Maggie’s World 050: Free
A free comic book? Free?
Who thought up that idea?
A look at the “Promotional Comics” section of The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide will demonstrate that many, many free comics have been released over the years—even over the decades.
Most are long forgotten—and, by the way, are really hard to find, even via Internet searches. How did we get them in the first place?
Walk Right Up!
Mom! Dad! Let’s go to the shoe store!
What? You don’t think kids would ask to visit a shoe store?
While there have certainly been a variety of reasons to hand out comics over the years, shoe stores were among the most generous in the 1940s. Buster Brown shoe manufacturers licensed the character a couple of years after Richard Outcault created the strip. Though his strip ended in the 1920s, the company introduced a Buster Brown Comic Book series in 1945, tied to Ed McConnell’s TV show Smilin’ Ed’s Gang. It ran for about a decade.
Perhaps inspired by that series, other shoe stores (including the shoe department at Sears) soon began to offer the March of Comics series featuring Dell’s licensed titles. (Some issues may have been reprints, but several contained stories that appeared only in this series from Western Publishing. Yes, probably just in order to drive completists nuts.) Whereas Buster Brown’s output was fewer than 50 issues, March of Comics’ numbering reached #488 (and was by that time handed out by, yes, the Buster Brown shoe folks).
Of Course …
There have been many other free comics: some designed to attract kids to stores, some set up to keep kids busy while elders were otherwise occupied, and some simply provided to convey information entertainingly.
After World War II, for example, Peter Wheat Bread distributed tales of The Little Folk of the Wheat Field—initially by Walt Kelly, later by Al Hubbard—in the swords-and-sorcery comedy fantasy of The Adventures of Peter Wheat and Peter Wheat News. The two different formats were delivered along with bread by friendly neighborhood breadmen (like milkmen but with wheat products).
In fact, comics seemed to be a natural additive to food. Such cereals as Cheerios, Quaker Oats, Malt-O-Meal, and Wheaties each offered promotional comics. In fact, while we’re considering long-running free comic books, we should note that Adventures of the Big Boy kicked off in the mid-1950s and ran for decades, though BB resonates so little with comics buffs today that most would even be hard-pressed to name his dog (Nugget, named in #10).
But free comics serve a variety of purposes. For Outdoor Power Equipment Institute in 1966, underground comix writer-artist Vaughn Bodé produced Powermowerman and Power Mower Safety. In 1973, King Comics (printed by Charlton) produced an entire series of educational Popeye comics written by Joe Gill providing a look at a variety of occupations. (They included Popeye and … Health Careers, Communications and Media Careers, Transportation Careers, Construction Careers, Consumer and Homemaking Careers, and so on.) “The National Joint Bricklaying Apprenticeship and Training Committee recommends completion of a 3-year apprenticeship program as the best way to learn this trade. Master bricklayers must know math and read blueprints.” You get the idea.
But why bring up free comics now?
Mark Your Calendar
Let’s take one more trip down memory lane.
Joe Field of the Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff shop proposed an “industry open house” outreach in Diamond Dialogue’s January 1998 issue and went on to suggest a “Free Comics Night” in Comics & Games Retailer #113 (August 2001). The C&GR article was titled “The Power of Free,” and Joe called attention to the fact that the Baskin-Robbins ice cream franchise holders had the tradition of an annual “Free Scoop Night.” He’d observed its success and wrote, “Isn’t this an idea that we can tailor to the comics market?”
He outlined a general plan, adding specific suggestions that individual stores might adopt, including subscribing to the Comic Shop Locator Service, so that people who want to find shops in the first place could do so.
He wrote, “…with a better breadth of material in our market than ever before, we should be looking at inviting as many as we can to join us in the enjoyment of comics as amazing entertainment.”
Diamond Comic Distributors reacted with enthusiasm. Roger Fletcher wrote, “Joe threw out a spark. If we all work together, maybe it will catch fire. Maybe we can deliver a powerful ‘thank you’ to current customers and bring new and lapsed readers and fans into comics shops!”
The first Free Comic Book Day was May 4, 2002, when more than 2 million comics from DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, and Image were given away at more than 2,000 locations. The first Saturday in May has turned out to be a terrific choice for the annual event, and the variety of treats has become amazing. A decade and a half after the first celebration, the event will include comics geared for younger readers, comics aimed at superhero fans, comics for … Well, heck. If you Google “Free Comic Book Day 2017,” you’ll find a lot of information on the delights that await.
Or you can just join the rest of us on May 6 to see for yourself.
(Oh, and before I forget: that comics shop that’s handing you a free comic book? It paid for what it’s giving you. So you might enjoy checking to see whether it might also be selling something you or someone you know might enjoy. I don’t recall a time I’ve entered a comics shop without finding something I wanted to buy. Just a thought.)
Maggie’s World by Maggie Thompson appears the first Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!