Steal this comic

From superheroes to "The Simpsons," ultraviolence to kid stuff, our guide to Free Comic Book Day offers graphic fun for all.

Topics: Battlestar Galactica, The Simpsons, Books,

Steal this comic

Five years ago, the weekend that the first Spider-Man movie came out, the American comics industry launched an experiment: Free Comic Book Day, in which thousands of comic book specialty stores around the country gave away comics to readers young and old. It worked out well enough that it’s become an annual tradition, and this Saturday, May 5, is the sixth Free Comic Book Day. Almost every major comics publisher in the country has at least one free title this year, as well as plenty of smaller publishers; the mainstream and indie presses don’t always see eye-to-eye, but they’ve all found that giving away samples is good for business.

This year’s FCBD coincides with National Cartoonists’ Day and the opening of “Spider-Man 3,” and lots of stores are also planning signings and other events. The crop of handouts includes 43 different comics, although most stores will only let you pick out a few of them; some of the free comics are particularly kid-friendly, others aren’t kid-friendly at all, and some are a lot better than others. (This page is a useful resource to find the nearest store that’s participating in the giveaway.) Here’s a quick overview of what’s available this year, sorted by category.

LONG-UNDERWEAR TYPES

The Amazing Spider-Man (Marvel Comics)

Kids obsessed with “Spider-Man 3″ will make a beeline for this one: a self-contained and entertaining, if slightly dopey, story drawn by star artist Phil Jimenez. Writer Dan Slott wisely focuses on the power vs. responsibility struggle at the heart of the character; there’s also a short preview of J. Michael Straczynski’s much-hyped Spider-Man story “One More Day,” due out later this year. B+

Justice League of America No. 0 (DC Comics)

Best-selling novelist Brad Meltzer wrote this story, first published last year, about the history and future of the relationship between Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. It’s nicely executed, but you won’t get much out of it unless you’ve read at least a few hundred superhero comics in the last decade. B+

Liberty Comics (Heroic Publishing)



Four complete stories about superheroine/pinup girl Liberty Girl’s adventures during World War II. They’re supposed to be in the style of that era’s comics, but they don’t have the requisite nuttiness or verve (the Photoshopped-looking art is a dead giveaway), and the one about the Japanese internment camp is a little embarrassing. C+

Love and Capes (Maerkle Press)

A surprisingly charming tale about a hardworking superhero and his girlfriend — he’s frustrated by all the attention the upstart “Arachnerd” is getting. Thomas F. Zahler’s boldly cartoony artwork recalls “The Incredibles,” and so does his wry, smart dialogue. A-

Marvel Adventures: Iron Man & Hulk (Marvel Comics)

The good news: These three stories are self-contained and entirely kid-friendly. The bad news: The Iron Man and Hulk stories are also entirely dull and unengaging. The backup “Franklin Richards, Son of a Genius” story is cute in a sort of post-”Calvin & Hobbes” way, but you’re still better off spending a few dollars on an issue of Marvel Adventures: Avengers. C+

Nexus (Rude Dude Productions)

The first new issue in a decade of Mike Baron and Steve Rude’s fondly remembered science-fiction series is effectively a “clip show” — brief excerpts of a bunch of old issues, introduced by Baron, to give a sense of the series’ flavor before it relaunches. There’s no real story here, but hot damn, Rude’s got an amazing design sense. B

The Umbrella Academy (Dark Horse Comics)

The debut of a new project written by Gerard Way, singer for My Chemical Romance; despite some stylishly Goth-y artwork by Casanova artist Gabriel Bá, it’s a death-obsessed superhero slug-fest that makes almost no sense at all. The backup features, “Pantheon City” and “Zero Killer,” are even more incoherent. C+

THE HORROR! THE HORROR!

The Astounding Wolf-Man (Image Comics)

Rising star Robert Kirkman (“The Walking Dead,” “Invincible”) is launching his new werewolf series with this freebie, drawn by Jason Howard. It’s a totally straightforward monster-adventure comic, but crisply drawn and smartly executed, with little touches of characterization and coloring and design that enhance its sense of fun. A-

Jack the Lantern: Ghosts (Castle Rain Entertainment)

If you were reading comics in the ’80s, you might remember Tim Vigil’s ultraviolent, hyper-stylized horror series “Faust.” Vigil drew eight pages of this murky, sloppy, incoherent, incomplete horror-fantasy story, which is the only reason anyone might want to look at it. D

Last Blood (Blatant Comics)

This first issue of a miniseries has exactly one clever idea: vampires protecting the last living normal humans — their food supply — from a plague of zombies. Too bad the actual writing is clunky and badly paced, and the scribbly black-and-white artwork is wretched. D+

DO-IT-YOURSELF GUIDES

Activity Book (Drawn & Quarterly)

Lynda Barry, the cartoonist behind “Ernie Pook’s Comeek,” teaches an unusual sort of writing workshop. This excerpt from a forthcoming book is basically her introductory lesson, and it’s a joy in its own right, deliciously drawn (with fragments of collage worked into each page), insightful and bubbling with delight in the process of artistic creation. A+

