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Meanwhile, for one day, comic books are free

Spidey swings back into theaters today with expectations that he'll deliver several hundred million dollars at the box office.

But movie theaters aren't the only ones hoping to make money -- the comic book industry believes that "Spider-Man 2" will slide it a few bucks, too.

To grease the wheels, comic book shops across the country will hand out free books Saturday as part of "Free Comic Book Day." It's the third year for the event, which this year hopes to harness some of the hype surrounding "Spider-Man 2" and coax new customers into comic book stores.

Newbies and comic book scholars alike will be treated to free comics, which will vary from store to store. Classics such as "Archie" will be handed out alongside "Star Wars -- Clone Wars Adventures" and a book based on the TV crime drama "CSI." A "Spider-Man" title will be available as well.

At Second Foundation Bookstore in Chapel Hill, owner Andrew Neal hopes this year's event draws the curious as last year's did.

"We had a lot of people who weren't regular comic book customers," he said. And once they were inside, they were surprised at the availability of books that go beyond super heroes. "A lot of people don't realize the diversity of comics that are available."

That diversity has increased, particularly in the past 10 years, Neal said. There are Western comics and romance comics, horror comics and humor comics, Japanese-style comics and animal comics.

Something for everyone's taste will be given away on Free Comic Book Day. The cost of the books, which were specially created for Saturday's giveaway, is shared by the publishers, retailers and distributor. "Basically, everybody along the way loses money," said Barry Lyga, spokesman for Diamond Comic Distributors, the country's leading comic book distributor.

A little more than 2 million comics will be given away across the country, Lyga said, the same amount distributed the last two years. Each Free Comic Book Day has corresponded with the release of a comic-themed movie. The first year linked with the first "Spider-Man" movie, and last year's day coincided with "X2: X-Men United." The day is timed to hit when the public's interest in comics is at its highest.

That interest has waxed and waned in recent history, with the comic book industry experiencing a boom in the early '90s. Rick McGee, co-owner of Foundation's Edge in Raleigh, said that the high point was energized by the release of the first "Batman" movie in 1989 and the death of Superman in the comics pages in 1992. But after the boom came the inevitable bust, with prices falling and comic shops shuttering all over the country. "It really destroyed the entire industry," McGee said.

At the height of the craze in April 1993, more than 48 million comic books were sold across the country, said John Jackson Miller, editorial director of the trade publication Comics & Games Retailer. This April, the number was about 6.4 million copies.

That might not sound like a lot compared to the numbers of the early '90s, but the industry has been making improvements. "There's been a slow, but steady recovery for the past several years," McGee said.

A blockbuster "Spider-Man 2" could help that recovery along.

Generally, the hoopla surrounding a comic-themed movie brings a business boost to the comic book stores before the film is released in theaters, Neal said. Then, if the movie isn't that great, the hype dies.

But the first "Spider-Man" movie was a hit for so long that it continued to help business after its release. "That movie was entertaining. We got a lot of people in the store who were excited by the movie and excited by the character," he said. "I'm hoping it happens again, obviously."

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