Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Letter Columns Oughta Be Fun!

(In which a little stuffed bull rants for a few paragraphs about the loss of the comic book letter column and the proliferation of complaint without criticism (by which I mean "evaluation or analysis" rather than just merely "unfavorable comment"). If this isn't a subject you're interested in reading on Comics Oughta Be Fun! then you should skip to the very bottom, where there's a funny letter.)

Typewriter GuySure, it's easier these days via this inter-ma-net contraption to give immediate and targeted feedback to the comic creators of today. It's both the jewel and the coal of the worldwide web that any Joe, Jane, or J'onn can immediately (or, often, pre-immediately) speak up about a comic book, character, creator, or storyline. On the one hand, it opens up the field of criticism and discussion to anybody. On the other hand, it opens up the field of criticism and discussion to anybody. On the third hand (as Arex would say) it's easier to complain (and I've done it myself plenty of times) that to criticize.

More to the point: I do believe that in this age of utter equality in comics commenting, the great art of letter writing has been lost. Once upon a time, if you wanted to comment on a comic book issue or character, you wrote or typed your opinions on a piece of paper (remember those?) and mailed it (that's 'mailed' without an 'e' at the front) to the comic book company, where you could rap with Cap, sock it to Greenskin or level with Daredevil. But your six cents (or the equivalent stamp of the period) was no guarantee that letter would get published: not with only one or two pages in the comic book devoted to maybe 5-10 letters. You had to write well, you had to write short...remember this frequent plea by Stan Lee (hey, that rhymed!):

Keep all letters to no more than one page

In other words, getting your words published for all to see was a privilege, not a right. And to improve the odds, your letter had to be not only well-written and concise, it had to intrigue the editor or letter-column editor, whether it was positive or negative.

I'm not going to go into huge depths moaning and whining over the death of the letter column and the state of modern comics blogging (there's some exceptional commentary on comics and comics culture out there being done every day by talented blog writers). Besides, the subject has been covered in greater depth before, by people who write much better than a little stuffed bull. Folks like KC Carlson:
Out of all the early lettercols that I did (before I had my own books), I think that my favorite was Batman. Not because I had great love or connection to the character, but because it was an "important" book, so there were plenty of letters from very passionate fans to choose from. And, the biggest thing for me, there were always letters from kids! They were always so cool! First of all, they hardly ever talked about the comic at all—just about Batman. In fact, most of their letters were addressed TO Batman. A typical letter went something like this:


Your car is really neat!

Do you have a DOG? My dog is Duffy.

I love you.

Your friend,


I ran as many of these letters as I could.

And then some of the Batman letter writers got mad! "How dare you waste space on running these kiddie letters?" one said. "My letters are more important than these stupid things!" said another.

This was about the time I lost my patience with a certain segment of fandom.

As far as I was concerned, every letter I ran from a kid like this got DC a Batman fan for life. All it cost was less than an inch of space in a lettercol. And the thrill that kid got when he saw his letter in print - Priceless. Every little kid that had a letter published could be inspired to grow up and write or draw or even edit Batman someday. And the real lesson to take from it is—never forget where you came from. Never forget those early thrills—the things that made you excited or happy! It was obvious that some fans had forgotten that.

Besides, I told one of the nay-sayers, you never write that you love Batman. THAT kid loves Batman!
and Frank Miller...yeah, Frank Miller!
I got to draw and write Marvel Comics’ DAREDEVIL. I couldn’t resist taking over the title’s letter column myself. If a letter was well-written, I ran it, and responded. Editor Denny O’Neil and Big Boss Jim Shooter allowed me my own voice, and agreed that I could run letters that offered a rush of honest comment and criticism.

The letters were passionate. Every month I dove in, relishing praise, suffering withering commentary from feminists over my twenty-something portrait of my character Elektra. I even wound up marching to the local FBI offices with threatening responses to Elektra’s inevitable death. I was honestly scared for my own mortality, as my then-girlfriend Laurie Sutton will attest.


So ends my personal history of the comic-book letter column. As with every communication form, it doesn’t die. It adapts. Just like the Homeric Poem gave birth to live Theatre, then to prose, comic books, radio plays, and movies, so the letter column goes the way of the nickelodeon and makes way for a more direct, participatory way for us to stay in touch.
(Wanna read the whole of Carlson and Miller's essays? Click on their names above.)

So, we bluster onwards and work with the tools we have now: the Internet. It's got benefits (speed, equalization, open forum) that the old letters of comment never had. And hey, I'm a forward-lookin' bull. You can't live in the past forever, as Rip Hunter probably said or will say in the future.

But...I am indeed sad that we'll probably never see the likes of a fan/editor exchange like this, ever again:

Thor #152 letter


S Bates said...

The thing is, I suspect that for many people out there (and I include myself in this) superhero comic books generally aren't to be taken seriously. Most of them are pieces of entertainment not works of high art. As such, they are meant to instill feelings of awesomeness or outright disgust. IMO, there's nothing wrong with that - even if these are personal opinions and therefore of little value to others.

Also, one of the things the internet has given us is far, far more than those couple of inches of letterpage columns every month. Now, you can't help but stumble across reams of (sometimes poorly written) commentary. Or panels of blue-furred mutants. :) Still, I suspect if you looked hard enough, you'll still see posts/tweets/whathaveyous along the lines of "Dear Batman, do you have a dog? I love you". Of course, you'll also find posts along the lines of "Batman, you're a steaming pile of dog excrement", but that's the price you pay for rife openness - it has to be open both ways.

As for exchanges like the one listed at the end of your post, I'm reminded of the festive interview between Mr Sims and Santa himself that was posted on the interweb a few months ago. So, I don't think it's unlikely we'll see that sort of thing again!

SallyP said...

Oh, I miss the letter columns. Some of them were ridiculous, and some were sublime. It is also amazing how many FUTURE Comic Book Writers sent in letters to their favorites.

And Odin is one cool cat.