and every one augmented their foundational giveaway bonanza with extra deals, special items, and other fancy temptations.

I didn’t visit quite as many stores as I did last year - you’ll recall from my FCBD 2005 post that I had a bit of difficulty finding some of the free books I’d been wanting, culminating in a nail-biting suspense finale in which I finally completed my quest in a shop down south that I wasn’t entirely planning on visiting in the first place. It was ultimately a good day, and the resultant blog post was certainly one of the best pieces of American writing ever, but the experience was kind of draining as it happened.

This year was more relaxing. I found everything I wanted quickly. The sun was shining.

The Day of Comical Freedom - Two Thousand and Six

I was excited as I stepped out my door. Free Comics Day, or whatever the title is! Who could resist?

Pulling my car out into the street, I was immediately presented with an echo of the past: the main road in town was once again blocked off, just as it was for FCBD 2005. Tents were up, people were milling about, plumes of smoke were rising from grills, and decorative bowls were glimmering under the noonday sun.

Yes, it was Ethnicity Fest 2006.

I don’t think that’s the proper name for it, though it’s the most descriptive. Anything relating to ethnic heritage was welcome at the festival, from handcrafted jewelry to homemade ice cream to the children’s inflatable rubber bouncing palace - it was an ethnic inflatable rubber bouncing palace, I’m certain.

Needless to say, I wasn’t about to miss out on this wonderful frolic two years in a row! Last year I was so caught up with trying to find copies of the most interesting free comics offerings that I only arrived in time for a piece of meat on a stick. “Not this time,” I muttered as I pulled my car into a nearby bank’s parking lot. “I am going to soak myself in heritage.”


TokyoPop Sneaks: As expected, TokyoPop puts out one of the biggest items around, a 100+ page digest-sized sampler of three OEL manga titles. Right at the top, the issue as to what ‘manga’ actually happens to be is confronted, with TokyoPop making the argument that the term need not be limited to nationality or continent, nor even any particular genre approach or target audience: “One of the most common misconceptions about manga is that it’s all the same. TOKYOPOP is proud to publish a very diverse selection of titles that appeal to people of vastly different ages and interests.” Ironic that TokyoPop then proceeds to present two excerpts which possess several extremely similar traits - both feature a young lead character who pals up with a somewhat nerdy friend and observes school-related trouble involving the Popular Kids (boooooo!!!). Both works even provide little maps to important locales, with information dotting the landscape via little fact-files - putting the two excerpts together really emphasizes these similarities, which couldn’t have been the intended effect.

I was most interested in the first excerpt, from Kat & Mouse, written by Alex de Campi of the underread IDW series Smoke, but from what’s presented here it seems like a typical schoolroom mystery thing, with mean preppie kids indirectly threatening the heroine’s teacher father’s job because he gave them a hard quiz - only the clumsy-yet-lovable daughter can crack the case, presumably with the help of her nerdish friend, and maybe even catch the eye of some handsome feller in the process. I guess. It is better than the excerpt immediately following, something called Mail Order Ninja, which is a hyperactive comedy about a schoolboy who, as one might expect, orders a ninja through the mail - havoc presumably ensues in later chapters. I wound up more interested in writer/artist Erica Reis’ Sea Princess Azuri, largely because it seemed to do the best job of striking an individual narrative/visual style, with some decently evocative costumes and visions of sea life enlivening its ‘romance and intrigue under the sea’ premise. I don’t know how it might ultimately pan out as a book, but at least the taste provided here stands out as something more immediately unique that what precedes it.

