What began 11 years ago with just four publishers in a few cities has blossomed into an international event involving hundreds of stores in 46 countries with 40 publishers—big, small and self-run—and millions of comic books, all for free.
"This grand plot for world comics domination is continuing to steam roll," said Joe Field, who owns Flying Colors Comics in Concord, Calif., and helped launch the annual event.
"We're adding people, we're adding countries and we're adding comics," he said Friday. This year's titles range from Boom! Studio's "Peanuts/Adventure Time Flip Book" to Rebellion's "2000AD Judge Dredd Special" to Dark Horse's "Star Wars/Serenity" book.
For the industry—which is experiencing a creative rebirth and wider reach because of digital comics, as well as more self-produced and self-financed independent books—the first Saturday in May is as much a chance to celebrate its success as well as make efforts to drum up new readers.
"You're really getting the cream of the crop of the next tier of readers that you want to appeal to," said John Cunningham, vice president of marketing at DC Entertainment, which last year relaunched its entire roster of heroes to make them more contemporary, a move that has drawn increased sales and acclaim from most corners of comic book stores.
"It draws people in who don't normally come to a comic shop and, hopefully, they browse when they're here," said Mike Ferrero, who has owned the store in downtown Philadelphia since 1976.
It's also an attempt to foster community among longtime readers while drawing in new readers whose exposure may have been to movies or cartoons on television.
Keith Obeldobel was browsing through comics at Eide's Entertainment in Pittsburgh and said the day brings in young readers who might be familiar with characters through other media.
"I've noticed the younger generations aren't into comics as much," he said, adding that when first-timers come into a shop, "collectors and comics enthusiasts are very willing to share information. It's just a friendly environment."
It's also a chance to mark comics' role in pop culture, a nod to the upcoming summer movie season that sports no less than three super hero film adaptions—"The Avengers," "The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Amazing Spider-Man."
David Gabriel, senior vice president of sales at Marvel Entertainment, said the Free Comic Book Day edition of "The Avengers 12.1" "capitalizes" on the film and "the issue serves as prologue to the upcoming major Avengers comic story, the 'Age of Ultron.'"
Connecting films to print helps, too, Field said.
"There's nothing like a $100 million commercial to help out your business," he said.
Kevin Begos in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.
Matt Moore can be followed on Twitter by searching (at)MattMooreAP.