Joe Field: the Mastermind Behind Free Comic Book DayA comics interview article by: Karyn Pinter, Jason Sacks
Joe Field is a humble comic shop owner who had a big idea. He's the owner of Flying Colors Comics; Other Cool Stuff in Concord, CA. And as you'll read below, Joe had a simple idea that turned into a world-changing idea: Free Comic Book Day. CB's own Karyn Pinter shops at Flying Colors, and asked Joe to answer a few questions for us about the big event.
Comics Bulletin: What did you expect would happen when you first suggested Free Comic Book Day?
Joe Field: I honestly knew it had a decent chance of happening.
Several years before I proposed FCBD, I wrote in a "Diamond Year In Review" piece that I thought the industry needed to do a comics' biz "open house" which I envisioned as a month-long event where people would come into stores to vote on their all-time favorite comics and be given something special.
That idea was too unfocused and unwieldy, but I guess the idea gestated well enough that in another few years, I was able to steal it fully formed from Baskin Robbins.
CB: Was it surprising when Diamond picked up your idea to and made it a reality?
Field: Not at all. There was so much discussion about it before deciding to do it that I knew there was something very strong about the concept. Who doesn't like "FREE?"
CB: Is there something unique about your store (aside from the fact that Karyn shops there) that makes it ideal to spark this kind of event?
Field: First of, I think we're pretty good at listening to our customers. In 2001, the back-wash of the '90s was pretty much gone and the quality of material had taken a big leap forward, so we were hearing just how pleased comic readers were. That told me it was a good time to re-form the idea. Seeing that long line in front of Baskin Robbins was just the maraschino cherry on top of that particular sundae.
I also know that Flying Colors sees a lot of "civilians." We're in a good shopping plaza with a Trader Joe's market where there's something close to 15,000 shoppers a week. Way too often, people will come in out of curiosity and say something like "I didn't even know they made funny books anymore." That told me we really needed to get the word out in a huge way.
CB: Is there something unique about Bay Area comic stores that makes them a good fit for this?
Field: I feel so fortunate to have grown up in the Bay Area so I could see the development of comic shops. This area has always been ahead of the curve in terms of forward-thinking retailers and new ways to approach the business of comics. But it wasn't like I consulted with any of my retailer colleagues about FCBD before writing the column that launched it. I just knew it would be embraced as long as the cost to participate was reasonable. And it still is!
CB: This day isn't exactly free for retailers - not only do they all pay for the free comics, but many of them make big celebrations out of the day. Do you feel that the day has helped retailers to become more profitable? Does the investment pay off?
Field: I don't think there's any way that FCBD would have lasted two years let alone ten years if there wasn't a lot of good coming from it. The way I like to explain it is by way of those old cereal commercials that would say "Corn Flakes are a part of this nutritional breakfast" while also showing orange juice, toast and fresh fruit. FCBD is a part of healthy comics market, but there are still many other factors that go into making a store or the entire comics industry profitable.
Seeing that Free Comic Book Day has become the world's largest annual comics' event with somewhere between 300,000-500,000 people attending events in 40 countries (!), it's a given that the world's most profitable comic shops participate.
CB: In your store, do you see increases of sales for the comics that are exposed to readers on FCBD?
Field: We've seen big spikes in interest, particularly for DC's recent FCBD titles "War of the Supermen" and "Blackest Night." We've seen previously unknown titles like "Stuff of Legend" debut on FCBD and find that we didn't order nearly enough of the next issues because the material was so good that the FCBD edition made consumers want more. So, yes, we do see increased sales, just not necessarily for all FCBD titles.
CB: Do you think it's better to schedule next to a comic book movie or on a regular date?
Field: Let's put it this way: I think it's much better for Hollywood to schedule a comic-related movie to open the first Friday in May because FCBD is the First Saturday in May--- and what a way to get hundreds of thousands of people caught up in the excitement?
FCBD has been successful the seven years we've been barnacled with a movie, as well as the two years when there was no direct tie-in. I'm just happy Hollywood sees the value of launching a comics-related flick for FCBD.
CB: Have you seen an increase or even a decrease of people in the past years of FCBD?
Field: Our first FCBD in '02 drew around 800 and we now average about 1200, so we've seen an increase. But our numbers pale in comparison to what some stores get--- some draw thousands! I'd hate to see our carpet in the store after a day of traffic like that... but I'd still be happy to pay for the cleaning!
CB: FCBD day is already pretty big, but there's always room to grow. How would you continue to spread the word to other retailers?
Field: Well, there are still a couple of hundred stores in North America that do not participate. So the first thing I'd want is to get them to join the party. I also believe that if every fan who attends would bring their non- comics reading friends to an FCBD-participating retailer on Saturday, it could lead to remarkable growth for the business of comics.
The event has grown to the point where we could get sponsorship from a packaged goods company, something like the Doritos Fiesta Bowl football game. That way, we could have Free Comic Book Day promoted in thousands of grocery stores in advance to many who may not have been exposed to the FCBD message yet.
I'll never forget that during the planning of the first FCBD, Diamond asked me if I knew any marketing professionals who could help promote the event. I put out some feelers and the only response I got was from a small agency that pleaded with me not to go through with it "because it'll never fly."
Free Comic Book Day is still flying after ten years... and with the continued contributions of publishers, retailers and so many readers, it's flying higher than ever!