Worlds of Aspen #1: But OEL manga isn’t the only place to feel the touch of Eastern influence, it’s merely the place most eager to flaunt it. The various artists with work presented in this sampler from Aspen, the Michael Turner-founded publisher of books like the pretty-girl-under-the-sea epic Fathom, also seem to be thoroughly informed by anime and manga sources, albeit folded more deeply into an English-language comic book approach. Four selections from past and future releases are presented in full-color; certainly Micah Gunnell’s pencils for Shrugged reflect an interest in at least the surface appeal of spiky hair and expressive eyes in formulating character design, and the colors of many of these stories feel attuned toward providing an animation-reminiscent lacquer. Even Turner himself, who graces us with his famous visual stylings in a Soulfire excerpt, seems attracted to the sharp, bulky edges of mecha in his villainous costuming, and his female eyes sparkle and water with an almost shoujo flair, once you peel your own eyes away from those long, bare, bendy midriffs.

It gives you something to think about while flipping through the stories, all of them typical enough superhero-flavored sci-fi/fantasy fare, save for the aforementioned Shrugged, which seems to be about a clichéd ‘angel and devil on my shoulder’ pair coming to life and fooling with a young man’s existence in loud comedic fashion. Lots of scantly-clad ladies, in case you were wondering. But one can hardly accuse Aspen of obfuscating their intent - the very first page of the book depicts a trio of female characters in swimsuits, the attire forming the Aspen logo as the girls bunch together. Points for producing an attractive package, though - as far as these things go, the book is quite nicely designed, even classy in its use of typeface and logos.


Wandering through Ethnicity Fest, it soon became apparent that I’d never be able to settle on just one. Should I enjoy the Jamaican roasts? The Thai noodles? The pumpkin funnel cake? Where does pumpkin funnel cake come from anyway? I immediately begin to list all of the regions of the world where pumpkins might be found, when I walked smack into a wall - of brotherhood!

And now, let’s give a big hand to Katie McCormack, our fourth place winner… Katie’s a fifth grader at…”

And so on and so forth. Apparently, schools are still having children write poems on worthy topics, with the winners in this particular instance delivering their work at Ethnicity Fest itself. Little Katie dutifully launched herself into the ecstasies of verse as I located a Bosnian food stand to order at. I cannot recall the name of what I ordered, but I do recall the cook smiling as he loaded up some type of puffy bread with small links of meat, folding the whole thing over to form a sandwich, open on one end. It was quite good.

I also ordered a Slovenian beverage named Cockta - the woman aiding the cook at the stand plucked one out of a cooler, brandished a large knife, and expertly pried the cap off of the bottle with her blade. Did you know Cockta derives its special flavor from the dog rose berry? And utilizes eleven herbs, and lemon and orange flavors? I didn’t at the time - I thought it was a cola. It went pretty well with the meat anyway.

And then we can all be together!!” concluded little Katie, though those may not have been her exact words. Actually, I don’t totally recall if her name was ‘Katie’ either. I will never forget her powerful message, though. Munching on my food, I noticed a smaller poetry tent set up off to the side, where folks were offering up their own creations.

Whoa, thanks Katie!” cried the announcer from the main stage, “I can barely get past ‘Roses are red, violets are blue…’”

I immediately begin to formulate my own poem, perhaps for broadcast from that small public tent. I got this far:

Roses are red
Violets are blue
Oh god my chest is getting tight oh hell, hell, Christ I am entering your kingdom at last

At that point I noticed out of the corner of my eye that a girl I knew was trying to wave at me, and had just passed me by. I half turned around to say hello, but she was already leaving. “Perhaps I looked thoughtful,” I considered, crunching on my foodstuff.

Wait! Enough of this aesthetic dalliance and fanciful flim-flam! There were comics out there that needed shelter and loving bosoms! Fortunately, the bank employees had not become so perturbed that they’d summoned the police or a tow truck, so I hopped in my car and was off once again!


Funny Book #2: Of the long-surviving artcomics publishers, Fantagraphics provides perhaps the most diverse selection of miscellany, though just like last year they hew closely to humor works. Some are taken from upcoming books, some from past works, and some from long-ago works they had nothing to do with, like an amusing Mark Martin piece from an old issue of Heavy Metal. The styles range from fast ’n vulgar (Martin, the ever-reliable Johnny Ryan) to mannered and conceptual (Michael Kupperman presents adventures of Pagus and Wonder Book Junior, Paul Hornschemeier provides an inexplicable two pages somewhat reminiscent of Marc Bell), to wordy and dirty (Martin Kellerman with more Rocky, the heretofore unknown to me but intriguing Joe Daly) to lovably corny (Jason!).

