One Fan's Opinion: Issue #28

Thu, March 9th, 2006 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

Letter column headers for "Gdland" & "Fell."
You know what I love?

Letters pages.

It may be sick but it's true. I absolutely love 'em.

It's just not the same thing reading message boards. Sure, it is immediate feedback and that's terrific, make no mistake, but there's something special about being part of a printed comic book-to have your words grace the pages of your favorite magazine - to be a permanent part of some pulse-pounding periodical.

Message boards get refreshed and often wiped clean and newer posts replace or crowd out older posts.

There's something nice about reading letters pages and getting a glimpse into the world that existed when that book came out.

By the time I started reading comics, the team of Stan (the Man) Lee and Jack (King) Kirby had long since gone their separate ways. Kirby was just wrapping things up at DC, actually, and getting ready to return to Marvel. There was no way for me to know what it would have been like to have been there to purchase the "Fantastic Four" by Lee and Kirby and read "The Coming of Galactus." By the time I started reading the FF, Galactus had come and gone quite a few times and his subsequent appearances had all the grandeur of an appearance of Jughead in the pages of "Archie's Pals 'n' Gals!" But the letters pages - those gave me an inkling of what it might have been like for readers at the time.

And it was fascinating and informative to read missives from readers and answers from editors in any number of comics. Familiar letter hacks were like old friends and reading their opinions was every bit as informative as reading a movie review from a critic whose opinion you came to trust. If "TM" Maple gave it "two thumbs up" you'd better believe it deserved two thumbs up.

The letters page, for me, was a surrogate comic book community; a group of familiar friends that I could eavesdrop on to get the straight scoop. And it was a place where one could read an honest exchange between fans and pros. And it was always there. You didn't need to scroll through a thousand posts on a message board to see who thought what - it was right there, stapled in place with all the rest.

Letter column headers for "Fear Agent" & "Invincible."
I remember a particularly lively debate that sprung up in the pages of the "Incredible Hulk" following the Harpy's transformation back into Betty Ross. When Betty had been turned into the winged, green-skinned Harpy by the malevolent M.O.D.O.K. it was pretty clear to everybody that she was buck-naked. Sure, there were convenient shadows that fell over her at just the right spots, but there was no denying that she was as naked as the day she was born. Following a trip to Red Raven's Island in the sky and an encounter with the brawny Bi-Beast, the Harpy was turned back to Betty just as the island in the sky crumbled and she took a tumble alongside Bruce Banner at the cataclysmic climax of "Incredible Hulk" #169! In the following issue, Betty appeared falling from the heavens, alongside Banner, dressed in some ripped up Orange dress. Where did it come from? Who knew! But it sparked off one of the most memorable letters page debates in the history of letters page debates! Readers had so much to say on the subject that "the great nudity debate" was followed up a few months letter in a second letters page and it was followed up later still for a third round! Some readers were put off by the seeming censorship, others were glad Marvel made the move they made, but as a reader it was a fascinating read.

Letters pages were a great place for fans to meet each other. Richard Pini met his future bride Wendy via the pages of the "Silver Surfer," or so the story goes and many pros started out as fellow fans penning letters to the editor. Hell, the first letter from the first letters page in the "Fantastic Four" was written by future "Young Tom Strong" artist Allen Weiss and subsequent issues had letters from future FF writer and "Conan" scribe extraordinaire "rascally" Roy Thomas and the "Uncanny X-Men's" very own Dave Cockrum!

When Image's own Todd McFarlane was struggling to get his name out there and make his mark, he wrote letters by the barrel full and you may even run into a few of them if you read through DC's old mystery mags. Todd's thought was that a perspective employer was a lot more likely to give his samples a gander if they came from a familiar fan page fixture and for years I've advised wannabe writers to follow suit. I'm far more likely to read fan fiction from a fellow like Augie DeBlieck, Jr. or Olav Beemer than somebody that tried to solicit my opinion cold (and Augie will back me up on this, because I did read his Freak Force fan fiction back in the day).

There are few things more exciting than seeing your letter in print. I dunno what it is, but there's a certain thrill to it and every show I attend there's at least one guy that wants me to sign a particular comic book because he's got a letter printed in it. A comic book with your letter in it is a part of you. You're no longer just a reader but an active participant - hell, you're a contributor to the creative process!

When DC and Marvel ditched doing letters pages a few years back, I was saddened. Sure, some letters pages had become akin to a glorified hype page filled with glowing letters singing the praises of everybody involved. It was practically propaganda, sure, but I couldn't help but feel as though a genuine sense of community ceased to exist along with those letters pages. I'm pleased to see that Marvel at least has seen fit to reinstating some of those letters pages.

As a young pro, having just broken into the industry, there were few things I looked forward to more than reading the letters pages to books that I'd contributed to. Having no real access to the opinions of those frantic funnybook fans, it was a real treat to get some kind of feedback from my fellow fans. A good letter could make my day - a bad one could ruin it.

Letter column headers for "The Walking Dead" & "Superpatriot: War on Terror."
I remember Kirby complaining bitterly about Marvel editors filling the pages of the books he worked on with "knock letters" following his triumphant return to Marvel in the late '70s and I can see why he'd feel upset by it. Here were the only words he'd hear about these books, good or bad, outside of the occasional comic book convetion and those guys in the office saw fit to run only the negative letters! As a guy reading the books at the time, I had to stop and wonder who were these idiots panning the work of the king of comics? I didn't agree with any of 'em!

I still get a charge out of putting together the letters pages for "Savage Dragon" whether the letters are praises or pans. I remember what it was like to be that kid writing in and the thrill it was to see my letter in print!

There are a few folks out there that still write a mean letters column from Brian Michael Bendis on "Powers" to Robert Kirkman on "Invincible" and "The Walking Dead" to Joe Casey of "Gdland" and the aforementioned Todd McFarlane on "Spawn."

And for future generations to come, I'd like to thank each and every one of you that has taken the time to jot down a few words and fire them off to somebody in hopes of having your words see print in a comic book. Your words have contributed to the permanent time capsule that is firmly affixed to many a comic magazine from the greatest to the worst (I can still remember the header attached to the letters page, which responded to "Spider-Woman" #26, the issue that introduced a Gladiator knock off named the Grinder, who had two blades mounted on his head like a buzz saw beanie: "The issue you hated!"). Be they insane or inane, clever or crude I've found them enjoyable and I treasure every word!

So, here's hoping that more folks jump back on the letter-printing bandwagon and help bring back that sense of community that has been missing from so many comic books. It would be a real treat if, years from now, some other reader could look back at a favorite mag and get a sense of how other readers at the time received a certain story.

It would certainly be a heck of a lot more convenient than having to search for opinions on the World Wide Web - especially if he's reading that mirthful mag on the thunder mug!

But that's just one fan's opinion. I'm willing to concede that I could be wrong.

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