Saturday, September 5, 2015

Guest Post - Compliments, Missives, and Flat-out Complaints

Doug: Our pal Osvaldo Oyola comes over from his blog The Middle Spaces to bring this weekend's fodder for conversation. Take it away!

Dr. Oyola: I have been reading some 1977 Marvel Two-in-One issues for a project I am working on for my own blog, but came across this letter, which got me thinking about letters pages. I recently focused on some letters in Howard the Duck (for the 5th installment of my “If it WAUGHs Like a Duck” series), so I guess I had letters on my mind.

(Your editors apologize for some miscommunication that resulted in our leaving out the letter in question! Here it is in all its glory!)

This particular letter in MTiO  #37 is notable not only for its critique of the series in general, but for saving its most scathing remarks for the treatment of Alicia Masters, and the accusation the reader makes about the use of cheap gimmicks and how such gimmicks are what hacks resort to. He even writes, “This cancerous waste of supporting characters must be stopped!” Tough words!  But even more amazing is the response by the editor. (I assume Marv Wolfman is answering the letters since he is writer/editor on the series at the time). He basically admits the issue in question was substandard and lays the blame on the hurried conditions under which the recent issues had been put together (in case of the issue in question, #31, literally overnight!).  He goes on to say, however, that “Hopefully a rushed original effort is preferable to a repeat story,” which reminds me of our recent discussion here on Bronze Age Babies about reprints vs. filler issues vs. late publication. I find it quite shocking that the editor would admit to deadline troubles and that a comic story was substandard, but I am not shocked that readers complained about cheap gimmicks, hack work and treatment of beloved characters, since I think those kinds of things plagued superhero comics since the Silver Age, and the complaints about “comics today” don’t feel any different, it is just that the scale of the gimmicks has ballooned to cosmic proportions.

So, that’s today’s topic. Letters. Letters pages. Responses to letters. The kinds of things you think letters should be written about. What kinds of responses have you seen?

Has any of our Bronze Age Babies regulars had a letter printed (or sent in, but not)? Have a copy of it you can share or give us the gist of it?  Any particular favorite letters columns or just memorable letters?  

For example: I remember loving the letters in Amazing Spider-Man during the early 80s Hobgoblin saga, with folks doing their best to predict who the hobgoblin really was, using various clues from the issues to explain their guesses. If I remember correctly, Ned Leeds, Lance Bannon and Flash Thompson were frequent guesses. They used the last one as a red herring and those who deduced it was Leeds were either right or wrong depending on the ret-con. I even remember a letter predicting the correct Hobgoblin, Roderick Kingsley, over a decade before it’d be ret-conned to be that character (as Roger Stern originally planned).

So let’s hear it, BABers! Tell us about your experience and feelings about letters.


Humanbelly said...

The decision to jettison comics pages entirely in the early aughts was a particularly huge blow to my own overall comic-enjoying experience. Even by then it had become a sporadic element at best-- but that represented to me a whole cynical row of nails in the coffin of Marvel's trademark fan-friendly approach. Clearly, the page was neither artistic "product" per se, nor was it revenue-generating ad space, therefore it became a completely expendable ornamentation that couldn't possibly be justified to the shifting corporate heads. (I may be just a bit cynical myself.) IIRC, there was a rather broad, vague explanation about how the internet and fan forums had made things like letters-pages in the books redundant and relics of a less-current era, razza-razza-razza--- which to my mind was completely belied by the fact all of the smaller independent companies (especially IMAGE) continued to devote multiple pages to readers' letters and their responses. I'm sure this will come across as overblown and hyperbolic, but the letters pages -- and Marvel's in particular-- were always a quiet testament to the fact that the fans were indeed being listened to. . . that they had a living, driving influence on the very book they had in their hands. And there was a relentless call from the editors for fans to write, write, WRITE! Especially for books that were flagging, eh? IIRC, a fan-writing campaign is what kept that dear, stumbling-but-beloved QUASAR title running for at least a year beyond its initial cancellation mark. But dropping the letters pages entirely (for more ad space, mind you) ONLY gave the impression that the company was retreating into an editorial ivory tower, and that it couldn't care less anymore about the input of the fans themselves. It suggested that they were sure that any necessary, relevant info could simply be gleaned from sales figures alone.

