I’d be the first to admit that the title of this week’s post is a bit of a loaded question; clearly, letters columns aren’t “necessary” because they’ve been phased out of most of the comic books in the industry for about a decade now, and DC and Marvel haven’t stopped publishing comics. (Although, as always, I feel compelled to add the word “yet” onto the end of the phrase, “DC and Marvel haven’t stopped publishing comics”.) But I do think that letter columns served a distinct and vital purpose in the comic book industry, and it’s worth asking whether or not that purpose is still be served by other means in the wake of the decision to stop devoting page count to the words of the reading public.
To answer that question, it’s worth first asking what purpose the letters page once served. The answer is simple: Letters built a sense of community among the readers of a particular series, and of readers of comics in general. When you got to the end of every issue, and saw a full page (sometimes two) of people who read the same issue that you did and that cared enough about it to tell the company, it gave you the feeling that you weren’t alone in your enjoyment of comics. In a pre-Internet world, where local fan populations could vary wildly from city to city (or from city to small town, or from small town to rural area where you got your subscription delivered to) it was important to fans to know that their fandom didn’t make them freaks. Especially since (hey, it was a more innocent time) they published the addresses of their contributors. A lot of fan clubs that later grew into major fan organizations got their start from people who became “pen pals” after reading each other’s letters in the back of a comic book. Some of those readers, like Kurt Busiek and Mark Gruenwald, went on to be professionals.
Which was another important thing to note: The letters page didn’t just build a sense of community, it built a sense of participation. Breaking into comics was (and is) hard, but just about anyone over the age of five could break into the letter column. All it took was a goodly amount of persistence, some paper and a parent who indulged your need for stamps and envelopes. Seeing your name in print in your favorite comic was a huge thrill for a fan, one that created a strong sense of loyalty to the comic that in some small way, you felt like you’d helped create. Sure, other people did the drawing and the writing and the coloring and the inking, but there would be a blank white space there if not for you!
And as a counterpart, showing that the company cared about the thoughts of its readers helped to deflect frustration or anger with a book. Dan DiDio is known for being relentlessly positive about DC’s books in interviews (the man waxed rhapsodic about ‘Countdown’, at least while it was still going on…that has to take a PhD in bullshitting to pull off) but back in the old days, Marvel and DC weren’t afraid to print the occasional negative letter, just to show that they could admit their own flaws. The tone of the letter columns was generally upbeat, of course, but the occasional crank made them seem magnanimous in allowing fans their fair say.
And sometimes, the letter column could be a place to tell an entirely different story. Claremont had a few years where he answered the letters “in character” as one X-Man or another, while James Robinson’s ‘Starman’ turned into a wonderful series of fan essays on the love of antiques. Mark Evanier’s letter columns in ‘Groo’ were just as funny as the stories, and Alan Moore’s letter column in ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ were drop-dead hilarious satires of the letters pages in the Victorian pulps. (Which should come as no surprise; Moore always had an eye for details like period-authentic letters pages. I still have a soft spot for ‘1963’…which may have something to do with my own 60s-style fan letter that was published in the final issue.) Some titles showed that the letter column could be more than a pre-Internet fan forum.
But of course, we now live in an Internet age, which is where we come back to the question, “Are letter columns necessary?” DC and Marvel each run their own forum boards now online, and there are countless independent boards that people can use to link up and talk comics to their hearts’ content. In a world with blogs and vlogs and LiveJournal and ScansDaily…well, blogs and vlogs and LiveJournal, at least…is there really a need for an additional place for comic book fans to share their opinions?
I would say “yes”. Perhaps not as much as there once was; I don’t think anyone is still having trouble finding other comics fans out there, and I don’t think that people are having difficulty finding outlets for their opinions about comic books. But I do think there’s never going to be a substitute for that cachet that comes from having your name published in an official capacity by the company whose material you love; having a space for the readers within the publication helps to make it feel less like the interaction between fans and professionals is entirely one-way. I won’t go so far as to say that a lot of the fan outrage over the last decade comes from not having an official voice in the comic, but I do think that everyone who says “fan entitlement” is driving angry fans misses a chunk of the point. It’s powerlessness that causes fans to get upset about the latest development in their favorite book, and having a place where the company officially says, “We will listen to you. This may not change, but we hear your voice and here is the proof,” can make some difference. Those two needs can’t be served as well by forums, or by conventions or blogs, and they’re something that I think is worth bringing back. Even if it’s not, strictly speaking, necessary.