On Saturdays, I go for Really Long Walks. I’ve been doing this for so long now that it’s become a necessary part of my weekly routine; if I don’t get a Really Long Walk in on a Saturday, I’m miserable and antsy and annoyed for all the next week. Twenty thousand steps, or roughly ten miles, is the bare minimum, but I’m usually happiest if I can squeeze double that into a day.
One of the things I enjoy about Really Long Walks is the lack of equipment and forethought they require. All you need to do a Really Long Walk is some comfortable footwear and a large amount of time. You don’t have to dress in tights and safety equipment like a ghastly superhero from the planet Nike; jeans are just fine. Unlike, say, distance running, you don’t chafe your nipples off or accidentally shit yourself, or cock up your knee for six months on a Really Long Walk. Some sunblock and a good backpack are advisable, but beyond that, it’s just you and a Google map and a significant chunk of your day.
In fact, one of the biggest problems with the Really Long Walk is coming up with a suitable destination. Sometimes I’ll walk to Renton, and then I’m standing around Renton like a goon, trying to figure out why the hell I just spent four hours trying to get there. That’s why I like those Saturdays when a path insists itself upon me, when I have a reason to go in a specific direction, with some sort of a loose path laid out ahead of me. When that happens, I can stop worrying about where to go next and turn my brain off, point my body in a single direction, and just go. That’s one of the things I love about Free Comic Book Day. On the first Saturday of every May for the last 15 years, I’ve walked from comic shop to comic shop, trying to get to as many as possible on foot.
Of course, Free Comic Book Day is, strictly speaking, not a holiday that is intended for me. As someone who visits a comic book store every Wednesday to check out the new arrivals, I’m not a novice, or someone who needs to be lured over to the magic of comics. Comics stores and comics shops are aiming for new readers on Free Comic Book Day — especially those who are not, like me, straight white men teetering into middle age. And that audience-broadening scope is one of the appeals of Free Comic Book Day for me: seeing local comics shops full of enthusiastic young kids and curious women and teenagers who maybe never pick up a book for the pleasure of reading. But because it’s the one day a year when the weekly comics industry is not aiming strictly for me, I want to honor the holiday, so I assuage my guilt by buying a comic at every store I visit. That way, I’m helping the store’s bottom line and subsidizing the cost of the comics they’re giving away for free.
The morning of this past Saturday, May 7th, I headed out to visit the comics shop in the Seattle area that opens the earliest: Golden Age Collectibles in Pike Place Market, which, at 9 am, is an early riser in the industry. From there, I walked down the street to Zanadu Comics — a mainstay in the local scene, and one that has become more and more attuned to independent comics over the last couple decades. After that I visited, in order: Phoenix Comics on Broadway, which was packed and preparing for an in-store signing from Seattle author G. Willow Wilson; Comics Dungeon in Wallingford, which always puts on the biggest production for Free Comic Book Day with huge sales and cosplayers; Dreamstrands in Greenwood, which had signs admonishing customers not to give away any Captain America: Civil War spoilers; and Arcane Comics, which most people consider to be the best comics shop in Seattle, and which abruptly last week moved from an out-of-the-way location in Ballard ("we got booted," Arcane admitted on their Facebook page) to an even-more-out-of-the-way location in Shoreline. All told, the trip was just over 14 miles from my house to Golden Age to Arcane, and 24 and a half miles round trip.
At each stop, I picked up free comics and bought at least one graphic novel. Some of the free comics were very bad — the comic setting up Civil War II for Marvel, written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by Jim Cheung, was awful, with characters behaving weirdly for no good reason — and a few were excellent. My favorite was Mooncop: A Tom Gauld Sampler from Drawn & Quarterly. Mooncop contained a few pages from cartoonist Tom Gauld’s upcoming graphic novel of the same title, featuring a well-meaning police officer assigned to a sparsely populated colony on the moon. “Living on the moon,” an elderly woman who was one of the first colonists sighs at Mooncop in the book, “Whatever were we thinking? It seems rather silly now.” The book was exactly what a Free Comic Book Day book should be: it told a brief story, hinted at something larger — in this case, the collected Mooncop will be published in September of this year — and entertained its readers.
