5W Friday Panel: Lettercols

Letter columns have largely disappeared from modern comics, though some titles are keeping the practice alive.  In a modern online world, does the lettercol still make sense?  What do people who've had letters published feel about the experience?

Every Friday, we will host a virtual panel session on a topic of the week, capturing The Fifth World staff having a dialogue about a given subject.  This week's topic: comic book letter columns.


Have you had a letter(s) published?  What was it, and what was your experience?

JL Franke:
For me, my letter was published in Flash (v. 2), number 11, cover date April 1988.  It would have come out right around my 17th birthday, so it made a great present.  This was still during Mike Baron's introductory run with Wally as the Flash, and people were up in arms about Wally's sexual exploits in the title (in fact, the letter just above mine wondered why he hadn't gotten AIDS yet and claimed Archie was putting out better comics).  16 year old me wrote that I didn't see what all the fuss was about and, given Wally's natural impatience, it was not out of character for him to rush into bed with a woman.  In comparing Wally to other heroes, I may have called Superman Mr. Rogers and theorized that Batman had had himself "fixed" to avoid distraction (editor Mike Gold apparently liked that reference).

These were the issues in which Baron introduced all those Russian speedsters, and I was confused by the use of red, white, and blue on their uniforms.  In today's post-Soviet world, the Russian flag is much better known, but back then, I was only familiar with the red and gold of the USSR.

I also complimented Steve Haynie's lettering, especially his use of a stylized alphabet for Russian characters that invoked Cyrillic but for western letters.  I actually got a personal letter from Steve thanking me for the mention and letting me know that (a) Ken Bruzenak actually invented that character set in American Flagg! and (b) Baron and Guice would be leaving the title to be replaced by Bill Messner-Loebs and Greg LaRocque.  It was hand lettered (comic sans, of course) on the back of a photocopy of his lettering proof from issue 11.  I've kept the letter and an extra copy of the issue in a scrap book ever since.

Looking back, it is a bit embarrassing, as the letter was the product of a 16 year old boy with a 16 year old boy's outlook on life.  16 year old me made reference to one of the guest character's physiques, and adult me kind of winces at that now.

Jason Tondro:
That's a pretty great story. I don't think Bruce Wayne could afford to have himself "fixed" while still maintaining his playboy facade, but on the other hand, I would not be at all surprised to see a version of the character that did exactly that.

I've had a few letters published. The one of which I am most proud was in the 4th issue of the original League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I don't have the issue any longer (divorces between geeks are no laughing matter). My letter was fanfic; I wrote as Colonel Sebastian Moran, praising the book but also insisting that Alan Quatermain could not possibly be alive any longer because I had personally shot him while pursuing a tiger down a sewer drain. The editors of that comic savaged all letter writers, which was of course precisely why I had written, and he began with, "First of all sir, I will remind you you are fictional." And then he noted that I was due in the office so that I could be drawn for my appearance in issue 5, and I had better not be late.

 I got a packet of art from an editor in response to a letter once, and like Jerry's note from Haynie it made a huge impression. Of course we are living in a digital world now where everything is electrons, but these tactile contacts from comic creators are kind of priceless.

Letters like Jerry's tell us so much about the industry and about the creative influences that go into our favorite books. You can just tell that Haynie really wanted to give credit where credit was due.

I think the first letter I ever wrote was when I was about 9 or 10, and it was to Spider-Man, because I was certain I had counted the legs on the red spider on the back of his costume and there were only 6 when there should have been 8. I wanted a No-Prize. I don't think I understood that the No-Prize was actually no prize. I certainly did not understand how they were given out. (You had to explain the inconsistency, not just point them out!)