Ugh. Makes me so mad.

I think in my entire life I wrote maybe four letters to Marvel myself? Two of which saw print. One was a brief excerpt rejoicing when John Buscema returned to the Avengers in the late 80's. The other (and it took me awhile to track down which issue it was) was in Amazing Spiderman vol 2, #31 (which is, like, #472-ish); part of a discussion about the conundrum of mutual-exclusivity that writing Peter presented. The bitter, bitter irony? It was the LAST LETTERS PAGE IN AMAZING SPIDERMAN!!

Hmm-- and I'll hold here for the moment. This is a subject I could rattle on about for possibly thrice the onerous amount I'm usually capable of, and I don't want to kill Osvaldo's great post, here.

Gotta go pick up some duck food!


Redartz said...

Great post indeed, Osvaldo, and one with many areas to explore. As HB discussed, the loss of letters pages has been just another reason that modern comics don't have the friendly feel that they once did. Granted, there are a few books from Marvel which still do run a letters page ("Unbeatable Squirrel Girl" does, and has a lot of fun with it; the only Marvel book I still regularly purchase). Most of the letters in Squirrel Girl are probably sent via email, but they still find print in the book itself; which gives the lie to the claim that letters pages are irrelevant in the internet age.

Personally, I've written several letters to comics, both to Marvel publications and to a few Indies. As of now I've never had one printed (maybe that's part of the appeal of blogs such as this: you post a letter and actually get responses back; wow!). I recall one letter to a 70's issue of Amazing Spider-Man trying for the elusive "no-prize"; it neither saw print nor resulted in no prize (double negative; perhaps I should say did result in no prize)...

One of the big attractions of the Omnibus editions available now is the access to the letters pages. This is also one benefit to leafing through some actual back issues. Often future comics creators could be found in letters pages (recently looking at some old Justice League issues, I found letters by Martin Pasko and Gary Friedrich, for instance). And of course, it seems that the same George R.R. Martin who had a letter published in Amazing Spider-Man 3 is the same one who is giving us "Game of Thrones" (another big favorite in our humble home)>

Martinex1 said...

Yes. Great post Osvaldo. And I couldn't agree more with HB and Redartz, the letters page was part of the art form and experience. It seemed to make the creativity of the comic interactive. And what I particularly enjoyed is what you all pointed out, that the readers could critique and point out flaws in the story lines ...from characterization complaints to "no prizes"', and the creators didn't wince, they took the comments and responded. There was something very friendly and civil about that discourse that was very enjoyable and entertaining. Much like this site.

I recall the "What If" letter pages where Roy solicited ideas for future issues. There were a lot of fun and creative suggestions.

ColinBray said...

Letters pages are one of the main reasons I still opt for reading back issues rather than collected editions.

Together with the ads and general sense of authenticity, letters page help set a comic down in it's own unique time and place. As a younger reader the debates therein also encouraged critical thinking connnected to creative and social issues - an impact not to be underestimated.

These days if I read a particularly good letter submitted by somebody with an unusual name I look up the person online to see what they are doing these days. I am currently hoping to pluck the courage to email a particular correspondent (now a lawyer) to say how much I enjoyed his letter in a Giffen/DeMatteis JLA comic. The only thing stopping me is a concern that said lawyer might accuse me of stalking...

William said...

Great post Doc, on a great topic as well.

The letters pages are yet another thing that I miss about the comic books of yore. (Especially Marvel Comics) Because Stan Lee realized early on that the letters pages could be utilized as a valuable marketing tool, and he expertly used them as such, creating a sense of "fan community" decades before the internet came along.

Stan also used the letters pages to launch things like "Stan's Soap Box". Where he would promote future projects, talk about behind the scenes goings on, and generally expound on the "coolness" of Marvel Comics in order to further promote the idea of an exclusive club that only Marvel readers understood. It was truly ingenious.

These days, I sometimes like to go back and browse through the old letters columns and look for letters from young fans who would grow up to become comic book pros themselves. I've found several by Kurt Busiek, and at least on by Roger Stern and several others. It's fascinating to read the insights of kids who would one shape the future of the characters they were merely fans of then. It's a fun little game to play.

