WHEN THE LETTERS RUN DRY
2006 will be the first year I haven't had a letter printed in a comic book since 1990. It was a good fifteen-year run, and one that prompted me to ramble a bit.
My first letter ever to be printed was in DC's STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION in 1991. I became an irregular in that letters column first, combined with the STAR TREK letters column which, as I recall, had just finished its first year with Peter David at the helm. I think my first letter printed there was around the time that Bill Mumy co-wrote a storyline with David. (That would still be a solid year before an issue drawn by Brandon Peterson, but at about the same time as one written by Joe Michael Straczynski.)
Shortly after that, I had a few letters printed in MARVEL COMICS PRESENTS. I was no Len Biehl, who had a system of "claws" to rate the stories, but I made a name for myself in there. Six letters were printed in MCP in 1992. I don't have stats handy for 1991, but there were a couple there, as well.
1992 was my "breakout" year, with 26 letters printed in total. I wrote 188 letters for the year. (Yes, I have actual stats for this stuff. I'm such a geek.) Back in those days, there was competition for letters column inches. Every comic had a letters column, but only a small number of letters could be chosen by editors who had to type the letters in by hand, since e-mail wasn't common yet. Just a hunch, but I bet that job went to the assistant editors more often than not.
There were regular letterhacks appearing across those pages, though. Their names were memorable, not just for their repetition, but for the names, themselves. Whether it was Olav Beemer from the Netherlands, or T.M. Maple or Len Biehl or Joey Marchese of Union, NJ or Malcoulm Bourne or Uncle Elvis or Mark Lucas or -- well, you get the point. There was a certain subset of fandom active in the letterhacking community. Lucas even ran a fanzine called the COMICS CRITICS CAVALCADE, with contributions from letterhacks. Jamie S. Rich was a regular in those.
There was not, however, a behind-the-scenes cabal organizing the whole thing. It took more than name recognition, after all. Writing coherent and complete sentences no doubt helped an awful lot. Just like with a creator on a title, the letterhack had one easy pathway to getting published: make the editor's job as easy as possible. Get the letters in right away. Make sure they don't require lots of editing. Keep them interesting.
Why write all those letters? Sure, there's a certain egoboo involved. It's always cool to see your name in print. It gives you bragging rights in some circles. It's just plain cool. It's recognition. It's fun. There's nothing more exciting than getting in the car after picking up that week's comics and thumbing to the back pages to see if your name is in that plain black and white text at the back of the latest four color adventures of your favorite heroes. When a week would hit with that happening two or three times, it almost made the contents of those books an afterthought.
It's more than just that, though. At a time without the internet and all the mailing lists, newsgroups, and message boards to be had, writing letters was one of the few active forms of fandom available to you. Those letters columns were one of the few places to share thoughts and opinions with "your own kind." Getting in there was getting into the community. Sure, there were other fanzines and APAs, but this was on a larger scale. We're talking circulations of hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands instead of tens or hundreds.
Yes, I participated in an APA or two as well as a fanzine or three, but the letters columns were my home. Being "Augie De Blieck Jr. of North Haledon, NJ" was my claim to fame in fandom. It was pretty cool.
Things got crazy for me by the mid-90s, when Erik Larsen was publishing SAVAGE DRAGON on a monthly basis and including long letters columns in the back. It was my favorite on-going series, having jumped on at the beginning and found something to be gushingly fannish about. Honestly, DRAGON wasn't the book I was looking most forward to at the Image launch. Heck, it probably wasn't even the second or third. Erik Larsen was a creator whose work I liked at Marvel, but it wasn't the stuff I was busy tracing and copying on my own at the time, when I thought for sure I'd be an artist someday. One art class in high school killed that ambition, though I can still draw simple cartoon characters that the nephews and nieces enjoy.
In any case, my most anticipated creators for the new Images Comics were Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, and Rob Liefeld. But there was something special about DRAGON. The book was a lot of fun. It came out regularly. And its creator was open to his fans. I was hooked instantly and wanted to be a part of it. I had letters in the fifth and sixth issues there in 1993 and never looked back. I know that Larsen and DRAGON are responsible for at least 100 letters printed over the years. That's just in the main series. If you throw in the spin-off series (STAR, FREAK FORCE, VANGUARD, etc.), you could inflate that number. I once had a letter NOT get printed in STAR because I had guessed the plot twist. Whoops.
And so it went through 2001. Dozens of letters printed a year. In 2002 it all came crashing down, with only six. In 2003, only two. Six more in 2004. One in 2005, and none this year. The funny thing about that one last year is that it's not even a letter I wrote for publication. It was an e-mail I sent Tom Beland about an issue of TRUE STORY, SWEAR TO GOD. I didn't write it for the letters column, but he published it there. It didn't bother me. I thought it was funny. And it kept my streak going.
But it's all over this month, the victim of a series of industry-wide issues, and personal ones. I don't think I need to point out the dearth of letters columns in comics today. They've made a bit of a comeback at Marvel, but they're still a quaint notion of the past in modern comics, like hand lettering and Dr. Martin's Dyes. Message boards have taken over, or so the major companies think. People aren't writing letters because they don't see them. Monkey don't see, monkey don't do. The shrinking of the industry meant the shrinking of the pool of letter writers. Independent comics do a fairly good job at including letters columns, but I'm not sure if any have the same kind of community as the columns used to have -- the good ones, at least -- in the late 80s and even into the early 90s. Anything Mike Gold put together turned, well, to gold. Dave Sim's CEREBUS was read by some for just the letters column and not the sequential narrative. It launched other books and careers, the way some message boards and web sites today do.