Comics Dungeon was having a large 25% off sale for kids’ comics, and so I bought a comic I’d been meaning to pick up for a long time: John Allison’s Bad Machinery Vol. 1: The Case of the Team Spirit. As a webcomic, Bad Machinery has been repeatedly praised by Kate Beaton for years now, and it’s easy to see why: the strip shares both a sense of humor and an aesthetic style with Beaton. Bad Machinery is an ongoing series telling the story of six kids in the small town of Tackleford, England who solve mysteries and right wrongs.
The remarkable thing about Bad Machinery is that even though its webcomic roots demand that every single page ends with a punchline, the collected edition reads smoothly as a narrative; taken singly as a collection or as a whole graphic novel, the book works. Each character has his or her own distinct voice. On her walk home, Shauna, one of our heroines, complains about Games, which is the British version of gym class: “Have you noticed Lottie that the older you get the less fun Games is. When you are four you just slide around the floor in your vest and pants or spin around. Then at some point someone suggests you have a race.” Lottie responds, “Yeah, then the races get longer and everybody seems to be faster.” “And there are games like cricket which seem very unnatural,” Shauna adds, “but they trick you by doin’ them indoors at first.” Lottie gets the last word: “And now on Wednesday we will be wearin’ hockey skirts with the wind blowing our poor red legs in the cruel rain. Games is how school teaches you that you will spend a lot of time suff’ring while others enjoy themselves.”
Unlike many of these young-readers-centered comics, which make you choose sides between the kids and the adults, Bad Machinery offers the dignity of an interior life to all the characters in the book. Their teacher goes home to a wife who disapproves of one of his life choices: “Ryan, that beard, that BEARD,” she complains. He goes into the bathroom to admire his new facial hair as his wife tries to comb over his bald spot (with the delightful sound effects “FUSS FUSS COMB INTERFERE” accompanying her efforts.) “The army in the north’s taking heavy casualties,” he tells her, “So I’m marshalling my forces south of the border.” It’s a quiet moment that humanizes their teacher in a masterstroke of economical storytelling. These moments accrue throughout The Case of the Team Spirit as two mysteries, involving a questionable football player and an old woman with a wonky eye, eventually become intertwined. It’s the most delightful comic I’ve read in a long while, a happy blend of Beaton’s intelligent comedy, Charles Schulz’s autumnal view of childhood, and a sprinkle of good old-fashioned Nancy Drew fun.
Up north, the employees at Arcane Comics couldn’t stop talking up Andrew MacLean’s comic ApocalyptiGirl, so I bought a copy. MacLean, the artist behind the incredible fantasy series Head Lopper, made his debut with this story of a young woman named Aria and her cat— its name is Jelly Beans, because of course it is — in a postapocalyptic world. Rather than tell another zombie story, MacLean wisely made the world of ApolcalyptiGirl a savage land of warring tribes. As Jelly Beans wanders in and out of trouble, Aria eventually uncovers the secret behind her world’s devastation; it’s not as simple as a virus or a nuclear bomb, and the book takes a sci-fi turn that broadens the universe and the story into a grandiose, Arthur C. Clarke-style scope. The fact is, without Arcane’s employees to direct me, I might never have found ApocalyptiGirl, and that would’ve been a shame; sometimes the boisterous world of mainstream comics gets so loud and so distracting that those fine little grace notes go unheard.
In the end, Free Comic Book Day appeals to that sense of discovery, of journey. By the time I turned around from Shoreline to head south down the Interurban Trail, my backpack was crammed full of dozens of pounds of comics, but my spirits couldn’t have been higher. At Arcane Comics, I had just overheard Rust cartoonist Royden Lepp talking with a very young girl —she must have been five or six — at his signing table. “I like drawing comics,” the girl told Lepp. “Me, too,” he said. Then he asked her, “what do you like to draw?” She told him, “I like to draw girls having adventures.” He agreed that it didn’t get much better than that.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant