Monday, May 14, 2001

The Power of Free!

This was written by Joe Field and originally published in his "Big Picture" column in the August 2001 issue of Comics & Games Retailer. 

The Power of Free
Every good idea is worth stealing --- er, adapting

In December of 1997, I was asked to contribute to the "Year In Review" issue of Diamond’s Dialogue magazine. Here’s a bit of what I suggested then:

"We need a concerted effort by all facets of the industry to grow the market for comics. What I’d like to

see is the industry agree to set aside a month in 1998 to create an "open house" for comics, inviting everyone who has ever read a comic book (or comic strip, for that matter) into our stores --- asking as many people as we can to give comics a new look. Perhaps we can tie a media-genic hook on it, such as polling the public on everyone’s all-time favorite comics."

Dialogue’s editor noted after my suggestion:  "Diamond thinks the idea of an industry-wide open house public relations campaign has definite merit, and we look forward to feedback from retailers and suppliers on this idea."

I suppose the silence then was deafening, since nothing happened and not a word was heard from other retailers or publishers.  I admit that nothing else was heard from me, either, until now. What reminded me to bring this up for discussion and hopefully some action is the recent promotion by Baskin-Robbins, the ice cream franchiser with 31 flavors and lots of stores.

On Wednesday May 2, from 6pm-10pm, Baskin-Robbins had its annual "Free
Scoop Night." Here’s the short blurb from the B-R web-site:
"Free Scoop Night is an opportunity for Baskin-Robbins to say THANK
YOU to our loyal patrons and communities that have supported us for 55 years, and raise awareness for children's literacy.  For every scoop given away, Baskin-Robbins will make a donation to First Book to provide new books for underprivileged kids.”

Baskin-Robbins has 2500 franchised stores in the United States to go with 2100 international stores. But the store that had my attention on May 2 was the one that’s right next door to Flying Colors. I hadn’t been given advance warning the promotion was going to happen, but apparently everyone else in this neighborhood had gotten the news and had it tattooed on his or her brains. Everyone was there, or so it seemed.

I asked my friendly neighbor and B-R franchisee Mila Azevedo just how successful the night was for her. She was thrilled to report that in four hours, her store gave away just under 1300 free scoops. Her second store, some ten miles away, scooped out another 900 or so. That’s 2200 people to visit her two stores in one four-hour period. That’s a powerful promotion.

OK, enough about ice cream.

Isn’t this an idea that we can tailor to the comics’ market?
Can’t we borrow this wonderful premise and run with it?
Can’t we do something impressive for literacy or some other worthy cause, as well?

And, honestly, wouldn’t you as a retailer be willing to pay a little real money to get that kind of new and concentrated traffic coming to your store?

I’d like to take the original "Open House" idea, couple it with the strong allure of the word "free", then add some elements to it to make a truly sizzling event for our market. Bear with me as I plan in this public forum… (not necessarily the final name) Free Comic Night! A specific time-block on an evening during which retailers would give a free comic book to everyone who attends the promotion.

Without a strong industry trade group, there needs to be a central point of origination for the event. With approximately 90% of the domestic comic book business, I suggest Diamond should coordinate this promotion. When I was in radio, I regularly dealt with distributors that would coordinate promotions for particular brands. Having regular contact with every solvent, operating comics’ retailer in North America, Diamond is the only viable choice to be the clearinghouse for a promotion of this scope. I strongly believe this is an idea that needs to involve publishers, retailers and creators, as well. Here’s how everyone can be involved---

Publishers could:
1) Create sampler comics for their different lines that would be sold at a bundled cost to retailers. Just as Baskin-Robbins has 31 flavors ofice cream, the comics’ market has lines that appeal to different tastes. A selection of samplers available from different publishers would allow stores to better cover the disparate tastes of those who’ll show up on the night of the promotion. Ideally, it would be great to have samplers directed at kids, at general readers, at super-hero fans, at mature readers, at alternative buyers, etc.
2) Allocate some promotional space in ad pages and letters’ columns and on web-sites to spread the word of the event.

