12 Reasons Why Bringing Back Letter Columns Is Not The Best Idea
This week, DC announced that while they're cutting two story pages out of all of their monthly titles in an effort to keep prices at $2.99, the trade-off is that one of those missing pages will now be filled by the return of the letter column! Of course, some naysayers have pointed out that the lettercol has been made largely redundant by the Internet, but personally, I'm looking forward to elevating the discourse about comics out of the message boards and back to the prestige that comes from the printed page, the format that brought us missives like this:
As thrilling as it was for readers to see their names printed in their favorite comics -- as as much as great creators like Jim Shooter, Cary Bates were able to break into the industry through the fine art of letterhacking -- we honestly haven't been missing a whole heck of a lot from not having letters. And to prove it, I enlisted the help of a few friends of mine, and we went through the archives to find sterling examples of the conversations that went on on letters pages.To start with, we have the letter above, a perfect storm of anger and misspellings that make it impossible to know whether its writer was expressing moral outrage at Gen13's portrayal of a homosexual super-hero, or if he's just upset that his fantasies of dating a shapely but entirely fictional character had been rendered slightly more impossible than they already were. If I had to guess, though, I'd go with the latter, as I distinctly remember about 90% of the correspondence in the early days of Gen13 being questions about the girls' measurements.
There is no such ambiguity, however, about this letter, provided by Mike Sterling and Dorian Wright, in which a reader expresses his shock and dismay over an issue of Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol, reproduced here for ease of reading:
Dear Patrol Guys,I hope I don't offend any of you guys at DP, or any of the other readers, as much as I was offended by DOOM PATROL #34. It may be becoming more accepted in America, and maybe I'm reading too much into this, but I don't feel that homosexuality has any place in comics. What, you say? The scene in which the Brain and Mallah express their "true feelings" for one another was not only ridiculous, but it also was morally wrong. I have always been under the impression that both Mallah and the Brain were male. I don't know if anyone else was bothered by this, but I certainly was. If one of the people on your staff is homosexual, that's their business, and that's not going to stop me from buying the book (although it did stop me from buying NEW GUARDIANS). But don't try to sneak your beliefs into this mag (if that is what you did). If I am wrong, and it was only meant as humor, then I apologize for my comments. But, if I am right, please refreain from this in the future.
Hurricane Hugo Jr.
No address given
For those of you who aren't familiar with the issue in question, "Hurricane Hugo Jr." -- named for the storm that ripped through my hometown back in '89 -- is writing in to let everyone know that a comic where a talking French gorilla expressed his love for an evil disembodied brain was ridiculous. Also, he doesn't want to offend anyone, but homosexuality is horrible and wrong, unless it's meant as a joke, in which case just don't ever ever do it again.
Also, he claims that he has stopped reading New Guardians, but knowing the people who write angry letters to comic books, I can pretty much assure you that this was not the case. He'd grumble about it every month, but there's no way this dude was leaving a hole in his run.
Sterling also provided this gem from 1974's Wonder Woman #209:
Not only is this thing an absolute gold mine on its own, with lines like "You try to do a women's lib book, and then make the chick look like (CENSORED)," and "SHE wasn't the target, dummy," the response from Writer/Editor Robert Kanigher makes it even better:
I'm actually not sure if the original letter included the (CENSOR)ship as an attempt to be funny or if it actually did finish sentences like "no one, be they Amazon or human, can (CENSORED)" with something unspeakably filthy, or if Kanigher just cut the thing to ribbons to give himself a laugh. They're all pretty much equally likely, especially considering that Kanigher once responded to the cancellation of Creature Commandos by writing a one-page story where both he and his creations were rocketed into space on the orders of DC Editor Paul Levitz.
What I'm getting at here is that the letters pages were nothing if not confrontational. Just like today on the internet, dedicated readers could not wait to point out exactly where everyone had gotten things wrong...
...so that they could use their expertise as natural history hobbyists to correct the science of a comic where Superman's pal was turned into a porcupine man by a magic fifth-dimensional imp.
Of course, some readers were less concerned about the content of the comics than the way that content was delivered, as seen in a letter provided by Bully:
No joke, I absolutely love this letter, especially the fact that it was definitely written by a kid. At least, I hope it was a kid, and not an actual adult writing in to complain about Werewolf By Night being too heavy on polysyllabic words and too light on the blood, but either way, I hope young (?) David stuck with comics, because he would've loved the '90s.