Occasionally, we get an extract from a longer work, like tantalizing bits from David B.’s Babel #2 and a serial by Jordan Crane, Keeping Two, from his upcoming solo series Uptight. And much like Tom Spurgeon, I didn’t know Megan Kelso had a new book coming up either, but the story provided here nicely whets my appetite (did her Artichoke Tales sequence ever finish?). The only weak bits in the bunch are a reprint of Cher Shimura strips by R. Kikuo Johnson from Mome Vol. 3 that impressed me no more the second time around, and a ponderous half-story by John Pham (unless that too was a excerpt, and Fantagraphics failed to make note of the fact). More than anything, the breadth of Fanta’s line comes across nicely, even though they’re ‘limiting’ themselves to only a certain portion of said line. Appealing stuff.

Mr. Jean: Free Comic Book Day Special: Drawn & Quarterly, another well-respected upper-crust comics publisher, takes a different route, focusing the majority of their offering on one particular project, their English translation of Phillipe Dupuy’s and Charles Berberian’s Mr. Jean series of books and stories, and various attendant materials. Thus, we get two complete Mr. Jean tales (albeit rendered in b&w tones rather than full color) from the upcoming initial volume, Get a Life, plus excerpts from the autobiographical tome Maybe Later!, in which Dupuy and Berberian write and illustrate separate b&w solo stories about their lives and partnership in relation to their famous work. The best is Berberian’s account of being stranded and nervous at an extremely underattended talk, though nothing in here is even in the neighborhood of ‘bad.’ Several of the longer Mr. Jean albums were reprinted in various editions of D&Q’s eponymous Drawn and Quarterly anthology, and their gentle, sophisticated character-driven humor appealed to myself and many others. It’s the experiences of a literate, thoughtful French everyman, who encounters romantic complications and familial matters, and ages over the course of the stories - simply top-flight original comics fiction, never flashy but always attractive. These books can’t arrive in English fast enough.

Also provided are five pages of Tove Jansson’s Moomin newspaper strips, which were but one part of the multimedia Moomin machine of European children’s entertainment in the 20th century. D&Q plans to reprint creator Jansson’s complete run on the strip (1954-1960), and the selections provided here certainly make the effort seem admirable - I’ve never seen any Moomin before, but these adventures of a bunch of whimsical anthropomorphic hippo things benefit from both a lovely curling line and regular infusions of curious darkness (clan matriarch Moominmamma kills a wild pig and everyone devours it - they’re later confronted by the pig’s wife, who fortunately doesn’t care much because - wait for it! - “he was an awful bore”). There’s also a cowardly professor who looks like a bit like Brian Bolland’s Mr. Mamoulian, and a mystery hatch in the ground straight out of Lost. Who can resist? Now I want this book too. It was good of D&Q to focus so intently on such a few books - sure, they don’t have nearly the frequency of release of Fantagraphics anyway, but it gives the reader a sense that these are truly special works, and the materials themselves certainly support that assumption.


I hoped that my hands wouldn’t be too greasy as I hit the first store in my list. Jason had all of the free comics were laid out on the counter, and virtually all of the ‘alternative’ books I wanted were ripe for the picking. There was also a back-issue sale going on (actually the first time this store had ever featured longboxes of back issues before, making it doubly notable), so I gravitated toward there. And oh the glories that Free Comics Day presented me with!

