Today is Free Comic Book Day, which is traditionally held on the first Saturday in May. A relatively recent creation (it’s a 21st century invention), the day was created by comic book distributors to help drive business into local brick and mortar stores. Comic publishers print special FCBD titles which local stores can purchase to give away to their customers; the middlemen distributors provide the advertising materials and drive the online presence. Opinions vary as to the promotion’s success; it’s been a mixed bag over the life of the project. In my small town, in which we have three (!) comic shops (one of which, to be fair, is a 2nd & Charles store, part of a chain which seems hell-bent on being “Hot Topic for the geek crowd”), FCBD used to be a far bigger deal ten years ago. Back then, the free comic offerings from the “Big Two” and the indies were better: “How to Draw” books, preview “Issue 0” books for forthcoming titles, “extra” books for existing titles featuring stories not featured later in the main books (Death-Defying Devil from Project Superpowers, I’m looking at you here). Online photos from big-city comic shops (like Collectors Corner just outside Baltimore) showed lines going around the block the night before the event. In the last few years, however, FCBD has become much more of a “meh” event. The indie publishers have recently started offering “preview” books which are just issue #1 reprints of failed titles cancelled years before, while the Big Two offer titles which feature “concept art” from their next big mega-event (“Alex Ross’ preliminary character sketch designs for the upcoming Ultra-Secret Invasion Heroes Rebirth Flashpoint United event — after which the D’Carvel Universe will never be the same!!!” [until we reboot again just before the next mega-event]).

The local stores here have done a valiant effort in trying to keep the excitement level high. Our old stalwart comics shop (which dates back to the first days of direct sales) will give away or drastically mark down back issues, and runs a good sale on most of the other inventory. 2nd & Chuckie will mark down a whole bunch of traditionally non-moving inventory, which is usually a good time for someone of my odd eclectic tastes to score a few treasures (a couple of years ago I picked up Kingdom Come in its original four-issue Elseworlds format for five bucks and bought half of the old Freedom Fighters run from the 70’s for another ten). But mostly FCBD has become an excuse for 15 to 25 year olds to dress up like Japanese anime characters and mob the stores, standing around in front of the long boxes while gabbling away about the latest Marvel movie extravaganza, and giving you snotty looks when you politely ask them to step aside so you can flip through the inventory in the hope of actually buying something. Honestly, there’s not much there anymore that makes me excited about dragging my ass out of bed early on a Saturday (assuming I’ve slept at all, but that’s a story about my recent illness – that’s for another time).

The core concept of FCBD — giving away free comic books as an advertising ploy – is not remotely a new one. It goes clear back to the start of the comic book industry, and (as longtime readers of this blog have doubtless already guessed) that’s the subject of your kindly old professor’s history lesson today.

In the pre-Internet days, mail order businesses were a major driving force of the U.S. economy. Small town and rural residents had limited purchasing choices; if the local shopkeepers didn’t carry a particular product, it was flat unavailable. The spread of rail transportation during the nineteenth century facilitated the birth of a new mercantile industry: the mail order house. Mail order began in the mid-1800’s and flourished in Chicago; the Windy City soon became known as the Mail Order Capital of America. Why Chicago? The city was a major rail hub, it was (then) centrally located on the U.S. map, and it enjoyed a large employable work force for the (largely unskilled) jobs the companies offered.

For those readers who grew up as part of the Internet generation (and never experienced either the fun of receiving a catalog nor the anticipation of waiting for an order to arrive), here’s how it worked. The retailer advertised their (usually free) catalog in newspapers and magazines, mailing a catalog to anyone who asked for one. After deciding on their order, the consumer would fill out an order form by hand, line by line, and would include the stock number, item name, color (in the case of clothing), and cost for each item. They’d then add up the prices, fill in the total, fill in the shipping cost, and mail back the order form with a check or money order. Several weeks later their order would arrive either at their home or at the retailer’s nearest physical store.

And the consumer could order nearly anything. A couple of the large retail companies even carried a build-it-yourself house kit. I don’t mean a doll house; I mean an actual full-sized house. This was a hot item in the 1800’s, during the period of westward expansion and homesteading — not everyone had the skills to build sod homes or log cabins (as TV and the movies might lead you to believe). Most of the retail trade was in smaller goods, of course. If there was demand for an item and it could be physically shipped, the mail-order retailers could carry it and display it in their catalogs. Clothing, appliances, toys, housewares, furniture, all sorts of non-perishable goods were catalog items.

