Free Comic Book Day

I walked into my local comic shop and saw few unfamiliar faces looking over a few freebies. I walked out with a thick stack of comic books, headed home, and consumed them in the best way: in one mad tear, one mad comic book binge.

It was Free Comic Book Day, the comics industry’s to Halloween. But candy’s handed out in May. Comic publishers supply plentiful issues that are then handed out in comic shops around the world. It isn’t the pounds of sugar that will make your head spin, but the smell of fresh ink.

Four or five hours passed before I put down my last free comic book. A thought balloon hung over my head. What a complete waste of time. The seventh annual FCBD was a bad haul with the effort cut to accommodate the price. I must be insolent to complain about getting forty-one free comic books, but when a company gives you a sample, the idea is to make you a paying customer. But most publishers forewent storytelling and went straight for the sales pitch. These were comic brochures.

The majority of the Free 41 were either excerpts or pages of preview art. And the problem with the multiple previews could be seen in Viz’s Shonen Jump sampler. It had three stories — all close to incomprehensible.

(On the topic of the free manga offered, Jump was one of only three that fit the category. The others were a full-length graphic novel from Antarctic Press and a preview of the manga adaptation of James Patterson’s Maximum Ride novel series. Reading it left-to-right or the traditional manga way did not make the preview any less dumbfounding.)

Perhaps I could forgive the majority of comic book publishers had they offered new material instead of reprints. Gemstone Publishing brilliantly reprinted a 48-year-old story featuring Gyro Gearloose, successfully ensnaring today’s youth with colorful caption boxes: “How does Gyro happen to be in this awesome place? It is necessary to flash back to a recent day in Duckburg!”

DC Comics and Maerkle Press were the only publishers to offer a regular issue of a series for free. Unfortunately, issues were of the how-dumb-do-you-think-kids-are quality of Tiny Titans #1 and Love and Capes #7, the latter being a series flapping wildly in the world of superhero cliché.

DC’s other offering was a reprint of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman #1 — an entertaining book, but one originally published three years ago and since reprinted numerous times. Dark Horse offered new Hellboy stories from Mike Mignola — one of the few FCBD comics worth the trip.

Marvel, during a major movie weekend, made some questionable choices. It published a brand new story by the strong creative team of Mike Carey and Greg Land. But it was an X-Men story, not Iron Man or even the Hulk. Those two characters, who appear in movies this summer, were relegated to a new Marvel Adventures book.

The Free 41 could have been worse. There was variety, from kids’ books to comic book journalism to books where the protagonist doesn’t wear a mask. Indie publishers provided the bulk of the books but only one publisher, Oni Press, offered a full-length story that was outside the superhero genre. Unsurprisingly, superheroes, rather than regular Joes, had the highest representation.

If I were to offer a sappy speech about FCBD, the first thing I would say is that the event is supposed to be about more than just the free comics. It’s supposed to be a celebration of the medium, its power to tell a story, its rich history. But how can I believe that when most books bothered only to make a pitch to buy the next one, the real one?

If FCBD was about seriously good comics, the titles offered would have been worth reading. But where was the free issue of DMZ? Of Fables? Of Thunderbolts? Of The Fantastic Four? Of Ex Machina? Of The Killer? Of Uncanny X-Men? Of 100 Bullets? Of anything happening now? Of the book that will transform someone into a Marvel Zombie? Of the book that will make someone an addict of any comic book genre?

A free book along those lines wasn’t in my thick stack. And I doubt that many people who were in a comic shop for the first time will visit again and leave with an altogether different stack that contains a receipt. Reading an FCBD comic is like talking to the friend who tells you that he has an amazing story, but he doesn’t have the time to tell it to you right now. There were people in the stores, and FCBD deserves credit for this. But all these people ever got was a tease.

The smart shop owners built events into the day — artist signings, contests, etc. Some owners, however, can’t afford to do that. The villain of FCBD becomes the low quality comics that are not truly indicative of today’s comics — whether mainstream or indie. And if comic publishers want new readers, than they need to give the newbies the same comics that the old readers will pay for. The best sales pitch is a cliffhanger, not another six-page preview.

Steroid Nation and American Gladiators


They are the new Davids.

