Thee Comic Column #127: The Art of the Letters Column

ScanAh, the letters column. Sometimes I wonder if it had more of an impact on the comic book world – or maybe just comic book readers – back before the advent of the Internet and email, when fans of a book wrote their questions, comments and musings out by hand, sent them to the address specified on the last page of their favorite books and waited to see if theirs would be one of the dispatches picked for publication/response. Or perhaps sending an email is just as time consuming, personally revealing and weighted with anticipation. Either way, letters columns are a beloved industry standard, but one that I myself had gotten away from reading quite some time ago. Why? I’m not really sure. However, this has slowly been changing and yesterday, during an illness-inspired confinement to bed, I read my way through the new issues of several comics that all have very impressive letters pages and you know what? Something was reignited in me. I’ll place the responsibility for this final realization squarely in the hands of Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s Lazarus, which probably has the best letters page ever. But there are more books than that which, on a monthly basis, have been slowly eroding whatever prejudice I long ago developed for something I used to love. That’s right true believers, I don’t think I’ll be trying for a No-Prize anytime soon, but I am whole-heartedly back on the “Must Read the Letters Column” wagon from here on out.

This unexpected but very exciting development began a few months ago with Rick Remender’s often extremely personal responses to the equally personal letters that surface in the back of his book Deadly Class, one of my favorite books of the last few years and one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of a creator knowing how to interact with his fans. There’s no mystery why Deadly Class – and Mr. Remender – have developed such a rabid fan base and over the course of the twelve issues of the series published thus far I’ve begun to look forward to the letters page as much as the story. Subsequently this renewed interest got me curious about the letters columns of the other books I read, specifically SagaVelvet and the wonderfully extensive Forever Yours in the back of the aforementioned Lazarus. All of these are great examples of fan/creator interaction, and in some cases extra material, but Lazarus just goes above and beyond. The book takes place in an insanely detailed world that Mr. Rucka and Mr. Lark have created and they continue to flesh it out every month with tons of bonus material, from historical accounts of the various families that rule the world Lazarus takes place in to specifications for some of the tech the characters use, to faux adds for the companies that design that tech. Hell, I’d be tempted to say that Lazarus fans get almost as much from the stuff after each month’s story as they do from the story itself.

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Which is awesome, because it’s made my renewed appreciation in the art of the letters column more than a product of nostalgia.

But yeah, if we’re talking letters columns I’d like to say a bit about that nostalgia, too.

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My all-time favorite Postbox: The Pit which references a story that wouldn’t come up for years. A story I checked back on this page for over and over. re-reading one of Mr. Hama’s responses, wondering when we would see the upcoming issue that would deal with “certain characters and organizations in the Golden Triangle area of South East Asia during the Vietnam Era.”  Good Times.

When I got into comics it was through Larry Hama’s GIJOE. It was the summer between 4th and 5th grade, so that would make it 1986. I bought a tattered copy of issue #49 off a kid at summer school and spent days, weeks and eventually months reading and re-reading it. From there I was hooked and I started to read Mr. Hama’s sprawling tale on a monthly basis. It didn’t take long from there for me to begin to venture into other books – Transformers, Uncanny X-Men and X-Factor, occasional issues of Spiderman and The Punisher. One thing all of those books had in common for me back then was the letters page. This was part of my ritual for reading comics at that time and for years after. A comic wasn’t ‘read’ until I had gone through the letters column, noted interesting or appropriate references or fan theories and marveled at the Editor or Writer’s subtle placement of clues as to what was in store for the book and its characters in the future. Just thinking about this brings me an enjoyment that is on par with memories of the stories in those books themselves, because it used to be one big coherent experience. And in researching this piece yesterday, confined to my bed as I was by a particularly nasty sinus infection, I spent a large part of the afternoon rifling through long boxes and seeking out old issues of Hama’s GIJOE, re-reading certain key issues and their letters columns. It was amazing and also a perfect compliment to the time I’d spent earlier in the day with the newer books and their back-page communiques.

I’m very big on the ‘community’ aspect of being a fan, so looking back on it now I find it strange that I ever stopped reading the letters pages in the books I love. I’m not sure how this came about, but I have a fairly strong suspicion it did so during the years where other than a few key books the industry began to disappoint me on a regular basis (remember mid-to-late 90s?) Books like Preacher and Stray Bullets kept me coming into the shop every couple weeks, which in turn kept me trying new things, but there was A LOT of forgettable rubbish around back then and really, who wanted to read the letters column in X-Men #400?. That’s no longer the case – we’re in something of a renaissance with how many great stories are currently being told, and in the internet age it’s books like those I’ve mentioned that are really adding a whole new level to the experience. I’m glad I’m finally really seeing that again!

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Can’t find a comic shop? You can always use old reliable Comic Shop Locator at 1-800-COMIC-BOOK. Or you can take some of my recommendations. If you live in the greater Chicagoland area I recommend any of the wonderful four locations of Amazing Fantasy Books. In Los Angeles it’s The Comic Bug. Las Vegas it’s Alternate Reality Comics. San Francisco? Try the Isotope Comic Lounge and if you happen to venture a little further North I’d say you have to visit The Escapist Comic Book Store in Berkley (with the wonderful Dark Carnival Books next door and owned by the same folks). Read on!!!

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

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