In 1980, 7-year-old Matt Sams stood in Tucson’s Fantasy Comics store and twirled a spinrack of comics. When it stopped, he picked up the first comic book he saw, an issue of Marvel Comics’ “Captain America.” He browsed through the thin, single-issue comic book and fell in love.
He loved the stories. He loved the art. He loved the action. He loved the reading.
When he was 12, Sams looked the owner, Thomas Struck, in the eye and announced he would one day own Fantasy Comics. Last year, after working at the store for eight years, Sams became the owner when Struck retired.
And he’s ready to inspire other children the way he once was. Sams and many of Tucson’s other comic book store owners think Saturday’s Free Comic Book Day is a chance to do just that.
“Realistically there is not supposed to be anything for adults in there,” says Sams. “The day is to generate interest for kids.”
This nationwide event, which happens every first Saturday of May, is when store owners hand out free comic books, building readers and future comic book lovers around the country.
“We just want kids to read,” says Sams. “They are our future, literally. So if they’re reading stuff and getting interested in stuff, that is beneficial for all of us. A lot of them do not see comics until this day.”
Showtime Cards’ Diego Rivera echoes Sams.
“We are hoping it encourages people to read, kids especially,” he says.
With the rise in popularity of superheroes in television and films, comic book shop owners say there is no better way to ignite a passion for reading than by introducing characters and plots that the children already know and love.
“Most of them know Batman, Superman, Spider-Man and all of that, but when they get the first (comics) of their own, it is like ‘Ooh, oh my God that is so cool’,” Rivera says. “That’s a big deal for them and generally that happens for them on Free Comic Book Day.”
The majority of comic books given away on this day are aimed at younger audiences; among those likely seen in the for-free pile are publications such as Nickelodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender”; “Hello Kitty: Surprise”; “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers”, and “SpongeBob Freestyle Funnies.”
Most of the stores are planning family activities for the day, which include music, costume contests and arts and crafts.
“The crafts are definitely so much fun,” says Heroes and Villains’ Cynthia Gerriets. She plans to help kids make comic book-inspired crafts. “We want to make everything fun for the kids — keeping that excited magic (and) love for comics alive for them. I wish I had that when I was younger.”
Charlie Harris, a literacy advocate and owner of Charlie’s Comics, believes comic books can offer more than a good read; they can provide a moral compass.
“I really like Superman because his morals never faulted,” says Harris. “He never accidentally killed someone. He never accidently let someone die. He was always true to his morals, even if it compromised his personal life situation.”
Comic books have addressed topical issues since they were created in the 1930s. It isn’t unusual for them to touch on such topics as war, terrorism, racism, immigration and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights. Many comic book shop owners believe that comics give readers a perspective that is simple and focused on basic human rights.
“(Superheroes) do what we all want to do if we had their resources,” says Michael Camp, who owns Heroes and Villains. “They remind us of the simple things that are important. Like justice in ‘Batman’ or the power of friendship in ‘My Little Pony’. They remind us of the important things within all the clutter of the real world.”
In the end, Camp and his fellow comic book advocates believe comic books can teach Tucson youth that good can triumph over evil while engaging them in a form of literature that is not necessarily on a LED screen.
“We always talk about the moment someone walks through the door, that whatever happens in the world stays out there because in our world, the good guys will win and the bad guys will lose,” says Camp.
“It is a moment of magic that is needed in our culture and society. It is a moment of community. It is a moment of friendship that you can share with people.”