Personally, my output trailed as this column took off. A big part of the reason I wrote all the letters I did is that I didn't have any other outlet for those thoughts and opinions. I didn't have any other friends who were die-hard comic fans. There was no local club to swap comics or stories or news bits with. As you might have guessed by now, I'm the type who's willing to open his mouth to large unseen crowds. 15 years ago, it was frustrating not to have anyone to talk to. The letters column filled that.
When I started Pipeline in 1997, the letters I would have written to comics became reviews I wrote for the internet. (Back then, USENET was the main distribution channel, while a small web site held the archives.) Some of the reviews I wrote for Pipeline were turned into letters for comics, and vice versa. I think if you look at the reviews I did in the first 100 columns versus the ones I do today, you will see how constrained the old ones look by comparison. That was on purpose -- I was used to writing about a comic in a hundred words or less. You couldn't write 500 or 1000 word reviews for a letters column that would only span a page, or perhaps two.
Pipeline became the main vehicle for that output, and the letterhacking suffered for it. Not that it mattered: the same reason my letterhacking slowed down is the same reason the letters columns slowed down. I was just moving with the tide, I suppose. It's a shame, as I think letters columns could still be important parts of comics today. When done right, they foster an active community. They allow the author of a comic to plead his case to those who may not have properly understood what he wrote. They fostered discussion and gave a permanent written record of the zeitgeist of the day. If you want to know what the fans thought of SAVAGE DRAGON #50, just check out SAVAGE DRAGON #52. (I might be off by a month there.) If you want to know what fans thought of an AMAZING SPIDER-MAN issue a couple of years ago, there's no letters column to look at two issues hence. You have to search the internet and pray for the best. Most of the searches you do will likely be commercial interests trying to sell you a copy of the book you're just curious about the reaction to.
I'm not saying that letters columns are a true reflection of their audience. Obviously, some were used strictly as promotional tools. Some held back the most bitterly critical. But they provided some idea of what people thought at the time. It's easy to search and see. It's plain words on dead wood. And that's gone now, for the most part.
Like I said, I started Pipeline in 1997. That turned out to be both my most productive year as a letterhack, and my last year. I wrote 186 letters that year (I never made it to 200 in a single year), and had 69 printed, the most times my name ever saw print. The year after that, both numbers fell by more than half. And then half again. 2000 and 2001 saw the "dead cat bounce." I had a few printed in the Superman titles of the time, not to mention a smattering at CrossGen.
Ever since then, though, I've been completely stagnant, not even reaching ten letters written per year. And we're starting to see a generational shift. A whole new batch of readers in comics today don't know about the world of letters columns, or letterhacking. What a quaint notion, right? People writing letters, slapping a stamp on an envelope, and hoping to see their name in print a few months later.. Why wait? Just hop onto the web, post an anonymous message on a message board flaming the living crap out of the creators, and see the ruckus start immediately.
Oh, that's the other thing -- letters columns weren't anonymous. They were civil. Many would say that those two things go hand-in-hand. I think they do. I think the biggest reason why so many message boards go so far astray as quickly as they do is that people hide behind monikers that they would find embarrassing if anyone in the "real world" knew about them. Letters columns had real names, T.M. Maple notwithstanding. Because the writers were hoping for a chance at a slot in the back of the comic, they were remarkably civil, even when disagreeing. I'm sure there were cranks, too, but they got filtered out by the editors, thankfully, and nobody else's time was wasted.
Even better -- they printed your home address. We were all so blissfully naïve back in the day, but Marvel and DC would print your home mailing address under your letter. They stopped doing that at some point in the mid-90s, no doubt due to a smart lawyer who pointed out to the editors that it was a very scary idea. Back in the glory days of comics fandom, though, it was the way fandom found each other, I suppose. Thankfully, I'm not living at that address that saw print so many times back in the day. I'm not even in the same town. So don't bother looking that up as it won't do you any good.
When this column started, I was "that guy from the letters columns with his own column." Nowadays, I get the occasional e-mail from someone asking, "Hey, was that YOUR NAME I saw in the letters column of this ten year old book I bought from the quarter bin at the con this weekend?"
Yes, it likely was. Just over 400 times yes, it was. It looks like my 406 letters printed will just have to do. I have no doubt that the bug will hit again someday, or some creator will ask to print one of my e-mails as an LOC (letter of comment) or something. I'll be back. But the glory days are long gone, my friends. There's not even a next generation to pick up the mantle. It's just another part of comics fandom gone by the wayside, with the APA and the fanzine and all the rest.
I'll forever be grateful to those text pages in the back of comics, though. It's not just for the extra reading material it provided for my buck-fifty or two bucks, but also for the doors it opened for me and the practice it gave me in writing with a purpose. I hope there's a new generation of hacks starting up in corners of comics that I'm not aware of. I'm an old-fashioned crank that way, sometimes. I hate to see these traditions die.
I had promised a look at the latest PREVIEWS today, but this look down memory lane soaked up all the column space for this week. I'll be back next week with that, I promise.
And check out tonight's podcast for the first part of my interview with Chris Eliopoulos about his Marvel book, FRANKLIN RICHARDS. Next week we'll get into lettering, Marvel controversies, and more.
I'm still on MySpace, thought I've been lax in updating it.
More than 700 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.