Who could resist beautiful fifty-cent finds like Blip #7, the apparently final issue of Marvel’s pamphlet-format video game magazine from 1983?! Finally, tips and tricks for attaining high scores on Pole Position and Kangaroo, in the Mighty Marvel Manner! The latest news on upcoming releases for systems like the Mattel Intellivision! A double-page ad for Nintendo, then limited in products to Game & Watch and Table Top standalones! Gag cartoons! A completely unnecessary plug for the perpetually upcoming Spider-Man movie, then in the “top-secret planning stages” according to the editors! And a six-page Hulk epic by Dan Koeppel and Al Milgrom, in which the jade behemoth refuses to be distracted from his rampage by puny fruit pies (ooooh, how meta!) but finally surrenders to the pleasure of Parker Brothers’ upcoming Incredible Hulk cartridge! Hulk like free advertising!

That was only the finest of my new treasures. As I flipped through the boxes, I saw no less than two people wander into the store, apparently unaware that it was an international feast day, only to wind up perusing wonderful swag. At once point, the store music player began to skip, and Jason went back to fix it.

Hey,” I called, “Could you put on some Joy Division while I look for back issues of The Crow?

Not one minute later:

Loooooooove, looove will teeeear us apaaaaaaart aaaagaaaaaain…”

I never found anything related to The Crow (and besides, I was already past the ‘C’ section), but the sweet vocal textures of Ian Curtis led me right to the one issue I was missing in Warren Ellis’s run on Ultraforce. It was beautiful, but not as beautiful as Blip.

After all, what is Free Comic Book Day for us seasoned, seen-it-all readers if not broadening our horizons beyond what we’d want to pay full price for? Only good can come of that.


Owly: Breakin’ the Ice: Oh Owly. Owly, Owly, Owly, I am so very much not your target audience in any way, shape, or form, and yet I keep picking up free books devoted to you because I keep hearing of your high quality. Once again your appeal escapes me, and unlike last year, where I was able to at least recognize the nice, supple message you were presumably sending to kids, there’s now only writer/artist Andy Runton’s clear visual storytelling to back you up. And clear storytelling is nice, Owly, but it’s not enough in isolation to make a comic worth reading. Here, you grin a lot and you put your fat little wings up to your beak when you giggle, and your little forest pals Wormy and Scampy are around to squint their eyes and beam when they’re happy, or cry when they’re sad - and what’s it for? To learn about sharing and giving and making new friends and all the other things tackled by every children’s show in the history of human endeavor, without any of the wit or personality that, say, Moomin brings to the table. It’s all mugging all the time here, Owly, not to mention a climactic action scene of the ‘break glass in case of plot emergency’ variety of children’s programming clichés - everyone puts aside their differences and teams up to save someone, and the value of sharing and friendship and frozen lake safety is affirmed! Hooray, Owly! I wish you the best in your future, which will not include me!

Walt Disney’s Donald Duck - Free Comic Book Day: Now here’s some kids’ comics I can get behind: sweetened with light antics and pure slapstick, but unabashedly literate - even brainy - yet never to a distracting extreme. The three reprints presented here are all less than twenty years old, veritable hatchlings as far as Disney FCBD offerings go, and it’s nice to get some latter-day duck material out there for all to appreciate at no cost. Unsurprisingly, the best work comes from Don Rosa, imbuing a stock plot (Donald’s nephews play hooky from school, and they keep running into their uncle as they try to play) with great visual verve (just look at Donald dancing on page 1) and playful sophistication. It’s kind of fascinating how unstuck-in-time these stories seem, what with all the Junior Woodchuck competitions (complete with gratuitous coonskin caps) and cowboy movies and the like. Pat & Shelly Block’s story even closes on a pun stemming from the lyrics to the 1959 smash High Hopes. And yet, nothing seems archaic. The only possible demerit I can think of here applies to the denouement of William Van Horn’s story, which depends entirely on the reader’s familiarity with another popular Disney character for its effect; still, it’s hardly a major problem. Just generally fine work all around.


About ten minutes into my visit to the second store on my list, it became evident that I had a problem.

I had my requisite three free comics, yes. I considered eating some of the free snacks set out, though I was concerned I’d grease up the Superman/Batman #1 stack and provoke the wrath of management. I’d even obtained a lovely rubber Sideshow Collectibles black wristband, emblazoned with the motto “Collect For Life.” Later that evening I’d slip the wristband on, and immediately gain access to a winged horse and dozens of dangerous underground parties where I’d ‘collect’ every decadent pleasure of the flesh and perhaps lose my very soul in the process (note: I am lying). But for then, there in the store, I was simply flummoxed.

