By Michael Avila
Special to DNAinfo
MIDTOWN — You may have noticed a larger than normal amount of people reading comic books on the bus or subway Saturday. That's because it was Free Comic Book Day, the de facto national holiday for comics fans.
Shops across Manhattan opened their doors and gave away stacks of free comics to old and — hopefully — new fans. They also brought in comic book writers and artists for autograph sessions.
Industry legend Joe Staton, who has drawn comics starring everyone from The Justice Society of America to Scooby-Doo, sketched and signed for a long line of fans at Jim Hanley's Universe on 33rd Street near Fifth Avenue.
J.D. Matonti, Chris Matonti and Julia Coppola, co-creators of the "New-Gen Universe" comic, were also there to meet and greet fans.
"It's awesome to interact with the fans like this," J.D. Matonti said. "I just hope they have a good time [today] and enjoy our story and become fans."
Celebrating its 10th anniversary, Free Comic Book Day has become almost as important to comics as the San Diego Comic Con. A decade later, the event has grown; the participation has increased, as has the media attention. Yet the goal remains the same: To find the next generation of comic book fans and get them to visit a local comic book store.
"It's more community outreach than anything else," said Vito Delsante, a manager at Jim Hanley's Universe, about the store's involvement with FCBD.
"This is Geek Christmas. It's the best thing ever," pronounced Dan Slott, who writes "The Amazing Spider-Man" for Marvel. "It's a good way to bring in new readers, young readers, people who may have strayed from the path … and say, 'here is some free stuff.'"
"We always end up seeing new people after [Free Comic Book Day]," said Midtown Comics manager Gahl Buslov. "The idea isn't just necessarily to bring new people in, but to expose existing customers to other books they normally wouldn't pick up."
Robert Conte of Manhattan Comics on East 23rd Street, across from Madison Square Park, agreed.
"Absolutely. We've definitely seen [FCBD] help us. There are lots of kids who have been coming here for since they were 10; now they're older … 16-, 17-years old, still coming to the store," Conte said.
The crowds out for FCBD were huge, with lines snaking around stores. Even more encouraging, they included lots of small kids, either with their parents or friends.
"It's a challenge to get kids into stores to buy comics," Delsante said. "They would rather read on the computer, so it's an ongoing process [to attract new fans]."
The struggles of the comic book industry are no secret.
Overall sales figures remain a fraction of what they were back in the heyday of the 1990s. That's one reason FCBD has always been held the first Saturday in May, to take advantage of the first weekend of Hollywood's blockbuster movie season. This year is no exception; the adaptation of Marvel's "Thor" debuted in theaters Friday.
DC's cosmic cop "Green Lantern" makes his feature film debut in June, which explains why one of DC's FCBD offerings was a Green Lantern comic. Other free books included a Smurfs tale, a Star Wars comic book, an Archie book, a preview of an upcoming illustrated novel called "Jake the Dreaming" and even a comic based on former "Batman" TV star Adam West.
At 3 p.m., Hanley's employees were still handing out free comics.
Over at Midtown Comics' flagship shop near Times Square, the lines to get into the store began forming before 8 a.m. The store actually ran out of free comics before 1 p.m.
Comic book creator Brian Wood was on hand at Manhattan Comics signing copies of his graphic novels DMZ, Demo and Northlanders. Slott, who booked back-to-back signings at Hanley's and Manhattan Comics, joined him.
Slott scripted the new story in Marvel's Spidey giveaway comic. His double duty Saturday was his way of paying it forward.
"I didn't start reading comics until I was eight. And I started because of Spider-Man," Slott said when asked about how he became a fanboy. "I already knew who Spider-Man was from the cartoons. I loved him dearly."
"I saw lots of dads with their sons and daughters [today]," Slott said about the turnout at the two stores he visited. "Every time we do this, it's someone's entry point to a new generation of geek boy and geek girl. It's great."
New Yorkers celebrated Free Comic Book Day in different ways.
For a group of students from LaGuardia Community College, Saturday turned into a comics crawl across the city. They hit up every shop they could to sample as many free books as possible.
Saturday was father-bonding time for Bronx resident Ralph Pena and his 8-year old son Tristan. The two were browsing for reading material at Midtown Comics — and not just the ones being given away.
"I'm introducing him to the Marvel and DC stuff, the classics," said Pena, following in the footsteps of his own father, who used to take him to the comics shop.
He may be preaching to the choir.
Young Tristan is not only a comics fan — he likes Spider-Man and Iron Man — he's already working on his first comic with a friend, "Dragon Man."
"[Comics] get him reading," Pena said. "He's a reader. And that's important."