Fifteen years ago, the comic book industry wasn't quite what it is today. Still reeling from the cataclysmic bust that nearly broke the industry in the late 90s, publishers were just beginning to get back on their feet thanks to a little help from Hollywood's newfound interest in superhero movies.
The release of X-Men in 2000 had an almost immediate positive effect on comic book sales. Suddenly, people wanted to read about Peter Parker's adventures in New York and Charles Xavier's school for gifted children.
The impact that comic book movies had on comic book sales gave writer Joe Field an idea. What if, Field wondered, comic book publishers gave comics away for one day a year to lure new readers in? If people were already going to show up to buy a new Spider-Man comic, why not sweeten the deal with a little Deadpool action on the side?
On the first Saturday in May of 2002, just in time for the release of Sony's first Spider-Man, Free Comic Book Day was born. It has continued ever since. Since its inception, Free Comic Book Day's significance has changed immensely. What began as a chance to get free books has evolved into something of a barometer of the industry.
As the audience consuming comic books has grown more diverse, Free Comic Book Day has shifted to appeal to different kinds of people, and 2016 is no exception. This year's crop of books features more female leads than any previous year and encompasses a broad range of characters from varied ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations.
Free Comic Book Day has always been great, but this year might be the best one yet. With that in mind, here are the five (out of 50!) comic books that we think you should definitely pick up.
March, a trilogy penned by Civil Rights icon John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, chronicles Lewis' life as he journeys from his family farm in Alabama all the way to Washington D.C. in his fight for equal rights for black people.
Rather than merely retelling the broad strokes of the Civil Rights Movement as it was, March draws from actual events and fleshes out out the real people involved, making them fully-realized, three-dimensional characters.
Bruce Lee: The Dragon Rises ponders the question of what would happen if Bruce Lee, who actually died in 1973, never really died. What if he disappeared for 40 years, only to reappear in 2016 with no memory of where he was?
This series, commissioned by Lee's daughter Shannon, weaves mystery and light humor together to touch upon the ways that her father's legacy shaped both the world of kung-fu movies and the real world.
Nickelodeon's The Legend of Korra is one of the network's most critically acclaimed children's television shows. It tells the story of Korra, the latest incarnation of the spirit of the planet, destined to bring peace and harmony to a world at war.
In the animated series, it was finally confirmed that Korra was in a lesbian relationship with long-time friend Asami, a revelation that resonated with many fans who'd hoped that the character's subtextual queerness would eventually be addressed canonically.
After 75 years of lighthearted, teenaged romance adventures, Archie Andrew was reimagined as a modern teenager last year and his comic, Archie, has become one of the more interesting legacy books on shelves today.
Though Archie still focuses on its eponymous hero's day to day life in idyllic Riverdale, the comic's updated take on suburban teen drama is smart, stylish, and infinitely more inclusive than its original incarnation.
In a landscape that's dominated by the Big Two comic book publishers, Valiant has been steadily working to create some of the latest and greatest expansive, narrative universes.
Like Marvel and DC, Valiant's books all exist in a shared world populated by classic superheroes, modern day magicians, and people blessed with alien technology.
Unlike the competition, though, Valiant's made a point of making entry into its universe as painless as humanly possible. Regardless of whether you pick up Faith, Harbinger, or Dr. Mirage, it's easy to get sucked into any one of Valiant's sprawling series. Its Free Comic Book Day offering is a sampler meant to give new readers a glimpse into just what their stories are made of.
Free Comic Book Day is happening nationwide in the U.S. today. Check out this site to find the nearest comic book shop to you.