Retailers could participate by:
1) Subscribing to the Comic Shop Locator Service, and that could serve as the way for customers to find participating stores. Heck, this could be the event that finally makes the Comic Shop Locator Service work toward its full potential.
2) Committing to buy bundles of the publishers’ samplers that would be given away at the event.
3) Adding their own over-stock to give visitors even more freebies on the day of the event.
4) Work in advance to make our stores as clean, organized and as accessible as possible to make a solid first impression on so many potential new customers.
5) Gathering names for a mailing list by having a prize drawing for those who attend.
6) Creating window and in-store signage for the event.

Creative professionals could:
1) Talk up the event on their web-sites.
2) Participate by signing and/or sketching during the event at their local shop.

A Few More Thoughts
* As mentioned, this event could also benefit a charity. As to which specific organization and how the funds are raised, that’s up for discussion. But the cause of literacy is one that I’m sure we can all agree on.

* There’s a strong element of public/press relations needed to make this promotion a success. Part of that could be Diamond generating releases with blanks that retailers could fill in then forward to local media. Diamond and most major publishers also deal with firms that could be called on to help in this regard.

* I’d like to suggest that we should plan to have the event in the spring, perhaps on a Tuesday in April 2002. The spring is a good time to deal with a promotion like this, as weather issues are minimized and it’s a time of year when publishers have started to gear up for the stronger summer months. It’s also a natural time to lead into convention season, which serves as another potentially strong introduction to comics for many people. And why a Tuesday? It’s the day closest to new product in our stores. Tuesday is a manageable day right before the onslaught of new merchandise that Wednesday brings. If we can introduce potentially thousands to our stores with a hook to bring many of them back the next day, we might just find a way to make a lot of new customers.

* As I’ve been researching this column and then letting it gestate, I’ve realized that we’re at a turning point in a new cycle for comics. There’s a strong sense among many retailers I’ve spoken with that we’re definitely experiencing a resurgence in sales and customers. A promotion like this could be the calling card we need to give our market some strong forward momentum.

This is a promotion we can use to focus on re-building our market in reasonable ways. Away from the sickness of speculation and gimmickry, with a better breadth of material in our market than ever before, we should be looking at inviting as many as we can to join us in the enjoyment of comics as amazing entertainment.

I’d like to suggest that this promotion idea, stolen or borrowed as it is, would give everyone in the field something to aim for, something to aspire to, and a real goal or two to achieve. Perhaps the promotion won’t come off just as I’ve outlined. There’s room here for plenty of details, discussion and fine-tuning.

Can we re-energize thousands of former readers and find many more new readers by using the power of something free? Can we shake the dust off our operations and move collectively in a positive direction?

I think we can and I think we must.
But let’s do something big --- and let’s start planning it now

(Joe Field can be reached at Flying Colors at 2980 Treat Blvd, Concord CA 94518 or at As always, ideas and other thoughts are encouraged.) 
The article as it originally appeared in Comics & Games Retailer magazine in 2001

Sunday, May 13, 2001

Introducing Stan Lee at the Cartoon Art Museum's "Sparky" Awards

(This is the speech Joe gave introducing Stan Lee at the "Sparky" Awards, given by San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum on May 13, 2001. The awards are named in honor of Charles "Sparky" Schulz, the creator of Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the rest of the "Peanuts" gang.)  

It was early June 1967. For this 11 year-old, that meant a full summer of playing little league baseball, swimming, and bike-riding. Lots of fun in the sun. But one day, as I was trying to teach a younger kid on the block how to climb trees, I broke my right arm in three spots by falling twenty feet out of one. That fall should have taken the fun right out of summer. That was until my pal Steve from down the street introduced me to comic books, particularly Stan Lee's Marvel Comics. In short order, I was a titanic true believer.

Twenty years later, while working at KJOY Radio in Stockton, I had the crazy idea to start a campaign to have Marvel Comics name Stockton the official home of the Fantastic Four. It was just the sort of story the media loves--- that perfect one-minute kicker for the end of newscasts, the kind of light and goofy story to balance the dreadful stuff we see on the front page every day.

