Come Saturday, the spheres of pop-culture geekdom will come into alignment. The first Saturday in May is traditionally held as Free Comic Book Day across the country. It's a day in which comic retailers of all types open their doors and promote literacy through — you guessed it — free comic books. And don't be fooled. Information from Scholastic said teachers have observed comic books to not only motivate reluctant readers, but the medium has benefitted comprehension, inference and memory among readers. This year's celebration happens to land on May 4. In recent years, May 4 has been held sacrosanct by sci-fi supporters who recognize it as Star Wars Day (as in May the fourth be with you — and, now you get the joke).
It's a big deal for many a comic book dealer every year, and this year's date is sure to double the day's excitement.
But Free Comic Book Day is a bit of a misnomer. The day doesn't declare each and every back issue in stock to be free of charge for 24 hours. Rather, the comic companies produce specific volumes for the day, which the local stores provide to the public without a price tag. While dozens upon dozens of such special editions will be free to you and me, they will cost the shop something to carry, because they cost the publisher something to print.
And frankly, things aren't too different in the world of the local newspaper. There's a temptation to focus on the free, rather than support the business. Just as some patrons of Free Comic Book Day grab their limit of the complimentary copies and make for the door, some in the public sphere have a tendency to read their (might I note, award-winning) local news, up until they are asked to pay for its production.
The issue changed a bit in the digital age, but the temptation's the same. Gone are the days of the swarthy newspaper stand owner shouting, "Ey! You gotta' pay for dat, mac!" should a patron take a bit too long in scanning page two. Today, we need not look any farther than our own palms for the news. And, if we read through just a few too many articles on our local paper's website, there is a quiet floating box, which kindly croons, "Continue reading with a subscription," as it presents us with a pair of options — subscribe or sign in. Of course, there's the third option — that little red X in the corner — and that's what some choose.
It's obvious we want to read what the reporters have written — otherwise we wouldn't have clicked on the title in the first place. Yet, when prompted to put the quarter in the rusted Butternut Coffee can of the digital newspaper stand, we click the little red X instead and away we walk.
What we may not realize is this.
When we click that little red X, we're saying the time invested by our local reporters in covering the community may not be a service worth paying for. When we click that little red X, we're saying we have to think twice as to whether the price of phone calls to local legislators and community figures are worth hearing what they have to say. When we click that little red X, we're turning around and saying we're only interested in using the paper's website, if the publisher is willing to foot the entire bill for us.
When we click that little red X, we are taking our free comics and leaving the store.
But whereas comic shops hope to drum up support for business by promoting literacy, the very skill their product builds and relies upon, local newspapers hope to drum up support by continually promoting awareness of the community, the very subject of their pages and the very people who read it. The comic book store and the newspaper both die, if we all just wait around each year to grab our handful of freebies and go.
In both cases, we'll be left with nothing, not even the freebies. Not only will there be no one to fill you in on whether or not Superman saved Lois Lane, there will be no one to follow your nephew's team to state. There will be no one to keep your local government accountable. There will be no one to tell you everyone made it out of the building safely before the fire.
If we insist our news be given to us for free, soon there will be no news to give.