Free Comic Book Day is here: Your best excuse to start reading comics

Ginny on Flickr

It's almost Free Comic Book Day, and you know what that means.

Or maybe you don't! Maybe you're not that into comics, but you'd like to be. Maybe you're not that sure how to get into comics, what to read, how to buy them. Take it from this long-time comics reader: that's perfectly understandable. There are hundreds of comics out there and the specter of "catching up with continuity" looms high. Beyond that — and, again, I say this as a person who's been buying comics every week for going-on two decades — the comics market is a frustrating, non-intuitive retail system that presents too many hurdles to the new or casual reader.

This isn't even the first time that I've written a post about how to buy comics. Honestly, if your retail system is so confusing that somebody has to write an article to help readers pay money to obtain it, there's a problem.

But there's hope! We're at the dawn of a revolution in digital comics distribution. Not that digital comics don't come with their own hangups (they do!) but I'll be weighing the pros and cons of digital in another post. We're going to start with the best way to get started reading comics in the old fashioned way. Why now?

Because it's almost Free Comic Book Day

And there's no better day to start a loving relationship with your local comic shop. Every year on the first Saturday in May, American comic companies prepare one or several comic book issues specifically to be given away free at participating comic shops. Participating shops usually time other sales, promotions, and events (like signings) for the day, and even if they don't, they're prepared to welcome an influx of new customers.

Since it's the beginning of the blockbuster movie season, Marvel and DC usually have a tie in story for their summer release, and lots of companies prepare preview issues of upcoming new titles. this summer, Marvel is kicking off their Secret Wars event, and DC is wrapping up its own Convergence. In a couple of months there are going to be a slew of brand new titles hitting shelves, primed and ready for brand new readers regardless of how many comics they might have read before.

So if you've been meaning to get into comics, or even just into a specific series or two ...

Free Comic Book Day (Flickr user ajalfaro)
2011 Free Comic Book Day comics / Flickr user ajalfaro

Here's what you should do this Saturday:

Find a local, participating comic store.

• Visit it for your free comics. You can have as many as you want, but only one of each title!

• Buy something. The comics are free to you as a promotion, but they're not free to the store. Buy a comic, a poster or a graphic novel while you're there, and support your local comic shop.

• While you're there, ask an employee how to set up a pull list. Every store does this slightly differently, but staff should be able to get you started with a cheerful and welcoming manner. And if they don't, you should totally go somewhere else.

• Follow the friendly employee's instructions, and set up your pull list!

What's a Pull List?

A pull list is a list of all the comics you want to buy. Your comic shop keeps it, and when those comics come out they set them aside so that you can pick them up any time. Why shouldn't you just show up on Wednesday (the day that all monthly comics come out in the U.S.) and pick up your books yourself? I'll tell you. Come close.

We've arrived at the secret at the heart of how comics are terrible. Comic books in America are a print medium that you must purchase as if they were a hobby item. They are serial narratives that are printed and shipped like magazines. This is because, unlike the print publishing industry, comics are not sold under "consignment."

Consignment means that retailers can ship unsold merchandise back to the publisher in exchange for credit to buy different merchandise. In the print publishing industry this allows bookshops to take lots of chances with little stress. Comics shops have no such luck, and must maintain tight inventories or risk overbuying. Despite what the speculator's market of the 1990s may have led you to assume, the vast majority of comics only depreciate in value from their initial retail price.

The other important effect of a lack of selling on consignment in the comics industry is the nature of sales numbers. To print publishers, whose books may be sent back at any time, the book hasn't sold until it hits the hot hands of a reader. For comics publishers, the final sale is the retailer. Imagine that two comic book issues sell 50k retailer orders each; one flies off the shelves, the other gathers dust.

They're both the same success story for the publisher.

So a pull list does two things: It makes sure that your comic shop orders the comics you like, and won't sell out of them (remember: conservative inventory!) before you get there. And, because retailer pre-orders (which are submitted two months before a comic will hit shelves) are the only thing that counts as a "sale" to the comics industry, it's also the most efficient way to communicate your consumer behavior to comics publishers. Ideally, that efficient communication will result in more comics that you like and better compensation for the people who make them.

So make a pull list, and pick up your comics once a week, whenever it's convenient for you. Just make sure to update it periodically: make sure you're only reading comics you really enjoy, and not just reading out of habit. You should always be excited to see what's in your box every week, otherwise why are you shelling out the money for it?

Comic book store (Flickr user Rebekah / 14077949@N00)
A comic book store in Greensboro, NC / Flickr user Rebekah

Your secret weapon

Here's a protip from a master: Keep a pull list at your comic shop, but also keep an online one on

I'm terrible at remembering to update my pull list when I'm in the shop, but great at remembering to do it when I'm in front of a computer. Thanks to my online pull list, Comixology sends me an email every week reminding me which of my pull list titles have come out, so I can pluck them from the shelves or add them to the list at my store, and never miss them. (It also helps for the rare occasion that my shop's comic book elves make a mistake and forget to pull an issue for me.)

And if you're a trade-waiter, Comixology's pull list system allows you to subscribe to a title but only be notified when a new collected edition is available. Just go to My Subscriptions, click the Edit button for the relevant series, uncheck "Comics (On-Going)" and check off "Hard Covers" and "Trade Paperbacks."

But what should I put on my Pull List?

That depends on you, and what you like! If you're still reading this, you must already interested be in comics. Hopefully you have at least one series in mind. Get recommendations from your friends who read comics, or if you follow any comics readers/creators online, see what they're reading. Any local comic shop worth its salt should have employees who can steer you towards books that you'll enjoy.

It's also worth seeing if any of the other media you're into has a comic book tie in. "Tie in" doesn't usually speak to the best quality, but animation houses like Cartoon Network and Cartoon Hangover have been recruiting superlative talent for comics based on Adventure Time, Bravest Warriors and Regular Show.

Doctor Doom / Squirrel Girl
Confound these wretched rodents! / Marvel Comics


OK, fine, here are four current books I, personally, would recommend to anybody regardless of their interests, just because they are very, very good (though some of them may require some catching up via paperback collections):


The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl

The Wicked + The Divine


Bonus recommendations: Do you want to tear down the patriarchy with your own teeth? You owe it to yourself to read Bitch Planet. Have you ever enjoyed a tabletop roleplaying game? Run, do not walk, to a comic shop and familiarize yourself with Rat Queens.

Do I have other options?

Of course! But they're not as good for new readers. For example, some comics companies (like Image), and some comics shops, offer subscription services that will ship comics to you. However, they're generally only offered (or only cost effective, or only barely cost effective) if you're buying around a dozen comics a month. If you want to read physical comics, and you have easy regular access to a comic book shop, setting up a pull list is your best bet. If you want to read physical comics, and don't have access to a shop, you should check out subscription services.

It's important to remember that you can also "wait for the trade." Though this was far less common a decade ago, pretty much every monthly comic out there right now is eventually collected into trade paperback or hardcover edition that prints several issues in one package. "Trades" are regularly sold through general booksellers and online book retailers, and are invariably cheaper than individually buying the monthly comics issues included in them. The downside is two-fold, however. On the one hand, you've got to have the patience to wait six months or more for the next installment, and on the other, the extent to which trade sales are valued by comics publishers is still somewhat unclear. Monthly series are regularly cancelled before their first trades hit shelves, before anyone could know whether the book will be a bigger hit once it reaches the trade audience.

But really, if you're a brand new comics reader just starting to dip a toe into the wide world of currently published sequential art — and you could take or leave physical copies — I have a different suggestion entirely.

So tune in next week for: Digital comics!

Top image: Flickr user ginnerobot