The editors and creators then working on the Fantastic Four didn't much care for the idea.  It was too intrusive to their story plans. A well-respected reporter for the Los Angeles Times called Stan Lee in Hollywood to get his opinion. Sensing the spotlight, Stan said,  "We've been through the destruction of universes. I'm sure we can handle this one." That's when the wild ride started. For the next few months, the media came calling almost every day.

Then there was the ceremony attended by an enthusiastic crowd----

Stan was named Stockton's honorary Mayor----

a 30 foot banner was unveiled on the steps of City Hall welcoming Stan Lee and Marvel Comics----

he was given a key to the city----

and he was even smooched by a provocatively clad young woman who also delivered a fairly tuneless singing telegram.

That was the first time I ever met Stan in person. Impressed enough by my public relations' prowess, he gave me a call some months later to help him line up media interviews to promote the publication of the first novel written by his lovely wife Joan. Working with both Stan and Joan Lee was a fabulous experience I'll always treasure. Shortly after that, I moved into comics professionally.

Besides being a creative powerhouse, Stan has also been a pioneer in many ways. His storytelling style completely revitalized the super-hero comic in the early sixties, but there's so much more to his career. Reciting a list of the thousands of characters he has created and co-created, or recounting the endless awards he's received over the years are merely indexes on a brilliant career.

I want to point out some of Stan's lesser-known achievements in comics.  His subtle legacies to the comics' world are the times when he has gone off the beaten path, plunging into the new and unknown in imaginative ways. A few examples:

* In the late forties, Stan created and published "Secrets Behind The Comics", one of the first books to give fans a look at how comics were produced and to give credit to the pros who made them.

* In the late fifties, away from the constraints of Timely/Atlas or whatever Marvel was being called at the time, Stan self-published books of fumetti, photo-comics with titles like "Blushin' Blurbs" and "Golfer's Anonymous." He wrote and produced these books, then marketed them through classified ads in sports and men's magazines, selling ten thousand copies each of some of them. I think this qualifies Stan as being the comic industry's first successful self-publisher.

* In the late sixties, while at Marvel, Stan pioneered a new format for comic books when the Spectacular Spider-Man debuted in a traditional magazine size. This was a precursor to original graphic novels and other more upscale formats, and was a heck of a value at 35 cents a copy.

* In the late seventies, Stan teamed with Jack Kirby for an original Silver Surfer graphic novel, intended not for comic shops, but for mass-market bookstores.

Now Stan is pioneering again with Stan Lee Media--- that's S-L-E-E on the NASDAQ---

Publishing original comics' "Webisodes" on the Internet, exciting another new comics audience.  Innovation and imagination have been the keys to his sixty years of success.

It is truly awesome trying to measure the scope of Stan's profound influence on American popular culture. Great comic strip artists like Alex Raymond, Milton Caniff, Hal Foster, Sparky Schulz and others endowed newspaper comic strips with museum-worthy depth and originality. It can be said that Stan was among the first with the vision, talent and promotional skill to position comic books in that same light.

I may have lucked into this gig, but I feel I'm here representing so many professionals in the comic book business, retailers, writers and cartoonists who owe a debt of gratitude to Stan for being the most vocal and inventive cheerleader for comic books over the last 40 years.

Stan has literally millions of fans from his long and illustrious career, impressing generations of readers who have been scintillated by his sensational stories, cheered by his crazy creations and have been fervent fans of his fantastic fables.

For all the Titanic True Believers you have entertained, educated and enlightened---

We thank you, Stan---- for allowing us to always be awestruck eleven year-olds at heart. 

It's now my deep delight and high honor to introduce---
the Storyteller Supreme----

the Sultan of Super-Heroes---

the Wild-eyed Wonder of the World Wide Web---

Spider-Man's Dad---

Nuff Said and Excelsior!

Please welcome Sparky Award winner----

Stan "the Man" Lee