Also, if Marvel had used "ALL THEY DO IS WRESTLE AND FIGHT!" as the tagline on the cover of Werewolf By Night, I'm pretty sure sales would've tripled.
If you take nothing else away from this article, it should be this: The kind of anger and nitpicking that you see on the Comics Internet today isn't new by any stretch of the imagination. It's the way fans have been for as long as there have been fans. Seriously, here's one I found going through the letter columns of Amazing Spider-Man:
Just like today, we have a Spider-Man reader complaining that his favorite character is just not as good as he used to be, and how the creators have completely screwed him up. The only difference between his complaints and any given Spider-Fan grumbling you hear today?
This letter was written in 1969, when the character of Spider-Man was less than a decade old.
Interestingly enough, I saw a similar letter from a few years later where the writer was literally begging Marvel to return Spider-Man to glory by getting rid of Gwen Stacy, which of course they actually did. And the reaction from the fans on the letters page was as well-reasoned and calm as you'd probably expect:
I think we can all agree that threatening to toss a comic book creator off a bridge is pretty extreme, but at least Richard didn't call Gerry Conway an orc. You crossed a line, Jane S. And you Canadians are supposed to be so polite.
Then again, plenty of readers didn't just send in complaints, instead choosing to offer suggestions on just how Spider-Man could be fixed, like this letter -- uncovered by Andrew Weiss -- that comes with the oddly familiar suggestion that what those books really needed was to drop that kid stuff and throw in some realism:
A strong suggestion, no doubt, but as I've pointed out before here at ComicsAlliance, Marvel had already addressed Vietnam in the pages of Fantastic Four:
The FF letters pages are full of letters that seem completely insane in retrospect, like the one where a guy writes in to chastise Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for creating too many new characters, and another in which they were taken to task for needlessly stretching out stories (like the aforementioned Galactus Saga) to the unthinkable length of two, sometimes three issues.
And then there's this one, from FF #35, where the ol' Marvel vs. DC battle lines are drawn, and Stan and Jack were exposed for their well-known lack of originality:
My favorite part of this one is how absolutely livid this guy gets with his question of "where was the great Marvel staff" at the dawn of the Golden Age -- you know, when Kirby was co-creating Captain America with Joe Simon -- and then closes out his rage-fueled dialogue about how much they suck compared to DC by promising to buy the next issue.
The more things change, folks.
Of course, not all of the action on the letters page came in the form of a simple letter and an editorial response. Sometimes these things went on for a while, with an actual back-and-forth conversation between readers and creators springing up and leading to some very interesting discussion. In recent years, I remember there being a heated debate about the origin of Janissa the Widowmaker that went on in the letters pages of Dark Horse's Conan for something like three years.
When I asked around to see if any of my friends knew of anything like that off the top of their heads, Dr. K was quick to point me to an exchange in the pages of Warren's mid-'70s magazine version of Will Eisner's The Spirit, which Bully once again stepped up to provide. It starts out when one of the readers writes in to complain -- and not without a pretty good reason -- that the Spirit's sidekick, Ebony White, was an extremely offensive racial caricature:
The letter appeared in The Spirit #4, and in #5 (Warren's Spirit was bimonthly), he wrote in again to respond again:
Then, in The Spirit #6, future Batman writer Mike W. Barr steps in to further defend Eisner and Ebony:
Up to this point, it's been a pretty normal debate between fans and creators, though referring to William as a "cultist" is a little over the line.
What happened next, however, was either the ultimate dick move on the part of Warren and the magazine, or one of the biggest coincidences in comics history. After debating whether or not Ebony was an insulting character in The Spirit #4, #5 and #6, The Spirit #7 was The All-Ebony Issue.
And I've gotta say: If the goal here was to show that Ebony wasn't an insulting racial caricature, then maybe -- just maybe -- going with that particular image was not a very good idea.
Now, all of this is not to say that letter columns are inherently bad or even that they're unnecessary. I've even written into one myself -- Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane -- and if nothing else, there's at least somebody running a spellcheck before they're shared with the world. But if it's a choice between an extra page of comics or finding out, as Mike Sterling did, that the readers of DC Comics Presents slept in the nude...
...I'm going to side with the comics.