Great Escape Comics and Games Megastore in Marietta opened more than 20 years ago when there were at least a half-dozen other comic book stores within five miles.
The number of true comic book stores in the metro area has dwindled to about 10 or so in the past two decades, but they have a strong, dedicated following. For the past 15 years, on at least one day of the year, they are guaranteed to draw a larger crowd than usual.
Free Comic Book Day takes place this year on Saturday, May 7. The 15-year-old event has offered free comic books to visitors at shops nationwide as well as outside the U.S.
"It has grown by leaps and bounds over the past 10 years," said comic book industry expert, Robert Rice. "It used to be a thing that people in the know and the community would go to. Now it is a big deal where people go in costume and bring their kids and stores make a big deal over it."
Last year on free comic book day, Great Escape Comics, had a line of 200 people before the store's 10 a.m. opening, said president, Paul Tomberg.
Each year, he watches parents pile their kids in the car to drive from Marietta to Peachtree City to visit more comic book stores. While each retailer offers different specials, at Great Escape, visitors get one free comic book per customer just for walking in the store. If you make a purchase, they bump it up to five free comics.
The 50 books available this year during Free Comic Book Day include the much-anticipated Captain America and Civil War II from Marvel Comics as well as Pokemon, Doctor Who and Bongo. Tomberg expects these to be among the most in demand this year.
Interest in comic books is increasingly driven by Hollywood. Years ago, the characters' stories that appeared in movies, on television or in comic books were distinct. Now there is intentional overlap.
"Big budget movies can really be a home run for major studios," Tomberg said. "There is more money involved in the movies and the comic books are piggybacking more on the movies than they ever did."
Both the Captain American and Civil War II books borrow heavily from the movies, he said. The result has increased the appeal of comic books, sometimes drawing in children who may have previously only been exposed to a character through a movie or video game. In turn, comic books have evolved, offering more complex stories of the sort you may find in movies.
"The biggest change in the comic book industry in the past 10 years has been the growth of storyline and character. The geeks in the 1970s and 1980s have grown up and gotten in positions to tell the stories they want to tell with their favorite characters," said Rice. "It used to be that Spiderman has to stop a thief from stealing a diamond or a bag of cash. It is not like that anymore. Now we are dealing with real issues in comics."
Not that everything needs to be serious, said Rice. He encourages comic book creators and readers to remember that it's okay to just have fun.
Fun is what Free Comic Book Day is all about and each store offers something for children and adults, though sometimes the grown-ups engage in a bit of self-serving subterfuge.
"They say [to their kids] 'This looks good. Why don’t you get this?' And clearly it is a title that isn't for the kids,'" said Tomberg. "There is something for everybody."
For information on Free Comic Book Day or to find locations visit: FreeComicBookDay.com .