Free Comics. ‘Nuff Said.

Spider-Man perched in the corner of the store, watching silently. Near the door a man stood behind a small counter covered in piles of comic books, his understated Polo shirt not quite as commanding as the crime fighter’s red-and-blue getup. But he watched, too, and waited. Outside, in the parking lot, cars were spilling into the street as they battled for precious spaces. At Roseville’s A-1 Comics on last Saturday’s Free Comic Book Day, the mob of customers tended always to replenish itself, in waves.

Now in its sixth year, the national event is designed to celebrate the medium and introduce it to new readers. A-1 Comics took the day’s concept a step further by holding a storewide sale and hosting an array of comic-book artists and writers. These special guests had come to hype their wares, answer questions about the industry and argue with fanboys about whether Bryan Singer was worse for Superman than kryptonite. But, for a while, they went completely ignored.

The temptation of freebies from Marvel, DC, Image, and a collection of smaller labels, like Bongo Comics and Heroic Publishing, kept customers preoccupied. But rarely did they just arrive, snatch their free goodies and leave. Instead, parents chased hyper kids back and forth down aisles full of action figures, ignoring the artists’ panel with each pass. Other kids whined their parents into grumbling submission, hovering over glass cases filled with the paints and brushes they desperately needed to complete their customizable Warhammer 40,000 armies.

While meandering through, two teenage boys slowed to consider the table full of artists, but didn’t stop. The panelists slumped.

At a back table, three men sat focused on the collectible card game Call of Cthulhu. Stuffed into a Hawaiian shirt, the oldest of the three, with his wispy, gray hair and thin-rimmed glasses, looked like Richard Attenborough’s eccentric curator of Jurassic Park.

“Well, you could play a monster against yourself,” the gently-mad-scientist-type explained to his opponent, in a tone indicating that only a fool would take such an action.

Not far away, a father and his young son had gathered a few free comics, and twice as many not-free ones, and brought them to the front register. Sporting his “I only go to school for the girls” shirt, the grade-schooler was doing his best to defeat the comics-nerd stereotype. Next to him, a 30-something, long-haired man in shorts and a worn T-shirt squeaked with delight upon discovering a shiny binder depicting some ferocious, fictional character. So, the stereotype remained alive and well.

Then, carrying a car seat complete with a sleeping infant, a young mother approached the guest artists and began asking about their work. With the ice broken, a few straggling customers who’d been circling the table finally stopped and joined the conversation, much to the formerly neglected panelists’ delight.