Some catalog-based companies went on to build vast retail empires. Sears, Roebuck & Co., J.C. Penney, and Montgomery Ward all became gigantic department store chains on the strength of their catalog sales. There was a time when every dinky one-horse town of at least 10,000 residents enjoyed at least one of these chains’ presence in their little burg. Even after establishing chains of physical stores, these companies continued with their traditional catalog sales well into the 1980’s. Sears published quarterly catalogs; their Christmas catalog was a really big deal. Kids from coast to coast waited eagerly for that catalog because toys comprised a solid quarter of it, and that’s how we picked out what we wanted for Christmas back when I was a child. Even though I was an adult by the time Sears announced they would cease publishing their world-famous catalog, the announcement was heart-breaking to me – my own children would never experience the fun, excitement, and sheer joy the arrival of that catalog brought.

The successful establishment and growth of catalog sales were facilitated by technology. Mechanized presses made it possible to print mass quantities of catalogs cheaply, while the new railroad systems crisscrossing the country made delivery affordable. It was extremely inexpensive to bulk ship large quantities of goods by rail (and remains so today). The downside of rail delivery is the time it takes for an order to physically move from place to place. Modern consumers complain if an item takes a whole week to arrive at their doorstep; as late as my adolescence, a mail order item took weeks to arrive. On the other hand, part of the fun was the anticipation of receiving your book or game or toy. An ad would say, “Please allow six weeks for delivery”; somewhere around the 35-day mark you’d listen for the mail truck every day and run to the front door or mailbox to see if your neat stuff was there. Your folks never had to ask if it had arrived; your whoops of joy would scare the pets and annoy the neighbors.

For their first half-century comic books were chock full of mail order ads; if no one has yet started a blog featuring ads from 1930’s through 1980’s comic books, someone could easily do so. Members of Facebook comic book groups frequently post images of old advertisements from comic books: X-ray specs, joy buzzers, and the ubiquitous back-page toy soldier ads. You may also remember ads for baked goods by Hostess, ads which were themselves one-page comic stories in which a famous superhero defeats a nemesis with the help of a tasty snack cake. And that brings us straight to this post’s 1940’s comic feature.

The Chicago Mail Order company came up with a brilliant idea in 1942: in addition to their catalog, they would take advantage of the wartime comics craze by distributing a free comic book which advertised their wares. The company commissioned Centaur Publications to create the comic; the result was C-M-O Comics #1. The book’s advertising scheme was an interesting twist on the usual form of ads in comics: the advertised goods would be drawn right into the story. Instead of the typical sidebar ads displaying products for sale, the comics’ characters would be drawn actually wearing or using the advertised products, while each page would have a panel containing the catalog number and price of the displayed merchandise. Thus instead of a boring static catalog picture, the reader would see the clothes being worn or the items being used, which played on the reader’s subliminal desire to be just like the characters in the book.

As far as marketing ploys go, this one is just plain inspired. It’s surprising that it didn’t become a common practice in the comics industry. I suppose that creatively it would have been a nightmare; the advertisers would need to be lined up months in advance so that the artists could draw the merchandise. And what would happen if an advertiser pulled out or went out of business at the last minute before publication? A catalog in comics form must have been a tough feat to pull off, being as a second issue of C-M-O Comics appeared the same year but as just a free comic book with no advertising content beyond the company’s name on the cover.

C-M-O Comics was an anthology title with stories spanning a variety of genres. For illustrative purposes, I chose the story featuring a teen named Star Spangles Branner just for the sheer awfulness of the pun. It’s a fairly uninspired piece depicting a normal teen who chose to wear a costume from a play as a “disguise” while fighting fifth columnists. If that sounds familiar to longtime readers of my blog, it’s a lesser copy of Pat Patriot’s origin tale which we considered some years ago. It’s unfortunate that the C-M-O Comics pages appear to be dreadful microfiche scans, as the small panel ads are nearly unreadable.

In honor of Free Comic Book Day 2017, here’s a story from a free comic book published in 1942. As always, right-click on a page to open it in a new tab or window for a larger view. The pages are courtesy of Comic Book Plus.

C-M-O Comics #1, 1942

C-M-O Comics #1, 1942

C-M-O Comics #1, 1942

C-M-O Comics #1, 1942

C-M-O Comics #1, 1942

C-M-O Comics #1, 1942

C-M-O Comics #1, 1942

C-M-O Comics #1, 1942

C-M-O Comics #1, 1942

C-M-O Comics #1, 1942

Have fun! – Steve

Copyright 2017, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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