I've only written a few other letters. Mike Barr was the creator of Maze Agency, at Comico, and also Mantra at Malibu. Maze had gone unpublished for quite a while, and in the pages of Mantra, the main character quoted Jennifer Mays, actually using her favorite term of endearment ("You lamb.") I wrote, expressing my disappointment that not only was Maze Agency probably never going to come out again, but now Barr was stealing from his own characters.  The letter was never printed. But the editors wrote me back and said, "We knew Jennifer Mays. Jennifer Mays was a good friend of ours. Mantra is no Jennifer Mays." Which was a joke I did not get until years later when I watched the Bentsen-Quayle debate and a news analyst explained it for me.

And then, finally, I wrote a letter when Eric Luke, who had written Ghost for a long time, did an issue of Wonder Woman. I compared him to James Joyce, which is I'm certain why the letter was printed. But my point was that he was putting the characters in all these situations which seemed perfectly normal on the surface but which were actually all about sex. I probably should not have written that letter.

Chris Maka:
The only letter I ever wrote to a comic book was to the Legion of Super-Heroes (v4) in the early 90's. I got a mention in the Bits of Legion Business section, where they briefly mentioned the names of several more people who had written in and something about what those people had written.  In my letter, I had written something like "I appreciate [such-and-such, I don't remember what now], BUT..." and then I preceded to go on for two pages about everything in v4 that made me angry.(Which, those of you who were around on Usenet with me back in the old rec.arts.comics.misc days may remember, was not a short list, nor was I shy about voicing it.)  When I saw my name in the back of a Legion comic months later I was excited -- until I saw that what they wrote was something along the lines of "And Chris Maka (Austin, TX) really enjoyed [such-and-such]."

And that was it. They ignored the entirety of the actual content of my letter.

I was not pleased.

And that's my letter column story.

[UPDATE!] Except that's not the story!

Jerry and Marc did some looking in Legion letter pages and didn't see me anywhere, which was starting to drive me crazy (well, crazier, at any rate). I asked for help from my fellow Legion fans in the LSH: The Legion of Superheroes Facebook group, and Wes Connors found me in the Bits of Legion Business section of the letters page in issue #39 (January 1993). He didn't have a working camera handy, though, so our own estimable Jason Tondro implored his FB friends to help, and Chris McGlothlin provided us with a smartphone photo of the page in question.

First, it turns out that I'm on the same letters page as a David Goyer. But second, young, jerky Chris Maka remembered thing a bit differently from what actually happened. Here's the text in question:
Readers are increasingly itchy to see the adult Legion team reclaim the spotlight in the series--at least that's what's on the minds Rosamond, CA's Bill Hopkins; Valley Stream, NY's Jim Kelly; and Rockport, TX's Chris Maka ("Fans are getting tired of waiting for the Legion to really come together as a team and go kick some butt.")
Seeing that today it all came back to me, and I do remember writing that or something very much like it (not that my memory is at all reliable, clearly). So my recollection above, about how they focused on one positive thing I said and ignored the rest was completely false. In fact, being older and at least a tiny bit more mature, I realize that they picked one line that basically summarized the point of my letter and simply ignored all the snarky ranting -- and I was pissed off that they didn't see fit to print all the snarky ranting instead of being happy that I'm the one they quoted. See? Entitled jerks did not start with social media! 😀

Greg Morrow:

I had a lot of rough edges in my younger days.

Do lettercols still have meaning in today's online world?

Since the shift to email letter columns, the appeal of writing a letter has worn off. I'll never be Uncle Elvis.

Sean Fields:
I think the instant comments and access to creators granted by the internet has almost killed the letter column. Still is nice to see them though, and I think it's good to have for younger readers to see their name in an actual physical book.

I agree with Sean.  While letter columns are sometimes fun to read (I particularly like the ones that Larry Hama runs in GI Joe: A Real American Hero), the plethora of online forums and creator personal blogs seems to have supplanted the role that letter columns used to play in building communities.

If you have a topic you'd like to see the Fifth World staff address, tweet the topic to @5thworldonline and include #FridayPanel in your tweet.

5W Friday Panel: Lettercols 5W Friday Panel: Lettercols Reviewed by JL Franke on Friday, October 20, 2017 Rating: 5
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