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Tag: opinion

The lost art of the comic book letters page

Contributed by
May 21, 2018

Ah, the internet. What is there to say about it that hasn't already been said? For some of us it came later in life, and others have never known a world without it—but either way, once it showed up, we were collectively never the same.

Now, let me tell you a bit about the olden days, for which entire swaths of cultural references are now completely irrelevant. Many of us have no idea what it's like to make a phone call on a rotary phone or plan your night around television rather than the other way around. Today, if you have something to say, you have immediate avenues to your favorite celebrities through platforms like Twitter. You can tweet up a storm the minute a thought comes into your head, and that immediacy of intention can be used for good or evil. (Or for memes.) In the before times, on the other hand, if you wanted to talk to someone you had to really consider your approach. A letter can take hours to write, even longer to walk to the post office and send. Yet people still sent them. Why, yes, people sent lots and lots of letters.

The advent of the letters column in comics wasn't especially a new idea. Most pulp and literary magazines had them. The way in which comic book letter columns were used by their publishers, however, was unique. Whereas a literary magazine would necessarily focus in on lengthy, in-depth responses, letters written to comic publishers could be written by anyone, of any age group, about any random thing.

It's believed the first comic book letters page appeared in 1940, not long after Superman's debut in 1938, although it would be nearly another 20 years before Superman comics saw a regular letters page. Most of the original columns were succinct, edited down, and served as an avenue to ask basic questions about comic continuity.

When Marvel Comics led a sort of revolution in mainstream comics during the early '60s, giving their characters “ordinary problems” and allowing their characters to suffer from angst in stark contrast to DC's near-perfect pantheon of heroes, so then did letters columns change. Fans were more likely to wax philosophical or go into lengthy, humorous rants, including those who would later go on to become comic book historians. Jerry Bails, often credited for being an early example of fan culture, wrote multiple letters under multiple identities and sent them from all across the country just to try and mess with editors. All I can say is, it was a different time.

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The expansion of style and subject matter, as well as the excited reader response, led comic publishers to expand their letter columns and give them cute names, such as Flash-Grams or Fantastic Fan Page. Because fans could communicate directly with creators, the letters columns saw the rise of comic book zines, conventions, and fan culture in general. A lot of people became pen pals, writing each other to discuss their favorite (or least favorite) comics at length. The term “letterhacks” came to describe people that wrote lengthy responses to publishers on a regular basis. Several of these letter writers would go on to have careers in comics, gaining the favor of editors by showing off their theories.

Letter columns also saw plenty of criticism. When a character died, the letters pages were often full of people decrying the creators, the storyline, and vowing never to buy another comic so long as they might live. For instance, when Stan Lee replaced all of the original Avengers with characters that had previously been known as supervillains, such as the Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and Hawkeye, fandom erupted. These letters gave publishers an idea of how people were responding to their stories.

Readers were encouraged to interact, for instance, with the advent of the No-Prize. A No-Prize was given when a person would point out a continuity error and then explain why it wasn't actually a continuity error. Fans were writing in to ask for actual prizes in exchange for this service, so Stan Lee came up with the concept of the No-Prize. After a while, Marvel began sending out empty envelopes or ones with just a note informing fans they'd won a No-Prize, but people were confused and overall it turned out to not be worth the effort. These days, however, the No-Prize is referenced when someone presents a solution towards understanding a conflicting moment in comic continuity.

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As time went on, there were more variations on the theme. Marvel printed the Bullpen, which typically featured strips about the editors and artists creating the comics, information, and gossip about possible upcoming stories, and Stan's Soapbox, in which Stan Lee would respond to one or a few fairly simple, straight-forward questions (despite not being very involved with Marvel by that time).

Many comics fans of the '90s or earlier have unique experiences with the letters columns of their favorite comics. Growing up queer, I remember being alternately upset by letters decrying any trace of homosexuality, yet pleased with the often comparatively progressive responses from editors. For years, any time homosexuality would come up even in passing in stories, there would be an angry outcry from readers insisting that gay characters had no place in comics. Looking back, I find it strange that those letters saw print. If you could and did pick and choose which letters to print, it seems strange to offer an outlet for readers who wanted to talk at length about how much they didn't want gay people around.

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That began to change a bit with comics like Gen13. In the '90s, several Marvel artists left the company to start their own business, Image Comics. One of the comics put out in the early days of Image was Gen13, a story about teenagers that had superpowers and spent most of their time on the run from a shady government agency. One character in particular, Rainmaker, came out as a lesbian early in the series. Letters from fans were often completely outraged, angry that the character was visibly queer.

Memorably, there was a page dedicated to answering fans' questions about Rainmaker's sexuality after receiving enough repeat questions from letter writers to warrant it. It was uncomfortable to read the anger directed at the creators for introducing a lesbian character, but the unapologetic nature of the page in question was somewhat empowering. While we've barely begun to see Rainmaker or her sexuality explored, her coming out had a strange ripple effect on how people viewed queer characters in comics. Slowly, creators attempted to normalize them.

A letter column full of hits at the time was that of the Peter Milligan and Mike and Laura Allred run on X-Force. The creative team essentially decided that they were going to come in, kill the entire existing cast of X-Force (which included several fan-favorite characters), and replace them with fame-seeking reality stars who took the name X-Force without approval from the Xavier Institute. Fans went ballistic. Although Marvel later revived the dead X-Force members and they are, for the most part, still showing up in comics today, the letters written to that creative team were all burn, no water. You'd have thought they actually committed murder. 

While chat rooms, and then later social media, might have rendered letter columns obsolete, their spirit lives on. Although independent comics were a bit slower to adopt the format, many ongoing independents, such as Optic Nerve, Love & Rockets, and King-Cat Comics, continue to feature and even champion letter columns to this day. For their role in creating fan culture, however, letters columns are the unsung predecessors of modern comic fandom.

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