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Free Comic Book Day hooks new generations 

Guardians of freebies

The first Saturday in May, comic book shops across the world are packed with customers of every demographic. Long-time fanboys, young newcomers and casual readers fill the aisles, bags in hand. For some, wallets stay in pockets and purses. After all, it couldn't be called "Free Comic Book Day" if free comics weren't part of the deal. For many others, the promotion is a gateway event, providing just enough of a taste to hook readers into paying for their next fix.

And for shops like Elizabeth's Heroes Aren't Hard to Find, this Saturday is an opportunity to advertise their own sales and events, like the annual HeroesCon in June.

"It's a great day for us to push it, because people are really amped on everything that day," says Justin Crouse, the shop's store manager. "We usually have a station set up to purchase tickets and have some incentives to get them on that day."

The holiday began 12 years ago, accompanying the release of Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man film on May 4, 2002. Back then, comic book films weren't released at today's rapid rate. Piggy-backing on the movie's buzz, Diamond Comic Distributors (the industry's largest distributor) was able to reach its three-pronged audience goal: old readers, returning readers and new readers. And it hasn't missed a year since.

Today, the event has evolved into its own beast, boasting nearly 60 free titles from which to choose on May 3. This year's associated film is The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and like the Hollywood franchise, the comics have new names and faces for readers jumping aboard. The medium continues to reinvent itself, and that's perfect for the crowd Crouse sees.

"There are a lot of parents with kids, because it's an easy way to see if they will like comics," Crouse says, "which is the whole point of the day. It's an olive branch to the public, to see what you like."

Parents like Jay Wallace take advantage of what Free Comic Book Day offers. He brought his 5-year-old son, Anakin, to last year's event. "It was his first one," Wallace says. "He likes stuff like Sonic and Scooby-Doo. And he loves to take pictures with people in the costumes. And, yeah, he likes all of the free comics he gets."

Publishers like Marvel Comics are aware of the varying ages visiting stores that first Saturday each May. On Free Comic Book Day, an issue of Guardians of the Galaxy suits adult readers looking for a primer for the upcoming film based on the series. For kids, a comic centered on Rocket Raccoon, a member of the Guardians, focuses on the team's resident talking animal.

While some comic shops must limit the number of free books available to each customer, stores like Heroes Aren't Hard to Find are able to offer all of the selections to visitors. And there's another bonus for devoted readers: visiting industry professionals who offer sketches and conversation. Tents are planned for the exterior of the store on Saturday, as lines tend to spill outside of the shop.

Last year, the Wallaces approached artists Adam Hughes and Brian Stelfreeze with sketch requests. For dad Jay, events like Free Comic Book Day, Charlotte Comicon and HeroesCon are a way to build something, and to continue an education for his son, as he decides if comics are right for him.

"Eventually, [Anakin will] get into the adult stuff," Wallace says. "I have a comic book collection that I've built for him. When he turns 10, I'll turn them over to him. By that point, he should know how to take care of them and decide what he wants to do with it."

(Free Comic Book Day will be held May 3 at the following times and locations: 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Heroes Aren't Hard to Find, 1957 E. 7th St.; 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Rebel Base Comics & Toys, 701 S. Sharon Amity Road; 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Spandex City Comics, 2914 Mt. Holly-Huntersville Road.)

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