I couldn’t think of anything to buy.

Oh sure. It was Free Comic Book Day. Many comics are free on that day, yes. But I can’t just walk in and take free things and walk out. It’s just not in my programming. I know I’d have to nod at the guy at the register and they’d nod back at the things I’d not be paying for, and I’d feel like I was howling “Thanks for th’ goods, ol’ man! Haw haw haw!” as I’d prepare to hop on my motorcycle and zoom off.

No, I definitely needed to find something to buy. And I couldn’t find a damn thing.

I looked up and down the new releases. Back and forth along the somewhat-new releases. Through back-issue bins and fifty-cent bins, and nothing was forthcoming. No help from the Big Two. Big Four. Whatever.

Finally, I got the presence of mind to dig through the old magazines. I selected a Very Much Not Fine copy of Heavy Metal #8 (Nov. 1977), its cover just barely hanging on to its staples and strange black hairs caught in the tape that held its protective plastic bag shut. It turned out to be a great issue, sporting a text story by Harlan Ellison (How’s the Night Life on Cissalda? - the one where the alien entities prove to be so sexually compatible with humans that we all go extinct from pleasure), a nice color done-in-one by Moebius, the expected deep purples and molded visages of Richard Corben’s Den, several trippy genre indulgences, and a wholly baffling chapter of 1996 by Chantal Montellier, with disturbingly awkward character art that occasionally changes from panel to panel and all the dialogue spelled out phonetically. Just what I crave from ‘70s Heavy Metal.

With the discount the store was offering, I got it for two bucks.

At least one ‘big’ publication came through for me.


Conan - Free Comic Book Day 2006 Special/Star Wars - Free Comic Book Day 2006 Special: It’s a flip book, you see. The Star Wars piece is an entirely standard-issue Clone Wars thing with lasers blasting and robots falling and the heroes winning something in the end to the approval of Ewan McGregor. The Conan half is a bit better, with muscular (if somewhat stiff) art by Paul Lee and painterly hues by Dave Stewart. Conan survives a vicious battle and defeats a bad priest/wizard/stylish hat aficionado. From what I can gather these are all-new stories, and I suppose Dark Horse’s intent was to provide encapsulations of what makes these licensed properties appealing. Unfortunately, both of them come off as simplistic summaries of familiar genre trappings, with little hint as to what makes the specific properties special. And plopping advertisements into the middle of the stories in a FCBD book? Bad form. Jim & Ruth Keegan’s bonus strip on the real-life adventures of Conan creator Robert E. Howard was cute, though.

Image Comics: Future Shock: Meanwhile, Image presents excerpts from no less than eight upcoming books, all of them future issues of Image sci-fi/superhero titles. And while none of these snatches of stuff really function well as satisfying stories on their own terms, they do cumulatively give off the impression of the Image sci-fi/superhero line as a poppy, energetic bunch of books - I haven’t been keeping up with too many of these books myself, but I get the impression that fans looking for non-Big Two super-smashing could do a lot worse. Some selections are more appealing than others; I’m always ready for more of a certain Joe Casey/Tom Scioli book, and the Savage Dragon never fails to impress me with how fresh and energetic it still looks, how the scratchy contours of the characters match the curves of the lettering, all of it one of a whole. The first non-Marvel/DC superhero book I ever read was issue #3 of the original Dragon miniseries, and here’s the same book, still by writer/artist Erik Larsen, ready to capture more eyes. Contrast that with the Spawn selection provided, from writer David Hine and artist Phillip Tan, which feels weirdly stagnant, despite the presence of new(ish?) creators. And then there’s good ol’ Shadowhawk - I don’t think Jim Valentino is drawing the current series (concerning an inexperienced new teen Shadowhawk), but he apparently provides art here, a strange mix of heavy shadows, spot colors, and computer-applied metallic textures. And it all works out a bit better than expected, honestly. Maybe a little bit of change in the old standards is for the best.


