There might not be presents under the tree or carolers going door to door, but for a lot of comics readers, it's once again the Most Wonderful Time of the Year: This Saturday marks the 10th Annual Free Comic Book Day!

For those of you who aren't familiar with it, it's exactly like it sounds: On the first Saturday in May, you can walk into a comic book store and walk out with a stack of comics put out by publishers to showcase the best stuff and bring comics to the public, all for the price of on the house. Of course, this provides a minor dilemma to regular readers; while better shops will let you take one of each, it's always nice to leave something on the rack for the new readers to try out, but at the same time, you don't want to miss out on reading the best ones.

That's why today, we're giving readers old and new a rundown of The Best, Worst and Weirdest Free Comic Book Day Stories, from the ones everybody needs to the few that are overpriced even though they're giving 'em away!

Atomic Robo & Friends, from Red 5 Comics

It probably doesn't come as much of a surprise to FCBD veterans, but once again, Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener have stepped up with the single best story of Free Comic Book Day. Just like they did last year. And the year before that. And the year before that.

This time around, Robo and his team head to a school to be celebrity guest at judges at a science fair, and as often happens in the world of Atomic Robo, hilarity ensues with the arrival of a fan-favorite special guest villain. It's seriously great, and it's exactly what a Free Comic Book Day story should be: A clever story that's great for old fans and new readers alike that's packed full of action, comedy, adventure and pure fun that's going to leave readers wanting more. Of course, that's what Atomic Robo is in every issue, meaning that it actually is a comic that could only be better if it was free.

As for the "Friends" of the title, they're a bit of a mixed bag, which I have to think is partly because because they're previews lifted from full-length comics, rather than complete stories. The pages for Foster Broussard read like Pirates of the Caribbean with the piracy swapped out for the 1849 Gold Rush -- which isn't a bad thing -- but the Moon Girl pages that close it out are downright incomprehensible. Still, with that Robo story in there, everything else is gravy.

Captain America and Thor: the Mighty Fighting Avengers, from Marvel Comics

I know I just said that Atomic Robo was this year's best FCBD story, but man, Marvel's offering is a close second. Created by Roger Langridge and Chris Samnee -- the same team that brought you the sadly canceled Thor: The Mighty Avenger, for which this is more or less the lost 9th issue -- this one manages to tie into both of Marvel's summer movie offerings and still stand on its own as a great all ages story with a tale of how Captain America and Thor teamed up with King Arthur to stop Loki from stealing the Holy Grail.

I'm going to go ahead and go through that one more time, just so we're all on the same page here: This is a comic book where Captain America and Thor team up with King Arthur to stop Loki from stealing the Holy Grail. And it's free.

The only downside is that if you're like me, it brings back the sting of Thor: TMA getting canceled with a reminder of just how great that book was. At the same time, though, it's the perfect stepping stone for kids coming out of the Thor movie wanting to read more that could lead them right into the two TMA trades and the aforementioned Brian Clevinger's brilliant Captain America: The Fighting Avenger one-shot. It's a nice piece of marketing on Marvel's part that's also a genuinely great story in its own right, and again: That's what FCBD is all about.


Green Lantern/Flashpoint Special Edition, from DC Comics

DC, on the other hand, takes a shot at promoting their major summer film in a completely different way: With a reprint of a story that came out three years ago.

On the one hand, I totally get this strategy: DC's clearly banking on Green Lantern: Secret Origin being an easy sell for fans who want to get a slightly different take on the exact same events of the movie, and if the goal of Free Comic Book Day is to get comics in the hands of people who aren't already reading comics, then the target audience doesn't already have a copy of the Secret Origin trade sitting on a bookshelf at home. With the mass market primed for Green Lantern, it makes perfect sense that they'd want to push it to the forefront. In that respect, it's a no-brainer.

But at the same time, FCBD is a chance for publishers to put their best foot forward for all audiences and showcase their comics to people that they might not have the chance to reach again. And by putting out an FCBD book that doesn't have anything you can't get elsewhere, they're basically sending the message that the best thing they've got is a story from 2008. There's just no reason for anyone already reading comics to pick it up.

