Monday, January 3, 2011

On the return of a nigh-extinct mode of fannish communication

Last year, DC Comics announced they were reducing the price of their books back to $2.99, a move that got quite a lot of positive reaction.  The down side was we'd get two less pages of comic story per issue. They were reticent to say what they were going to put on those two pages, tho. Today they dropped the news - they were bringing back letter columns.  Old-school fans (raises hand) were over the moon at the news, and younger readers were all asking, "What's the point? we have Facebook and the electric-type twitter to let everyone know our opinions".  And the old school fans just shhok our heads and sighed...

Back before everybody had unrestricted access to every other person on the planet, you had to WORK to be heard.  You needed actual talent to be on television (Or if you were a woman, two talents), a tremendous amount of luck to get your music heard, and you had to be real witty to make it into the letter columns in the back of the comics.

Metropolis Mailbag.  The Ha-Ha-Hacienda.  Flash-Grams.  The JLA Mailroom. Europinion. This is where most fans met each other.  Indeed, comics fandom STARTED as a result of the lettercols.  When EC comics started publishing the names and addresses of letter writers in the columns, the fans did something weird - they started writing to each other.  Pen-pal friendships were started, and eventually fanzines started to make the rounds.

Look at the the current plight of the three major TV networks; When there were only three or four channels, it was easy to have a big hit. Now you're competing with hundreds of cable channels, not to mention video games, video on demand, Tivo and who knows how many other electronic hobbies.  Far harder to get your show in front of a lot of eyes.  Nowadays, anyone can start a blog, and like Syndrome said in The Incredibles, "When everybody is special, then no one will be".  With thousands, maybe millions of blogs out there, everyone has an equal voice, but not everyone has an equal talent.  There's no filter.  Making the Letter Column was an achievment - the editor (ok, assistant editor) decided your letter was better than the piles of other letters they got that month.  Or, if you wrote to a book with limited readership, the letter was better than one they could make up themselves to pad out the page.  It meant that thousands of other people who read the book were seeing your name.  Like Navin R. Johnson once said, that's the kind of spontaneous publicity a person needs.

Some of comics' biggest names arose from those letter columns. Bob Rozakis and Martin "Pesky" Pasko were regular letter-writers. And in more recent history, a fan named Geoffrey Johns wrote to the editors of Superboy, suggesting that Kon-El might not only be a clone of Superman, but lex Luthor. Needless to say, he was laughed off the page by the editor, and he was never heard of again.

There were other perks too. Lucky lucky letter hacks and fans got tuckerized in the comics. There are more fans' names in Legion of Superheroes than about any other title; Here's a list of the ones we know about. BBC TV and radio host Paul Gambaccini was once a massive DC fan and letter hack. When they wrote the story about the guy who makes the costumes for the Rogues, his name was... Paul Gambi.

Being a regular guest of the letter columns meant other fans knew your name. It was like having a blog today, but a blog that people actually READ. Marc Lucas, T.M. Maple, Charles J. Sperling, Uncle Elvis; these are names well known to readers from the 80s and 90s. I was a fledgling letterhack, and in the equally fledgling days of Compuserve, would often get notes of compliment when I had a couple of letters published in one week. I even got a hand-written note from up-and-coming writer Jeph Loeb when I wrote a positive letter about his Challengers of the Unknown miniseries. Indeed, it was John Ostrander who got my career started, when he asked that I take a comment I'd made about his Hawkworld book on the Compuserve comics forum and send it in to the letter column, where more people would see it (The times, how quickly they changed...)

So seeing those letter columns return means a chance for fans not only to get their voice heard, but gain the extra little note of approval that those opinions were interesting enough to see print.  And proper print, with ink and paper.

To gain the legitmacy of the printed word is a vanishing achievment.  I'm pleased to see it make a return.

(And yes, I'm aware of the irony of talking about the advantages of letter columns on a blog, so there's no need in pointing it out...)

1 comment:

  1. Your ode to the letter columns brings back fond memories of my days working at DEFIANT with Jim Shooter, David Lapham, and so many other worthies, including getting to shoot the bull with Steve Ditko! My duties at DEFIANT included the letter column for all our books. At first, I had to make up a few before we got enough fans who were perfectly happy to write their own letters. One of my noms de lettercol was "Elisabeth Apfelbraun" (try translating it into German, sorta). :-)