Free Comic Book Day was an event that took place on May 4th, 2002, the day after the Spiderman movie premiered. The idea was to get people into comics by using one of the oldest advertising ploys- the first one's free. It was first proposed by Joe Field of Concord, California, who owns Flying Colors Comics. He wrote up the idea in a column in Comics and Game Retailer and it grew from there. Pretty much the whole industry got behind it- Diamond Distributors, which enjoys a virtual monopoly over comics sales, Marvel Comics, DC Comics were all involved as well as many independents including Image, Oni Press, Keenspot comics, Top Shelf and Viz.
The comics to be given away were high quality too. From Marvel, we had Ultimate Spider man #1, an appropriate choice due to the then new movie, DC tied in with the Cartoon Network series Justice League by showcasing Justice League Adventures #1, Dark Horse and Image went populist with Star Wars and Tomb Raider respectively. Not exactly the type of books that would make me wake up and shout "Hey! I thought comics were puerile juvenile power fantasies for boys before, but now my eyes are opened!" but I'm sure they are not aiming this towards me
Fantagraphics and Oni seem to turn this trend around- Fantagraphic showcased Hate, by Peter Bagge and Eightball by Dan Clowes, and Oni pushed Hopeless Savages and Queen and Country, both Warren Ellis forum approved! And we all know how indy the Warren Ellis forum is. Not all the small players tried to uplift the artform as evidenced by Viz's inclusion of DBZ as its showcase, despite all the fine manga that it publishes that appeal to a more mature and feminine audience, such as Ceres, Celestial Legend and Short Cuts.
It was a massive event with 2000 retailers lined up to give away 2 million comics. This is said to have happened in 29 countries, including the US. However, it is unclear how much of an impact Free Comics Day has had. First, the free comics only apply to direct market retailers. Many comics retailers aren't in areas where people can just wander by and see a sign, and be lured inside. Many cities do not even have comics retailers so they can't be serviced at all. Also, the exteriors of the stores may scare people away. A woman with young kids isn't going to be rushing to a store with posters full of silicone breasted chicks in thongs in the windows.
Also, many people may not have heard of it at all. It certainly wouldn't make TV news, and the article in the newspaper would probably be buried. People might even go right past the article when they saw the word 'comics' thinking it could be of no interest to them. The types of titles offered may not as mentioned above be the type to change anyone's perception of comics, even if the word got out. The small publishers may not be able to get shelf space as the big dogs are able to muscle them out.
These are all problems, but hopefully, Free Comics Day has introduced at least some to the idea that comics can be a viable source of entertainment, if not a diverse medium of art. It is not unheard of for people to go from their first Spider-man to some of the highest classics of comics such as Watchmen and Stuck Rubber Baby.
Editor update: Since its 2002 start, the event has occurred regularly on the first Saturday of May.