The people in charge of the comics business today don't realize the value of the seemingly "little things", like fun house ads, and letters pages, and just a general sense that you (as a fan) are part of something special, and are getting more than just a story when you purchase a comic book. No, these days the suits and bean counters are firmly in control, and they see it all as just a numbers game. And their only goal is to squeeze every last penny out of each and every page they can. (Who cares what some kid thinks who may someday become the next comic superstar?)

Dr. Oyola said...

Hey Doug! I forgot to send you a crucial image for this post! Ooops! Check your email.

Sorry! :/

Anonymous said...

70s Marvel letters pages were often surprisingly candid when replying to letters, or justifying the latest dreaded deadline doom fill-in.
To the extent that it all seemed quite normal, and I tend to be shocked more by the way the more modern approach has taken over....

Anyway, I never wrote to a US comic, but I did send drawings to some of the British comics (which generally ran reader drawings as well as letters}. Saying I had a pic in an issue of Action won't mean much to most of you lot though...

But I'm reminded that one of the differences with British comics is that if your letter was used... YOU GOT PAID!! Generally something like a quid or two for a letter, with a fiver or tenner (70s inflation!) for the "star letter".
Except for Marvel UK, who went with the cheapskate policies of the US parent company. A no-prize if you were lucky...


Edo Bosnar said...

Love this topic; great idea, Osvaldo.
Like everyone else, I really liked the letters pages, and it's too bad they're mostly not around in the mainstream comics any more. Although I certainly won't refrain from buying collected editions because they're not included, I can understand Colin's point: they really were part and parcel of the whole comics experience, like the ads some other guest writer posted about the other day... ;)

When I was going over my single issues of Marvel's Battlestar Galactica for that other guest post a few months ago, I found myself really enjoying the letter pages. There's so much interesting stuff to be found, and the critical comments are often quite surprising in their frankness and, at times, intelligent points they bring up (and thankfully, there's none of the hysteria or profanity-laced, insult-ridden language found on so many online comment threads and discussion forums today).

Anyway, I wrote two letters back in the day, one to X-men for some issue in the Proteus saga (just to gush about how awesome I thought the series was) and one to Peter Parker (Spectacular Spider-man), mainly because I recognized an Easter egg on the lower right-hand corner of the opening splash page (Mike Doonesbury and Zonker Harris from the newspaper strip) and wanted to show off about it, but also to suggest that John Byrne should remain the regular artist on the series. Both were hand-written by the way, and neither was published.

Anonymous said...

I agree that letter columns are an absolute plus. My favorites were those from comics edited by Mike Gold, especially Suicide Squad and Green Arrow. The letters were almost like little blog posts, often insightful and written intelligently. The Master of Kung Fu letters page was similarly smart. I also liked Len Biehl's letters to Marvel Comics Presents in which he rate each story on a scale of one to three claws.

I wrote 4 letters, and had two published in CrossGen books. One was saying I liked Scion but would like to see the "lesser races" characters fleshed out. The other was in Crux, about how I didn't like that a writer had used the simile (that I'm paraphrasing) "cringing like autistic children." It was a neat little thrill seeing my letters in the comics pages!

- Mike Loughlin

Humanbelly said...

Got the duck food.

So, my own Golden Era for letters pages is without a doubt represented by The Incredible Hulk from the late 60's through the mid 70's (Late Silver/Early Bronze Ages). As I've mentioned before, the run from #109 to #123 was the centerpiece of my crash-course immersion into the Marvel Universe right when I was about nine years old, and the letters were absolutely crucial to gaining an inside track toward understanding the characters, the broader story, and getting a context (as Colin points out) for developing a bit of critical thinking--- although I would NEVER have guessed that at the time-! And there was a sort of tingly, ASMR-like aura wrapped around the letters of those earlier issues, as they discussed and described events that one simply had no first-hand knowledge of. To the writers, it seemed just as current and vital as events in the issues I possessed-- and yet for years they were characters and events that were deeply shrouded in mystery for me. . . shadowy occurrences that are barely above a campfire story. . .