The third and last store I visited was busy, despite the day’s lateness. Flipping around through back-issues, I was constantly concerned I’d knock someone or something over, a feeling replicated from last year.

Such a bustle it was! I'd been talking to Jason earlier in the day about how people devise Free Comic Book Day 'routes,' which they map out in order to hit every store on an easy driving run. I have to confess that was my own plan for that day, and this particular store was the nearest one to my home. Maybe that was true of a lot of people there, lingering as the day slowly crawled to a halt.

The free books were getting scarce. To my rear, an employee was reading a fairy store aloud (from memory?) to some child. You can never save the best for last in these things, really, because you never really know when 'the best' is going to creep up.

Not to worry - you can switch things around in the mind later on, eh?


Free Scott Pilgrim: Ah, seventeen pages of delight from Bryan Lee O’Malley. Nobody needs me to tell them anything about Scott Pilgrim, right? You all even love it or hate it, right? I’m not even entirely sure why the book inspires such reactions, how it’s somehow become a litmus test for generation or sensibility or whatnot. It’s such an affable, unassuming, good-times book, one only concerned with providing fun characters and entertaining action and sweet curls of genuine emotion; it’s not the kind of thing you’d think would stand out as exemplar of a collective sensibility or anything. Maybe it’s fandom we’re looking at? Adoptions and defenses? If a population accepts a work as something, doesn’t it truly become what it’s said to be? These are the questions that appear after I read this book, but the act of reading makes me smile with the cast’s winsome charm and the little touches that O’Malley inserts into his art, like the way Ramona grasps Scott’s hands behind her back as they walk down the street, or the way her eyes remain calm and dot-like as Scott’s expand to saucer proportions during an assisted fight scene. I like that stuff, and I like Scott Pilgrim. I didn’t as much like the second feature, an outing for Andy Helms’ Fearless Griggs, which comes off as little more than an exceedingly direct Mike Mignola homage spiced up with ‘aggressive’ attitude. It kind of reads like some stereotypical corporate board’s idea of a way to make Mignola’s work cooler, like having Hellboy yell stuff like “Owned.” Maybe that was the joke?

The Preposterous Voyages of IronHide Tom: Just another fine, full-length (twenty-nine page) feature from Joel Priddy and AdHouse, rendered in a style that tempts you to call it ‘minimalist,’ though every page is stuffed with detail and vigor. The plot concerns the tall-tale adventures of the titular man of the seas, an unkillable fellow with a tendency to attain great riches and lose them all in short order. It’s funny, clever, and even a little tragic, and cements Priddy as a creator to constantly pay attention to, well beyond the confines of these lovely free books he keeps contributing to. He seems to excel every year, and now he’s headed the best book of this year’s crop. Well done.


The sun would not be setting for a few hours as I arrived back at home. But I found myself wishing a bloody gold sunset was present for the end of Ethnicity Fest, just wrapping up at 5:00 PM as I walked back over. I never got that pumpkin funnel cake, nor did I find out where it came from, as the stands were all packing up to leave.

A band was still playing some music on the big stage, though. Almost as if they were playing off the day, giving the workers and sellers their closing theme. Nobody was really listening to them, save for a few elderly folks in the folding chairs, and a young girl bouncing around.

As I passed by, I saw she was doing cartwheels in front of the stage. She jumped up in time with the music, oblivious to whatever was going on around her, to whomever might be looking at her. She just continued to enjoy herself as the tune drew to a close, and the tents came down.

I walked all the way up the street, if only to convince myself there was nothing left to eat. The line between workers and lingering customers was blurry now. Trucks were beginning to amble down the street with tables weighing down their flatbeds.

The transformation back to the standard form of the following day was about halfway complete.

Business as usual, coming soon.

Nobody noticed me as I paused in the middle of the festival grounds, and turned around, and headed back for home.