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May 2-8, 2007

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What Comics Mean to Me

By Richard von Busack

I GOT MY FIRST funny-book as anesthesia for a trip to the barbershop. To calm me after this dull, itchy and personally violating experience, my grandfather stopped at the PX and got me a wad of comic books. He'd been a fan of the Sub-Mariner and the late lamented Captain America in the 1940s, so he put a Jack Kirby-era Thor comic at the top of the stack. This didn't make me an instant member of the Merry Marvel Marching Society. The graphics were dizzying, and beside I still can't figure out why Norse gods were conducting shop in Outer Space. And then there was the matter of Stan Lee's dialogue, all those eldritch words like "eldritch" and "wittold." Lee sure knew how to fill Thor's thunderous thesaurus. (When it came to alliteration, Stan the Man made George Will look like a punk.)

It was all too head-spinning, and I found my league fast: Harveytoons, with the three- or four-page-long adventures of Satan's scarlet, diapered offspring, Hot Stuff. There was The Sixth Sense like adventures of Casper, lonely for human contact (here, one learned the proper way of addressing a specter: "A g-g-g-ghost!!!"). And, most eldritch (meaning "weird"), a giant, and also diapered, goose in a baby bonnet; possibly the results of some farmer's gene-bending attempt to corner the world's supply of foie gras. Years later we learned that Bill Clinton used to refer to himself as "Baby Huey."Maybe history would have been different if he'd identified with Thor. It was cheap Fawcett paperbacks that got me my own childhood avatar, the Little Round- Headed Kid. I adored reading about him; I stayed up late following his life of quiet desperation. Clearly he got his hair cut at the same place I did, and he sucked at sports, just like I did, and he said all the wrong things. Charlie Brown used an adjective ("depressed") that I'd never heard before, but which fit my childhood like a tailor-made suit. From these brief encounters began a long fascination with graphic storytelling in any form, from cosmic thunderers in capes to scrounging loafers in Cleveland.

The sixth annual Free Comic Book Day on May 5 seeks to hook up a new generation to comic book reading. All over North America and in 34 foreign countries, retailers will give away a free comic book to anyone who shows up. Some 10 million comics have been given away worldwide so far. The event originated locally in Joe Field's Concord-based Flying Colors Comics, a direct comic sales store doing business now for almost two decades. Field says that he floated the idea in an article in the late 1990s in the Diamond Comics Distributor's industry newsletter. "Originally it was going to be an open house," Field remembers. He agrees that comic book stores can sometimes be intimidating to people who aren't hardened rabid fans. Field was then inspired by local ice cream vendors Ben and Jerry and Baskin-Robbins' practice of giving away free samples. At first, Field remembers, the comics given away weren't the top of the line special editions made up for the big day today. But the event caught on. It spread from comic book stores to local libraries, which were eager to use comic books as a gateway drug to further reading.

For instance, in Newark, Del., last year at the Captain Blue Hen shop, attendees raised $350 for the local library, and 100 visitors got extra free comics by showing their library cards. Locally, Los Altos' library has a series of displays made up for the day. Morgan Hill's library is launching its teen reading program with the May 5 event. Gilroy's public library will be running Spider-Man and Superman Returns in an effort to lure young readers in.

One almost needs to be introduced to the magic of words and pictures together at an early age, or else the signs and symbols in a comic frame won't be intelligible. You need to learn that a twist of smoke over a head means "wrath," or a halo of flying droplets means "anxiety." Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman, creators of the avant-garde comic anthology Raw, were discussing the state of comics in San Francisco this week. Mouly noted that once upon a time she and her husband had labored to make comics for adults . . . and now they'd discovered that there weren't enough comics for younger children. To solve the problem, this couple is working on a series of books called "Little Lit" books to bring in children.

Field says, "Younger readers are being left behind, and there's so many other entertainment choices to them. But at Free Comic Book Day, there's a good variety of material for all ages and tastes. Whole families can find something to like."

Lee Hester of Lee's Comics in Mountain View is among the Gold Sponsors of Free Comic Book Day, the largest selection of free comics to giveaway. His store will be handing out 200 copies of the Fantagraphics Peanuts in comic book form. It's the first comic book issuing of the popular strip in some 40 years. Fantagraphics is currently reprinting every one of Charles Schulz's daily strips in hardcover, and this give-away is a more affordable softcover sample of Schulz's work. A new "Bongo Free for All" comic stars The Simpsons in a story of Free Comic Book Day: "It features my favorite character, the Comic Book Guy," Hester notes. "He's my idol and I have tried hard to live my life by following his example."

For slightly younger readers, stores will be giving away Mickey Mouse and Archie comics. Silver-level comic book sponsors are also distributing everything from some autobiographical funnies by Lynda Barry to a Family Guy comic to the adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog. "There are no strings attached to getting the free comics," Hester urges. "You don't have to buy anything. You don't even get a dirty look if you don't make a purchase."

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