[To expand on that a bit-- it was kind of a neat phenomenon that I'm SURE wasn't unique just to me. You can substitute your own particular title here, BUT-- at that time, the oldest issue I had in that run was #109, and that issue up to #123 existed as a tangible run of "Right Now." Issue #105? No, that comes from the vague "Before" time-- and was palpably murky in my mind; almost indistinguishable from events from, say, the Korean War. And the Tales to Astonish run (which had only just ended with #101)? At the time it seemed like the most impossibly ancient of all comics-- rarely referred to, almost an artifact of a long-forgotten comic book age which only grandparents, surely, might remember. So that's a stretch of merely 8 issues which, because of the differences between having something in-hand, and then reading about something prior, and then only hearing hints about something prior to that-- seems to stretch across three vast epochs of the life of this title to this youngster.]

But I digress. . . boy-howdy. . .

The Hulk's pages in particular hosted some wonderfully enjoyable discussions that went on for flippin' ever because of the huge time-lag inherent in the process. An issue comes out, and it's three to four months before comments on it are seen in the letters page. And then it's another three months before responses to those comments might see print, and so forth. I'm pretty sure the big Subby/Hulk slugfest in TtA #100 led to a major "Whose stronger, Subby or the Hulk" debate that was still winding down around issue #110, and still gave rise to a fair amount of relative strength argument. Then they squared off AGAIN in #118, and it just started right back up. There was always someone wanting to get that one last word in about it.

A HUGE and lengthy discussion about nudity/adult content in comics, the comics code, etc was set in motion when Bruce and an obviously-naked Betty Ross are plunging from the sky in the last panel of #169-- but on the splash page of #170 Betty is somehow wrapped in a piece of canvas. If I'm not mistaken, this generated further discussion for nearly a year. Great opinionating, and kudos to the editors for giving a hearing to multiple different voices on the issue.

All of that is what I missed so much with the advent of the 21st Century.


Karen said...

Hey folks, we had a bit of miscommunication which resulted in us leaving out the actual mail Osvaldo referred to in his post! Yes, I know...what can I say? But it's in there now, so please accept our apologies, and take a look at the letter, in all its vehemence!

Dr. Oyola said...

Thanks Karen!

Just to be clear, this was totally my mistake, and forgot to send the letter scan - though I was hurrying to send it out before Edo stole my idea. ;)

As others have written, I love letters pages and it is because of letters and ads that I (in part) try to stick with original issues whenever possible.

More comics are returning to including letters pages these days, but they don't have the same feeling to me as the older letters, as they were really the only way to hear fan theories and opinions and get a sense of the rest of the audience (and I loved letters trying for a No-Prize), but these days between blogs, Twitter, and all the entertainment news sites geared towards comics and superheroes, there is more than enough of that without the same level of editorial filter (and all the good and bad that comes with that).

I have only ever written one letter to a comic and it wasn't that long ago. It was in regards to Dan Slott's She-Hulk run. It wasn't printed. For Dungeons & Dragons fans, I did have letters published in both Dragon and Dungeon magazine, in the 90s and early 00s respectively.

Edo Bosnar said...

Oh, man, Osvaldo's never going to forgive me for that post on advertisements. Glad I live on another continent, otherwise I'd be worried that he'd be coming to get me... :P

Seriously, though, it's nice to see the actual letter you mentioned. There are a few in the BSG letters pages I mentioned above that match the vehemence, if not the eloquence. Also interesting is the way he disses DC with that "cheap hacks" barb. Harsh.

And HB, glad the duck food situation is all taken care of; although I should add - having grown up with a mom who raised ducks (as well as chickens, turkeys, geese, etc.) - you can pretty much feed ducks anything...

ColinBray said...

Great initial post Dr Oyola and ongoing discussion - HB makes a profound point about his personal comics event horizon. There was a time we all saw the past darkly through letters pages - stories just out of reach allowing our youthful imagination to fill in the gaps.

I don't think anyone has mentioned the non-future creator letter hacks yet - some even have their own Wikipedia entries, for instance T.M. Maple.

It feels like we have only scratched the surface of this subject, sometimes a day is not enough!

Dr. Oyola said...

Does anyone have knowledge about planted letters? I have heard from more than one source that it was not uncommon for writers or editors to publish counterfeit letters from made up writers, some as strawmen and others in effusive praise.

