Last weekend saw the stars aligned to form the perfect constellation of nerd fandom and culture. On May 3rd Robert Downey Jr returned to the big screen as Tony Stark in Iron Man 3. Saturday saw two parallel universes collide, with May the Fourth (AKA Star Wars Day) and Free Comic Book Day landing on the same day. For the horse nerds, Saturday also marked the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby. As part of the Comic Book Day revelry, I made my way to the local comic shop to check out the deals, free comics, and to celebrate in the geek fanfare. I was not disappointed.
As I’ve mentioned before, I missed out on a lot of comic book culture as a kid, and didn’t really awaken as a nerd until college. Growing up in a conservative Christian household in the Deep South, I was limited by the shows I could watch or the things I could read based on how violent or graphic they were. My parents simply didn’t understand the world of modern day comics, and I only ever got a handful here and there for Christmas.
I didn’t start hanging out in comic shops until I was in college, and they’ve had a special place in my heart ever since. There was a shop in Starkville Mississippi, and every other Saturday my friends and I would get together for a day long LAN party featuring Unreal Tournament, Serious Sam, Battlefield 1942, Starcraft, and various other First Person Shooters (FPS) and Real Time Strategy Games (RTS). I actually met my first girlfriend in that shop (yes it happens, no I wouldn’t make that up); she was the sister of the store owner, in town for the summer and working for her brother. It’s also where I had my first real exposure to Warhammer and Dungeons and Dragons. A lot of good friendships were made and cemented in that small shop in the University shopping center.
As I walked into the Comic Shop of Fairbanks, all of these memories came flooding back to me. The place was full, but not overcrowded, and the atmosphere was charged with the energy of comic fandom. The waiting line at the register was at least a dozen people long (and stayed that way most of the time I was there). To my right as I entered were rows and rows of Manga.
Straight ahead, the 501st Legion was setting up a booth, recruiting adults and children alike to join the Empire in its quest for order and peace. A stormtrooper was busy talking to kids, all of them bright eyed and smiling at the idea of having their picture taken with such a famous character.
I meandered through the rows of board games, graphic novels, and comics. I stopped at an island of display cases loaded with various rare cards from turn based card games and spoke with one of the attendants. Toward the back of the store, a congenial man (the store’s owner) stood behind tables arranged into a U shape. The tables were covered from one end to the other in free comic offerings. A sign on the table proudly announced that everyone could take 15 comics per person. The owner stood there, showcasing the selection and chatting with patrons as they picked out their 15 comics.
I continued to wander around, perusing the specialty comics, dice packs, tabletop RPG rule books (new and old), and checking in on the Warhammer games that were taking place in a large area adjacent to the store.
As I observed the crowds of shoppers and comic connoisseurs come and go, I noticed something uplifting. There was a tremendous amount of diversity in the crowd of people who were present. Children were everywhere, many of them dressed up as fairies or Star Wars characters. More importantly, parents were actively engaging their kids in helping them pick out not just free titles, but comics from the regular pay racks as well. My nerd heart swelled to see so many young readers being encouraged to pick out titles to read.
After picking up a few (non comic related) selections of my own, I was chatting with a couple in the checkout line ahead of me. He and his wife and their three kids had a stack of books and were picking up a few Japanese sodas for the road. He told me that he had been a loyal customer of the store for years, and had shopped at all of the stores prior locations. Now he was a regular customer who frequently brought his kids along for the adventure.
Free Comics Day was an all inclusive event here in Fairbanks, and it showed that the culture of comics is alive and well in the far north.