In the back of his store, at the trestle tables set up for visiting artists, Wayne Winsett considers what it takes to make it for 32 years in the comics business. “It consumes you,” says the owner of Boulder’s Time Warp Comics & Cards. “You have to be wholly devoted. It’s a calling.” His 4,000-square-foot space is crammed to the ceiling with comics, bound books, gaming supplies, action figures, cards, toys and memorabilia. Somehow, he and his staff will clear enough space to accommodate the hundreds of comics fans who will flock here for the fifteenth annual Free Comic Book Day on May 7.
With mainstream culture now awash in superhero movies and TV shows, plenty of buzz about new comics lines and reboots, and critical acceptance of graphic novels as a serious art form, it’s hard to remember why Free Comic Book Day was invented.
In the 1980s, the gritty, disturbing work of comics writers such as Frank Miller and Alan Moore, together with the rise of alternative comics, led to a reinvigorated industry as adults got interested in comics. This fed a speculative boom that went bust between 1993 and 1997, destroying the market. So retailer Joe Field proposed a coordinated promotional event, a day on which independent North American comics outlets would give away one or more free issues.
From that start, Free Comic Book Day has become a worldwide phenomenon. The major, minor and independent publishers now create and distribute an array of free titles for free distribution on the holiday that range from toddler-friendly “animal funnies” to much darker work. How many a visitor gets that day depends on the store; Time Warp is limiting it to three per customer.
Winsett is grateful for the comics boom, but would be doing what he’s doing no matter what. By the age of six, he was hooked on comics; he used to stash them under his bed, like most kids of the era. In 1984, he turned that secret passion into a business: Time Warp. “There was a pinball game up at CU I used to play called that,” he remembers, “and Rocky Horror as a big movie at the time, so I guess it was in the zeitgeist.” He opened the original store at 1711 Pearl Street in Boulder, next to Tom Peters’ noted Beat Book Shop; after a few moves, he settled in at his present location at 3105 28th Street in north Boulder in 2006.
Time Warp’s slogan, “Where the past meets the future,” is apt, because the store is a microcosm of comics history and covers the full range of contemporary work as well. Mature and edgy material is segregated from the standard comics fare; exceptional artists and writers are highlighted in special displays. The store is staffed by young enthusiasts who serve as informal curators of what serves as a library, museum and art gallery all rolled into one.
Free Comic Day isn't the store's only outreach project; Time Warp also participates in the Colorado non-profit literacy project Pop Culture Classroom and highlights the work of new and up-and-coming artists. On the first Saturday in October, the store and a clutch of local artists and writers will produce and print an entire book in one day, during 24-Hour Comics Day. For Time Warp’s Free Comic Book Day, eight regional creators – Matthew Allison, Kevin Caron, Daniel Crosier, Ted Intorcio, Scorpio Steele, Matt Strackbein, Thomas Studholme, and Sean Tiffany – will be on hand to sign and discuss their work.
“Free Comic Book Day is our number-one day of the year,” Winsett says, “but we’re busy all the time. Every week, we run down to Denver and pick up twenty boxes of new comics, about 3,500 pieces. We’re constantly putting out fresh content.”
“Wednesdays are when the new titles come out,” a regular volunteers as he browses through the new arrivals. “It gives you something to look forward to.”
Winsett doesn’t think the long-anticipated “superhero fatigue” has hit, but adds that "it’s tough to keep up with the continuity. Both Marvel and DC have done multiple reboots, and we have so many timelines running now that I think people are a little intimidated; they say, with a character they want to get to know, ‘Where can I jump in?’”
Winsett considers superhero comic sales the “pillar” that allows him to carry more innovative work that’s not as popular. “No topic is off limits anymore,” he says, citing serious non-fiction efforts such as Alison Bechdel’s drama of sexual identity Fun Home and John Lewis’s civil-rights memoir March.
He also welcomes the growing gender parity in the industry. “Women used to be leered at if they came into a comics store,” he says. “I was never really comfortable with the concept of the comics store being a man-cave, but it’s really changed. You have so many more women interested now, and creating – which doubles the number of potential comics creators.”
And his customers appreciate the store's range. “Oddly, it’s the stand-alone graphic novels and trade paperbacks that are doing better now than the monthly titles,” Winsett notes.
Despite all the hype and multimedia extensions of the comics world, Winsett insists on the primacy of the books themselves. “You can’t get too far from the source material,” he says. “It’s still about the stories. There’s action, but there’s relationships. You don’t buy a copy of The Walking Dead to see zombies; you can see those anywhere. It’s about the characters and their struggle, and that kind of interest is never going to change. There’s no way to predict what’s coming next in the medium, and that’s what the excitement is.”
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Not only has he celebrated comics culture at his store for more than three decades, but Winsett has crept into the comics culture visually as well. His likeness has made its way into various comic books, pasted onto the faces of demons and heroes alike. He also has a Magic: The Gathering card, the gaming equivalent of a star on Hollywood Boulevard. “It’s called ‘The Opportunist,’” he says.
Winsett has been around long enough to know award-winning fantasy writer/graphic scripter Neil Gaiman. More important, Gaiman knows him — by name. It’s one of the benefits of having a calling.
And Winsett doesn’t have to hide his comics any more. “It’s so gratifying that something I love turned out to be a viable business,” he says. “And now, all the cool kids do it!”
The fifteenth annual Free Comic Book Day takes place worldwide on Saturday, May 7. For complete details and international participating store locators, visit freecomicbookday.com.