Despite appearances, Free Comic Book Day isn’t about launching the next big summer crossover event. The last few years have seen FCBD co-opted by mainstream publishers like Marvel and DC to jumpstart whatever Secret Infinite Convergence War they’ve cooked up for the current season. That isn’t what Free Comic Book Day is or should be about.
Rather, FCBD is about celebrating the wonderful diversity of a medium that has matured into a valid, unique avenue for artistic expression in its own right, by introducing new readers to the limitless storytelling possibilities of the form.
Comics are for every single one of us and there’s plenty enough to go around, no matter what we may be looking for.
Here is a list of five creator-owned comics that make perfect FCBD gifts for the discerning funny-book neophytes in your life. These may not be the most popular books on the shelves. Some of them haven’t even been optioned by Hollywood yet. But one trait they all share is a dedication to exploring – and maybe even breaking – the infinite frontiers of a medium I would argue is still in its adolescence.
Without further ado and in no particular order, then:
Princeless: Save Yourself by Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin (Action Lab Entertainment)
A true all-ages hit that helped to put independent publisher Action Lab Entertainment on the map, Jeremy Whitley’s (My Little Pony, upcoming Marvel’s Secret Love) wonderful, endearing tale of young princess Adrienne’s quest to save her imprisoned sisters opened the eyes of a lot of fans and creators when it was nominated for a coveted Eisner Award in 2012.
Featuring a strong female protagonist of mixed racial descent, Princeless quickly garnered praise among parents and critics for helping to identify and address a segment of the population historically overlooked by comic book publishers and creators: young female readers.
By lovingly subverting classic fairy-tale conventions so that the hero of the story is the princess instead of her traditional savior, the prince, Whitley proved that modern comics could successfully appeal to a wider audience.
Still going strong with a number of sequels and spin-offs – the most recent of which, Raven: The Pirate Princess, hits stores this July – Adrienne’s magical adventure is arguably the most deserving book on this list for its proven ability to attract new and/or forgotten readers to the comics medium.
A perfect gift for the kids in our life – or the kid inside all of us.
Descender by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen (Image Comics)
The New Year saw a new media darling arrive under the spotlight, when critically acclaimed creators Jeff Lemire (Hawkeye, The Valiant) and Dustin Nguyen (The Authority) sold the movie rights to their new sci-fi epic Descender to Sony Pictures before the first issue had hit the shelves. Although all of the attention seemed like pre-release hype, it quickly became evident that Descender was the real deal.
Set against a far-future backdrop of rampant anti-robot sentiment, Descender chronicles the adventures of Tim-21, a boy robot pursued by inter-galactic authorities. When it’s discovered that his operating system holds the key to solving the mystery of a massive, planet-killing catastrophe instigated by rogue artificial intelligences while he was dormant, Tim must take to the stars or risk decommissioning.
This is a book that has it all: complex, well-realized characters, thoughtful world-building, and stunning design work. Sophisticated enough for adults but still featuring all the cool sci-fi spectacle kids love, Descender is a lushly-illustrated, well-written comic-book space opera that crosses not only mediums but also age brackets with startling ease.
Get in on the ground floor of the next big thing now, because your kids will be clamoring for all things Descender in the very near future.
Helheim by Cullen Bunn and Joelle Jones (Oni Press)
You can’t walk into a comic-book store these days without encountering the work of fan-favorite scribe Cullen Bunn (Sinestro, Hellbreak), who rocketed to the forefront of the medium a few years ago with his breakout hit The Sixth Gun.
Splitting his time between mainstream superhero comics and creator-owned projects, one of Bunn’s most satisfying reads of the last year has been Helheim, a balls-to-the-walls dark fantasy saga chronicling the blood-drenched exploits of an undead Viking warrior.
Bunn’s strengths as a writer stem from his ability to come at his audiences from unexpected angles, his genre-bending versatility, and a strong narrative voice he tailors to each project. Helheim showcases all of these qualities in spades.
Artistic collaborator Joelle Jones (Lady Killer) matches Bunn stride for stride, with slick, animation-style visuals that are at once fluid, robust, and visceral. If you haven’t checked out Jones’s work yet, Helheim is the perfect vehicle.
With a breakneck pace, a grotesque yet sympathetic protagonist, and gobs of blood and gore, Helheim is a sterling example of what comics should be: well-crafted, ferocious, and above all fun.
No Mercy by Alex de Campi and Carla Speed McNeil (Image Comics)
Speaking of ferocious, the aptly titled No Mercy – Alex de Campi (Grindhouse, Smoke/Ashes) and Carla Speed McNeil’s (Finder, Sensation Comics) gut-wrenching, violent exploration of just how much physical and psychological horror the human spirit can digest – has more teeth than 99% of the books on the shelves today.
An unflinching, tortuous tale of a Princeton University travel group’s disastrous excursion into the Mexican outback, No Mercy delves into 21st-century travel phobias and culture shock with disturbing relish.
Starring a fully realized ensemble of millennial castaways whom you’ll love to hate and hate to love, No Mercy is unlike any comic you’ll read this year. Spot-on characterization, stunning visuals, innovative lettering, and beautiful creative synergy between writer and artist combine to make this book a refreshing alternative to the glut of superheroes, zombies, and time travelers filling the shelves this summer.
Though not for the faint of heart – as de Campi and McNeil will gleefully attest, there is no mercy found in these pages – this cautionary tale will make you squirm deliciously on a number of different levels.
The Woods by James Tynion IV and Michael Dialynas (BOOM! Studios)
Everything James Tynion IV (Batman Eternal, Memetic) touches lately seems to turn to gold. Last year, his sci-fi horror series The Woods and Memetic turned heads in both the comics media and among his growing fanbase.
A chilling, gruesome tale of interstellar abduction, The Woods follows a rapidly dwindling population of high school students in their life-and-death struggle to survive a terrifying alien landscape, after they are suddenly transported to another world (school and all).
This fresh take on the classic alien abduction tale by Tynion and artist Michael Dialynas serves as a fascinating metaphor for the awkwardness and sense of dislocation common throughout adolescence. A harrowing journey of adaptation in the face of extreme adversity, at its core The Woods serves to remind us just how quickly the universe can pitch a curveball our way.
With its unique visual tone, simmering emotional undercurrents, and refreshing concept, Tynion and Dialynas’s disturbing sci-fi disaster story will bend your mind even as it bends genres.
These are just five great gifts for funny-book greenhorns on FCBD. There are literally thousands of other amazing books out there in every conceivable genre that would also make fantastic introductions to the zany world of funny books. Tell us yours via Facebook, Twitter, or the Comments below!