Granted they are not singularly recognizable –- they are remarkably generic –- but the bodybuilders slash athletes on American Gladiators represent the ideal male appearance. At least I think so, having had my ideal male physique built on a foundation of images of professional wrestlers and action movie stars.

My sole reason for watching NBC’s new incarnation of American Gladiators was the Gladiators. All twelve of them, including the women, have boring if not humorous names: Titan, Wolf, Justice, Militia, Toa, Mayhem, Venom, Fury, Stealth, Crush, Siren, and of course, Helga. The majority have a cartoonish quality to their appearance: the people in the gym you think you saw last fighting super villains in a comic book, or the people in the gym you think you saw pulling needles out of each other’s asses.

My appreciation of the male Gladiators’ physiques isn’t some gay fetish. Young and old males, straight or not, watch wrestling and mixed-martial arts partly because of the look most fighters foster. The man who is the strong, dangerous type, is the man most admired; it creates envy and the desire to be him. The Gladiators and people like them are the reason some weekend warriors exist; they pump away, mostly foolishly, trying to grow mirror muscles.

But as much I am mesmerized by Gladiator muscle, I think that there must be a steroid buffet set beside the crafts table backstage. The side-effects of toxic livers, bitch tits, tiny testicles, maybe cancer, and some rage issues are all just minor hazards of the job. Not to worry, you look good. No, you look fucking great.

Thank goodness NBC allayed my fears that this crop of Gladiators was juicing. The network says they were tested for steroids. How rigorous the testing was — did NBC follow WADA’s International Standard for Testing? — isn’t known. But tested they were, so Titan’s “nearly godlike strength” is all clean, no needles required.

If I worry that the muscle I see on American Gladiators is the unnatural type, it’s because of the world depicted in last fall’s Steroid Nation, written by Shaun Assael, an investigative reporter for ESPN The Magazine. While Assael provides a distilled history of steroid and performance enhancing drug use — a good start for someone with a casual interest in the subject — he fails to provide the sociological examination promised on the inside jacket.

Assael is at his strongest when he profiles Dan Duchaine, a convicted drug dealer and co-author of the Underground Steroid Handbook. Duchaine’s appetite for experimentation included the use of the industrial chemical Dinitrophenol:

DNP, as it is known, was employed in the early 1900s to ignite explosives. But German researchers found that it led to drastic weight loss when swallowed because it caused the body to burn calories as heat instead of storing them as fat. By turning the internal thermostat way up, DNP, which is similar in structure to TNT, can increase one’s metabolism by as much as 50 percent. It is literally like playing with fire and users can incinerate their insides if they take too much. (155)

But when Assael moves away from reporting Duchaine’s life we realize that the author’s information has been reported elsewhere. Assael’s BALCO reporting, which makes up a large portion of the backend of the book, borrows heavily from several books, most notably Game of Shadows by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams.

steroids.jpgAssael should have devoted more time to original reporting and answering the question of why he sees steroids as America’s True Drug Addiction. In the presence of only anecdotes about users and the absence of a definitive answer to this question, Steroid Nation atrophies into a 300-page summary of doping scandals in sports dating to the 1980s.

A point Assael makes clear is that if an athlete appears more than human, then it’s likely he or she does not suffer from belonephobia. The answer of why is obvious: the desire for perfection in performance and physique suffers no boundaries; experimentation with drugs is okay if it helps an athlete achieve an impossible feat when it had been attempted minus the manipulation of chemicals.

That doesn’t lead to a “Steroid Nation,” but it does ramp up steroid use. Perhaps Assael is saying that by not madly protesting the latest athlete exposed as a cheater that we become complicit in the Circle of ‘Roids. We ask for the most from our athletes, and if it means they have to cheat, we don’t care as long as we’re entertained. But when the Mitchell Report was released last December, people did care to know who was juicing. Sure, there was no widespread outrage, but I didn’t read about rallies in support of drug use either.

When I watch American Gladiators, I know what’s on the screen is hardly natural. The men wear mikinis, which no self-respecting guy would wear unless he was manipulated, chemically or financially. Are the Gladiators juiced up freaks? Freaks, yes. Juiced up? You know what NBC says. Do I care? Not really. Does this mean I am willfully blind and part of a “Steroid Nation?” Shaun Assael would say, well, he never really does say one way or another. My answer is no.