Comics 101: How-To and History Lessons from the Pros (TwoMorrows Publishing)

If your kid is the type who’d rather draw her own superhero comics than read someone else’s, this is a decent selection of pointers on basic figure-drawing and writing, alongside a brief but solid history of superhero comics’ evolution. If she’s interested in manga, though, it’s not nearly as helpful. B

How to Draw (Wizard)

A word to the wise: You might not want to get your drawing tips from a comic whose cover features a woman with breasts bigger than her head. That said, the cartoonists whose tutorials are included here are all pretty big names in the superhero-comics world. B-

Impact University (Impact)

Yet another batch of drawing tips; this one at least acknowledges the existence of manga, but the tutorial on how to draw an elf is unintentionally hilarious (it boils down to “draw a skinny person with pointed ears”). B-

ANTHOLOGIES

Arcana Studio Presents (Arcana Studio)

Three stories, all of them slightly different flavors of “generic fantasy,” all of them to be continued in comics on sale later this year, and none of them anywhere near interesting enough to seek out the continuations. C-

Choose Your Weapon (Tokyopop)

A squat black-and-white paperback with excerpts from five new manga-style series — all of them Korean or American in origin, rather than Japanese, curiously enough. All five are built around fight scenes, only Dan Hipp’s “Gyakushu!” has much in the way of original style, and not one makes its source seem interesting. C-

Comic Genesis(Comic Genesis)

Several dozen one-to-three-page strips — mostly context-free excerpts from longer stories — by fledgling cartoonists whose Web comics are hosted by comicgenesis.com. Unfortunately, they’re all pretty amateurish. D

Comics Festival (Legion of Evil Press)

Short pieces by a handful of gifted Canadian cartoonists. Grab it for Bryan Lee O’Malley’s two witty tie-ins with his fabulous Scott Pilgrim series; stay for Hope Larson’s charming mini-sequel to her graphic novel “Salamander Dream” and Darwyn Cooke’s bittersweet tribute to the late comics master Alex Toth. A

Comic Spectacular (Ape Entertainment)

Six little vignettes previewing six different series, all of them proving that high production values and a range of artistic approaches can’t cover up for a bankruptcy of inspiration — the “Athena Voltaire” story, in particular, is practically “Raiders of the Lost Ark” fan fiction. C-

Digital Webbing Jam 2007 (Digital Webbing)

Five quick pieces — three of them excerpts, the other two incomprehensible anyway: generic horror, generic superhero stuff, three unamusing pages of the very long-running superhero parody E-Man, and a failed “experimental” piece built out of clip art. D+

Hunter’s Moon/Salvador (Boom! Studios)

Two unfinished, boring fragments of stories whose selling point is that they’re written by movie people: “Hunter’s Moon” by “Ray” screenwriter James L. White, and the wordless “Salvador” by Twin Falls Idaho writer/directors the Polish Brothers. D

Keenspot Spotlight 2007/Wickedpowered (Keenspot)

The thickest giveaway this year: over 100 black-and-white pages, with excerpts of 17 online comics. And the old cliché about cartoonists resorting to the Internet when they’re not quite good enough to make it in print? Almost entirely true in this case — way too many of them are feeble imitations of Scott Kurtz’s “PvP.” D

Viper Comics Presents (Viper Comics)

Even more out-of-context excerpts from prettily drawn, poorly written, digital-effects-ridden comics by unknowns — the first three of them from a forthcoming anthology of short pieces about sasquatches. It’s an angle, anyway. C-

Virgin Comics Special (Virgin Comics)

The four series excerpted here are based on ideas from some big names (Deepak Chopra! Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics!), and they’ve occasionally got sumptuous artwork (especially Abhishek Singh’s work on “Ramayan 3392 A.D.”). Too bad they’re also dopey, incoherent and stuffed with clichés. D+

Worlds of Aspen (Aspen Comics)

There are four baffling fragments from Aspen’s various series plunked together here, but it’s unclear why Michael Turner’s studio doesn’t abandon the pretense of storytelling and just print 32 pages of scantily clad babes, men and women alike, with impossibly long legs, narrow torsos and odd decorative jewelry: That’s what they like to draw, and what their audience pays for when they’re not getting it for free. C-

AS SEEN ON TV

Battlestar Galactica: Season Zero/The Lone Ranger (Dynamite Entertainment)

One side’s got the first chapter of a prequel to the “Galactica” TV series; the other side’s got a sweet but nearly plotless little Lone Ranger story. Both are prettily drawn, and nothing much more than glorified ads for the regular comics. B-

Bongo Comics Free-for-All! 2007 (Bongo Comics)

Evan Dorkin‘s script for the first Bart Simpson story here captures the snarky, anarchic tone of a pretty good “Simpsons” episode. The other “Futurama”- and “Simpsons”-related tales that fill out the issue? Not so much. Did anybody ask for a Ralph Wiggum solo adventure? B