Dr. Oyola said...

Oh and Colin B, thanks for the reference to T.M. Maple. He was new to me! I want to learn more about fans like him.

Anonymous said...

I had read in an interview somewhere (though I can't remember where at the moment) that some of the letters were written by staffers, but I think that may have been just in the early days, before they were getting much legitimate mail. I thought I'd read somewhere that one of the smaller companies (Charlton maybe?) made up ALL the letters that appeared in their books.

I remember my fellow Canadian, T.M. Maple...he (or she) seemed to have lots of letters printed in Marvel and DC mags in the 70s and early 80s. I always like seeing future creators in the letters pages...Jo Duffy, Dave Kraft, and Kurt Busiek come to mind.

Some of those letters were pretty interesting; lots of philosophy in Doc Strange and MOKF, complaints about Dick and Kory in bed in New Teen Titans, and the Captaiin America letters page in the late 60s/early 70s turned into a running debate on the Vietnam War, with both sides weighing in and going back and forth over months and months. You don't see that in comics these days.

Mike Wilson

Anonymous said...

I'd say jettisoning the letters page in the early aughts wasn't the worst thing that happened to comic books in the early aughts.
I'd say just general shittyness was the major problem.
They weren't fun anymore.
That damn Bendis. The guy is a walking crap-factory.

Humanbelly said...

Nah, not specifically the worst thing-- but certainly a very unfortunate bi-product of the sad direction things were taking. Another in a snowballing list.

Osvaldo, another frequent contributor was one cat yronwode. . . a writer and uber-bohemian. I seem to remember her having very clear, well-thought-out commentary--- but I'd probably have to double check.

I think Sean Howe's book mentions in passing the fact that some of those next-generation writers in the early 70's (Englehart, Conway, etc) got a kick out of writing fake letters to their own books. It seemed to have less to do with lack of reader input and more to do with. . . I dunno, they just got a rebellious kick out of it?

Early-ish in the run of the New X-Men there was a delightful juxtaposition of two letters, where the first was lavish in its praise of all aspects of the book (a clearly delighted fan), followed by one that said:

"Claremont, your writing stinks almost as much as Cockrum's art"

(That's a pretty close paraphrase, I think)


Anonymous said...

Osvaldo - One of the more specific claims about planted letters - f think its made in the Howe book among other places - is that young writers who were also assistant editors packed columns with letters slagging off Kirby's work after his return to Marvel.

The Kirby museum ran a few posts on the subject, as did Scott Edelman - who was actually the armadillo for Captain America and Black Panther at the time - in his blog. For instance -

Is that the kind of thing you're interested in?


ColinBray said...

Cat Yronwode became (I think) a writer/contributor for The Comics Jourmal among other things.

Dr Oyola, you may have already found this list:

Edo Bosnar said...

cat yronwode was also the editor and publisher of Eclipse Comics in the early '80s.
As the list Colin linked to shows, T.M. Maple was in fact a pseudonym for a guy named Jim Burke - the Wikipedia page is a good place to start for more information (it's sad that he died before he turned 40).
As to planted letters, I've heard of those, too. One of the more popular/notorious instances is when Steve Gerber and one of the editors at Marvel planted a fake letter from a Catholic priest praising Son of Satan (they even went to the trouble of having it sent from somewhere like St. Louis, MO). I know I've seen it reproduced at various other comics blogs, etc. over the years, but my internet-fu isn't good enough to find it (and, of course, my Essential Marvel Horror volume that collects the complete run of Son of Satan doesn't include the letters pages).

Jerry said...

Interesting post. I really never gave much thought to letters pages 'back in the day', although I read them and enjoyed them, I think I always took them for granted.

Ahhh...foolish youth.

As I mentioned in my first post, the letters pages was how I (a lone fan) could find other real people with whom I could identify and 'connect'.

Also, I think Edo mentioned the relative civility and tone of the letter pages as compared to the internet. The self-criticism and openness to criticism is remarkable as well.

We've lost something important I think.

Humanbelly said...