But again, it is a nice jumping on point for people excited about the movie, especially with GL being one of DC's biggest hits over the past few years.

Darkwing Duck & Chip 'n' Dale Rescue Rangers, from Boom! Studios

Speaking of reprints, Boom! is puting out a flip book featuring the first issues of their revival of the old "Disney Afternoon" programming blocks from the late '80s, early '90s. Like a lot of people my age, I was totally obsessed with this stuff back in the third grade -- I, uh, may have had an airbrushed t-shirt with Chip on it -- but I actually haven't read any of the comics until now.

As a result, I had no idea that the Darkwing Duck comic was a sequel to the cartoon that's set in a future where the former super-hero now has to work for an all-encompasing megacorporation that seems so much like RoboCop's Omni Consumer Products that I kept expecting Gizmoduck to show up and fight ED-209. The experience of reading is actually even weirder than that probably sounds: It's ostensibly a kid's book, but it relies a lot on having prior knowledge of a cartoon that last aired fifteen years ago, and involves a capitalist dystopia where people -- er, ducks -- are violently abducted to "detention camps." It's weird, and even with twenty years of reading comics, I'm not sure how I feel about it.

Which, when you think about it, is a testament to the magic of Free Comic Book Day.


Mickey Mouse by Floyd Gottfredson, from Fantagraphics

While we're on the subject of Disney characters, Fantagraphics has a reprint of Mickey Mouse strips by the legendary Floyd Gottfredson. Despite the fact that they've been recommended to me a dozen times -- mostly by Benito Cereno, who I'll get to in moment -- I've never read any of Gottfredson's stuff, because I figured there were only two camps when it came to Disney comics. You can either be a Mickey Mouse or a Scrooge McDuck, and I know which $ide I'm on.

But then I actually read this comic, and mark your calendars, because I don't say this often: I was wrong. They're amazing.

This book in particular reprints a run where Mickey Mouse enters Pluto in a dog race and ends up getting mixed up with a banker who wants to foreclose on a friendly old couple, snooty society types, high-stakes gamblers and the mob. The mob, people. It's really great stuff, with a ton of adventure and action balanced out with the humor I was expecting, which really holds up even here in the next century, right down to the fun Vaudeville-style wordplay. I would've devoured this thing if I was a kid, and while it's ostensibly a teaser for the bigger reprint volumes -- which, at $30 for 300 pages are looking like an even better deal than I thought -- it's awesome for all ages.


James Patterson's Witch & Wizard, from Yen Press

Another legitimate shocker came from Yen Press. I'd just assumed that since they'd picked up the rights to Yotsuba&!, the best all-ages manga ever, that they'd be using that for Free Comic Book Day. Instead, it looks like they're trying to draw in the same market they hooked with the Twilight graphic novel by banking on novelist James Patterson with an adaptation of Witch & Wizard.

The art comes from Svetlana Chmakova, whose work I'm mostly familiar with from an OEL series she did for Tokyopop called Dramacon, a sweeping soap opera set at an anime convention. It drew on every single cliche of romance manga, right down to the love interest being a hunky tough guy with a heart of gold who wore sunglasses to cover a scar that only made him hotter. It's a hoot.

Unfortunately, Chmakova's art, which is great, is saddled with a pretty generic-seeming story about secret witchery, which isn't. It's worth flipping through just to see her impressive, expressive art, though.

Pep Comics Featuring Betty & Veronica, from Archie Comics

The folks over at Archie always make a good attempt on FCBD. Considering the amount of mainstream attention that they've gotten over the past year, I'm legitimately surprised that they didn't go with a story about Kevin Keller, or something tying into the Life With Archie books that spun out of the alternate-future marriage.

