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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

The hearts of comic book fans are aflutter today. That's because tomorrow comic book stores around the world will give away millions of comics.

Mark your calendars: It's the 10th annual Free Comic Book Day. As Rob St. Mary of member station WDET reports, it's become an increasingly important way to bring people into stores as comics go electronic.

Mr. DAN MERRITT (Owner, Green Brain Comics): This is kind of our front display space.

ROB ST. MARY: Walking among the well-organized racks, Dan Merritt, the owner of Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan, says he has a little something for everyone

Mr. MERRITT: We got high class and low brow right next to each other.

ST. MARY: Merritt says his passion for comics, which started as a kid, fires his 12-year-old business he runs with his wife Katie.

Mr. MERRITT: That's pretty much the major characteristic of this business: constant change and constant evolution of the way we do business.

ST. MARY: One of the things that's changed since Merritt opened his shop is the creation of Free Comic Book Day. Joe Field, the owner of Flying Colors Comics in Concord, California, came up with the idea.

Mr. JOE FIELD (Owner, Flying Colors Comics): To call back people who used to read comics but haven't for a while for whatever reason, to introduce new people to comics and to do sort of a thank-you party to our regular readers and fans.

ST. MARY: And they deserve it. In 2001, the industry's leading distributor, Diamond, says it saw about $330 million in sales. Over the past decade, that number has jumped as high as $430 million before cashing in last year at $418 million.

One reason for the growth might be the very public battle between the biggest comic book publishers: Marvel and DC. It's a fight that's not only playing out at the racks but at the multiplex.

(Soundbite of film, "Iron Man")

Mr. ROBERT DOWNEY JR. (As Tony Stark) I am Iron Man. The suit and I are one.

ST. MARY: "Iron Man" is just one of Marvel's many characters doing battle at the box office. "Thor" attacks the big screen today. Meanwhile, DC has counter-punched with films like "The Dark Knight," which has taken in over a billion dollars worldwide.

(Soundbite of film, "The Dark Knight")

Mr. MICHAEL CAINE (Actor): (As Alfred) Know your limits, Master Wayne.

Mr. CHRISTIAN BALE (Actor): (As Bruce Wayne) Batman has no limits.

ST. MARY: Participants in the Nerdy Book Club might agree.

Unidentified Man #1: Thank you for coming everyone. "Batman: Dark Knight Returns..."

ST. MARY: About 20 or so people are gathered at Brian Kelly's Detroit Comics in Ferndale, Michigan. They're enjoying snacks and a few beers.

Ms. ANGELA BADGETT: Hi my name is Angela.

Unidentified Group: (Unintelligible).

Ms. BADGETT: Aw, thanks, guys.

ST. MARY: That's Angela Badgett, a regular at the monthly book club meetings because she likes what comics and graphic novels have to offer.

Ms. BADGETT: Things that are geared towards women as far as literature these days is sad.

ST. MARY: And while she prefers the printed page, Badgett says she does own an e-reader.

Ms. BADGETT: There might be a limit to the individual-issue comic books. You know, that might end at some point. But I don't think that the genre will ever go away. The medium might change.

ST. MARY: There are apps that allow readers to purchase, store and view digital comics on their phones and e-readers. But Green Brain owner Dan Merritt says brick and mortar retailers have a plan. Starting this fall, they'll get a leg up on the digital world with some help from publishers.

Merritt says if Angela wanted the latest issue of, say, "Spider-Man" for her e-reader, she would have to come to a store and purchase a code.

Mr. MERRITT: We will have 30 days exclusivity for that download. The only way you can get that download is to coming to a comics store.

ST. MARY: Merritt says retailers have learned from the drop in sales at traditional bookstores and the struggles of the big chains that comic shop owners must provide an experience customers can't get online. That's why Merritt says Free Comic Book Day is huge for growing his store's clientele.

Mr. MERRITT: We tend to pick up anywhere, five to 10 percent, as regular, revisiting customers. We estimate a much larger percentile that occasionally revisit throughout the year.

ST. MARY: So Merritt says it's more than worth it to pay 50 cents an issue for the special editions he'll be giving away. But don't be surprised if he tries to talk you into buying one of his current favorites, the latest issue of the zombie saga "The Walking Dead."

For NPR News, I'm Rob St. Mary in Detroit.

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