In the popular stereotype, comic-book-store owners are shaped like Santa Claus. On the first Saturday of May, they act like him, too. Free Comic Book Day (May 5 this year) is a worldwide promotion that began in the Diablo Valley. Thousands of direct-sales comic-book stores distribute free issues from a variety of publishers.

Illusive Comics (2725 El Camino Real) is Santa Clara’s only comics shop. Moreover, the story carries more comics than any shop in the South Bay, according to Diamond Comic Distributors. Free Comic Book Day is as important on Illusive’s calendar, as it is for some of the other South Bay gaming and comic shops: Hijinx and Space Cat in San Jose, Heroes in Campbell, Lee’s Comics in Mountain View and Legends in Cupertino. Illusive (“of an illusion’) will also be organizing the gaming tables at the upcoming Big Wow Comic Fest May 19-20, San Jose’s annual mass gathering of fantasy fans.

Only 4 percent of the owners of the world’s comic book stores are women. Illusive’s owner, Anna Warren Cebrian, is part of that tiny segment. Her Illusive Press was a publisher of the now on-hiatus Dorothy, a CG-treated fumetti (the familiar style used in Mexican fotonovelas) about a modern Dorothy of Oz. She also published the since-canceled Tony Loco, concerning a modern-day Don Quixote.

Cebrian tells me, “I have an MBA. I didn’t come into this business from the perspective of being a big geek or a fan. I started publishing in 2004 and learned from the publishers’ point of view. I got to meet really friendly retailers by getting my comics in stores and by attending conventions, from here to Chicago.’

One of the retailers Cebrian met was the previous owner of the 25-year-old direct-sales shop Brian’s Books. She bought the business in 2007, not knowing the recession would last this long. “Our store is growing like mad,’ she says, “with board and card games like Magic: The Gathering, World of Warcraft, Flux, Penny Arcade.’

Despite Illusive’s large customer base in fantasy gaming, the comics end is still strong. “Everything from the DC relaunch is selling well,’ Cebrian says. She’s referring to DC’s drastic reboot of last year, which canceled all existing titles and started from square one. In June, the prequel series Before Watchmen will be released, whether Alan Moore likes it or not. “And Avengers vs. X-Men is selling like ridiculous hotcakes,’ she adds.

Every kind of person reads comics, from Japanese physicists to pale post-graduates, but the numbers indicate the stereotype of the thirtysomething male fan has a basis in fact. Cebrian notes that the majority of comic book readers today aren’t even children. According to the Nielsen survey, the comic-book audience is primarily Caucasian males from ages 20 to 40. Free Comic Book Day aims to open up the market. Cebrian finishes, “We get all races here, and I’m really happy when we get women in here. We do what we can to promote comics to all ages.’