Instead, Archie mainstay Dan Parent drops a solid story that's a great representation of the quantum leap in quality the Archie books have made lately. Seriously, I've been reading comics about Riverdale's favorite teenagers for years, and the past two years have seen some of their best stories in decades, with a rush of new, contemporary humor. Case in point: This one sees Veronica falling out of a treehouse, which Jughead records on his cell phone, autotunes, and remixes it with "a house beat" to make her a reluctant YouTube star, complete with downloadable ringtone.

That is fantastic, and it's another one that's perfect for the kids coming to the shop looking for something fun to read.

The Tick, from New England Comics

Remember a second ago when I was talking about Benito Cereno? Well, it turns out that he's not just a guy who has good taste in reading comics, but as readers of books like Guardians of the Globe and his sadly out of print Tales From The Bully Pulpit will attest, he's also pretty good at writing them. And as much as I like those, the work he's been doing on The Tick with Les McClaine -- of The Middleman -- has been the best stuff of his career.

In their bi-monthly series, Cereno and McClaine have been telling stories that perfectly capture the absurdst, half-parody, half-earnest-fun feeling that made the cartoon adaptation such a hit, and their seven-page story here where the Tick thinks a book deal will give him the ability to see the future is no exception.

Plus, there's an Official Handbook-style section detailing the characters that have been created over the course of the new series, including Desperadoe and my personal favorite, the villainous knitter Scarf Ace (and her trendy, whip-wielding minion, the Whipster). This is one you definitely want to grab -- and while you're at it, see if they've got any back issues of the ongoing, too.

Civil War Adventure, from History Graphics Press

We've been through a bunch of good ones, but if you're interested in picking up the absolute craziest comic you can find on Saturday, then I can strongly recommend Civil War Adventure, which is completely insane.

Coming from a publisher with a name like "History Graphics," I was expecting, well, a graphic adaptation of history, but that pretty much goes out the window right around the time the zombie shows up. Instead, veteran writer Chuck Dixon tells a tale that, thanks largely to some actually really good work from artist Gary Kwapisz, reads more like an EC horror comic, set in my home state of South Carolina and featuring a racist, moonshine-crazed axe murderer named, of all things, Levi Johnston.

But that's not all. Allow me to quote from the solicitation: "Check out the 'Battle Field Amputation' fact page!" And yep, there it is, two pages of gloriously gory illustrations detailing just how limbs were hacked off in the tents of Gettysburg. It's... well, it's certainly something.

The Overstreet Guide to Collecting Comics, from Gemstone Publishing

And then there's this thing. Ugh.

If memory serves, Gemstone -- a subsidiary of the monolithic Diamond Comics Distributors -- has been putting out a book like this every year for a while now, and they are, without fail, completely and utterly worthless. Billed as a guide on how to help readers get the most out of the world of comic books, they're essentially shameless promotion for the speculator mindset that created the huge boom and bust that nearly killed the industry in the '90s.

There's nominal lip service paid to the only actual "right" way to read comics -- read them and buy the ones you like -- but then it's a segue right into how once you're done with all that silly reading, you should totally grade them and then slab them in plastic forever because they're going to be worth millions of dollars -- and you'll only know just how many millions with the help of this year's Overstreet Price Guide! Plus an exciting four pages pages of definitions for official grading terms like "Gem Mint" and "Copper Age" and a thrilling list of Pedigree Collections!

The whole thing's a bill of goods that encourages the absolute worst aspects of the collector mentality, propping up a system that reduces art to a commodity, drawn up with friendly cartoons to be given to children. It should be avoided like the plague.

And those are just the tip of the iceberg. All told, publishers have offered up 37 different comics to be given out on Saturday, ranging from a new Spider-Man story by Dan Slott and Humberto Ramos, an Elric comic by Chris Roberson, a pair of great Avatar: The Last Airbender stories from Dark Horse, and more! You can check out a full list of titles, read previews of each one and even find your local shop at the FCBD website!

Plus there are a lot of stores out there that make an event out of it with sales, in-store signings, and other fun stuff too. But like the best holidays, Free Comic Book Day comes but once a year, so this Saturday, get out to your local shop, get some comics and most of all, have some fun.

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