One other notable letters-page memory:

Right before the point where I was suddenly immersed in my buddy's huge comics stash during the late Silver Age, my Mom picked up one of those illicit 3-packs of coverless comics at a local thrift store. One of the books was X-Men #46--- a book that was completely, comPLETELY unfamiliar to me. . . didn't even know they existed. This was picking up the book during the tremendous (and now utterly forgotten) aftermath of Professor X having been killed "for real" in issue #42. Strange characters, unfamiliar powers, unknown- though clearly deep- team history-- and although the palpable sense of grief and loss pervades the comic itself, it was truly the letters page that brought it all home. 'Cause the fans of that book were DISTRAUGHT. And these were clearly the first letters on the event to see print. It was like attending the funeral of a friend of a friend. There was anger & outrage, there was genuine grief, there was resolve, there was even a poem. And even as a little 8 or 9 year old kid I was moved by how much this little unknown pocket of superherodom meant to a lot of folks. That sense of shared-event isn't something that can be prefabricated or manufactured or mandated, y'know? There's no short-cut. Fertile ground has to be provided, and then the communal relationship simply has to be be nurtured properly so it can develop organically over a length of time.

Hunh-- it's really an awful lot like what we have here, isn't it?

Doug, Karen-- promise us that you'll never sell out this blog to Fox or Sony, okay?


Edo Bosnar said...

Actually, HB, of the domesticated fowl, I've always found that ducks were among the smartest - not saying much, I know, but still. Although I'm a bit surprised that yours have gotten choosy about feeds - I recall that you could put any kind of feed in front of ducks (and geese for that matter), even livestock feed/fodder meant for bigger animals like hogs or cows, and they would just gobble it all up, as well as all of the other stuff you mentioned (personally, I used to love watching ducks and geese grab and eat slugs and snails - just swallowed 'em whole!), plus any organic cast-offs from the kitchen, like wilted lettuce, rotten or partially rotten fruit, peelings from carrots, beets, etc.

Erm, sorry everyone else, go back to talking about letters pages now...

Humanbelly said...

Ooooooo I can hear the collective tooth-gnashing of hard-core followers commence as I now prolong this parallel-universe-level OT tangient.


Your sort of right, edo. Ducks are definitely brighter than, say, chickens. These are Indian Runners, though, and seem to have very selective mental abilities. They respond immediately and from afar to any sound that they associate with feeding. But they also will try to repeatedly walk through chicken-wire fencing to join friends on the other side. And it actually was that one specific change in feed that they rejected. We've been known to use generic cheerios and wheatflakes as an emergency backup, and they go nuts for 'em. It's like Christmas for Ducks. Our region also gets these 2"+ leopard slugs that they love to gulp down. That's. . . a difficult thing to watch with a weak stomach. . .

HB (nobody's farmer)

Edo Bosnar said...

And here I go, feeding the OT fire...

Most of the ducks we had when I was growing up were the generic white ones (I think they're called Pekin ducks), domesticated mallards and Muscovy ducks. The latter were actually pretty intelligent all things considered, while we often had to clip the wings of the mallards, because they would otherwise just fly off.
Yeah, ducks (but also chickens and other fowl) really like human food - my mom often gave them table scraps as well, which they loved, but she was pretty adamant about keeping my siblings and me from giving them potato chips, candy or - heavens forbid - chewing gum. Like I said, though, I never got queasy watching them inhaling slugs or chomping on grasshoppers or beetles - I found it endlessly amusing.

Anonymous said...

Ducks, ducks, ducks...
Here you go HB and Edo -


Humanbelly said...

OMG, Sean, that was utterly delightful-- thanks so much for throwin' me & edo a bone of tolerant acceptance--!
(Geeze, that's a lot of ducks--
but notice how hopelessly easy they are to herd en masse?)


ColinBray said...

I hope no-one is still reading this thread as I ask the important duck-related Bronze Age question:

How do you turn a duck into a soul singer?

A. Put it into the microwave until it's Bill Withers

Nuff said...

Humanbelly said...

. . . aaaaaaaand Colin Bray brashly makes a strong, bold case for both exile and excommunication from all things bronzed, aged, and babied. . .

(Ha! Just kiddin', you brave, brave soul!)


Edo Bosnar said...

Wow, it would be so cool if ducks could sing like Bill Withers...

ColinBray said...

Sorry, I'll get my coat.

ColinBray said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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