Family Guy/Hack/Slash (Devil’s Due Publishing)

The “Family Guy” side is just like the animated TV show, except that all of its jokes fall flat. Flip the comic over, and you get an excerpt from “Hack/Slash,” a tedious bloodbath of a story about a young woman who supposedly hunts down serial killers but spends this episode being tortured by one. Horrid. D-

Legion of Super-Heroes in the 31st Century (DC Comics)

A valiant stab at adapting the animated series, which is in turn based on a long-running comic book, but writer J. Torres and artist Chynna Clugston (both familiar names from indie comics) spend so much time defining their style and explaining the characters that there’s not much room left for a story. B-

Transformers: Movie Prequel (IDW)

The first part of a four-issue lead-in to the movie (about the ’80s-era plastic toys) that’s coming out this summer is gorgeous to look at, with lush, almost painterly artwork by Don Figueroa. But if you’re not seriously nostalgic for the Transformers comics of 20 years ago, there’s no way to get any pleasure out of the story. C

CURVEBALLS

Pirates vs. Ninjas (Antarctic Press)

The first episode of a longer story, and a good example of a current trend plaguing mainstream comics: cartoonists who mistake stringing together genre clichés for constructing an actual story. Even throwing in some zombies and robots wouldn’t have helped this one. C-

The Train Was Bang on Time (First Second)

The opening sequence of Eddie Campbell’s forthcoming graphic novel “The Black Diamond Detective Agency,” which is based on somebody else’s unproduced screenplay, and it shows. Campbell (who drew “From Hell”) is one of comics’ most gifted stylists, and the 1897 setting is right up his alley; the story’s a mess, though. B-

Wahoo Morris (Too Hip Gotta Go Graphics)

A reprint of the 9-year-old first issue of Craig A. Taillefer’s series (now a Web comic) about a small-time rock band whose singer is a witch and whose guitarist is infatuated with her. As slice-of-life stories go, it’s got a cute concept, but it’s too awkwardly drawn and slowly paced. C

Whiteout (Oni Press)

The first issue of Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber’s ingenious, gritty 1998 thriller about a U.S. marshal investigating a murder in Antarctica, which is currently being adapted into a movie starring Kate Beckinsale. It’s aged well, and this episode ends on a cliffhanger good enough to make you go back for more. A-

FOR THE KIDS

Amelia Rules! (Renaissance Press)

Jimmy Gownley’s little-kids-at-play comic is cute and lovingly drawn — an attempt at a modern-day Little Lulu — but not nearly as funny as it wants to be. The backup feature, Harold Buchholz’s “Apathy Kat,” is an anthropomorphic-animal story that meanders for 11 pages, then abruptly stops. B-

Buzzboy/Roboy Red(Skydog Comics)

Hint: When a character announces twice that “it’s time for super atomic powered boy robot fun,” that means the comic he’s in is trying too hard to convince you that you’re having a good time. Roboy Red is a decent Powerpuff Girls imitation, but this is more about fun for kids than it actually is fun. B-

Gumby (Wildcard Ink)

A story involving Gumby running amok in a museum full of art masterpieces (and popping up in a bunch of them) should be a delight, especially since it’s drawn by a crew including underground-comix veterans Rick Geary and Mark Bode. But it’s sloppy and rushed, and the jokes rarely get off the ground. C+

Little Archie (Archie Comics)

Longtime Archie buffs may be excited to see a new story by Bob Bolling, who drew the first Little Archie comics beginning in 1956. Younger readers, unfortunately, are likely to wonder what the big deal is about this whimsical but slow and flavorless story concerning some campers and a “lost lagoon.” C

Mickey Mouse (Gemstone Publishing)

Reprints of two 1936 newspaper comic strip sequences drawn by Floyd Gottfredson, including one in which Mickey stumbles into a copy of Robin Hood and has an adventure with the Merry Men. It’s very much a period piece, and despite its well-crafted surrealism, kids of today may find it a little dry. B

Owly: Helping Hands (Top Shelf Productions)

A new installment of Andy Runton’s ultra-cute, wordless series about a little owl and his friends is always a fine thing; this one’s main action involves them repotting some flowers. No, seriously. Christian Slade’s backup story, concerning a corgi and a cookie, pushes the cute-ometer into the red, though, and not in a good way. B+

Sonic the Hedgehog (Archie Comics)

A heartless, unamusing issue of a series (based on a video game character) that’s been running since 1993 — how? The ugly airbrushed-looking artwork and stupefying fight scene that makes up most of the story are the sort of thing that could bore an impressionable youth away from comics for good. D

Unseen Peanuts (Fantagraphics Books)

An exquisitely designed sampler of Fantagraphics’ chronological “Peanuts” reprints, here featuring only the early strips that had never been reprinted until the current books, along with explanations of why they didn’t make the cut. Even Charles M. Schulz’s misfires are fascinating, though — it’s neat to see how perfectly decent jokes didn’t really seem “Peanuts”-like — and some of them are hilarious. A

Douglas Wolk is the author of "Reading Comics."

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