JOHN OSTRANDER: Hacking Up Letter Balls
Now you might point out to me, “John, most comics don’t have letter columns now.” I’ve always felt that was a mistake. In fact, I think it’s one of the reasons for the decline of comics, if not of the entire Western Civilization as we know it. My first work in comics appeared in a letter column. During the Overlord saga in Thor, I pretty much figured out who the mysterious Overlord really was. (I think it was Odin or some manifestation of Odin or something.) I even was awarded a Mighty Marvel No-Prize for my efforts, which was supposed to be for service above and beyond the call of duty to Marvel before they cheapened it for giving it out to every slob who wrote in and said, “Make Mine Marvel!” and yes it still burns me today that they did that but never mind. (For those of you who are interested, the No-Prize consisted of a an envelope mailed to you that clearly stamped “No Prize” on the front. You opened the envelope and it was empty – there was no prize! That was the gag. My first reaction was that somebody slipped up and forgotten to include my No-Prize in the envelope. I did eventually get the joke. I’m not always real swift but I get there.)
I had a better letter published in a Savage Sword Of Conan. One story had Conan betrayed by his female companion and he snarled at her, “Waitress!” Of course, they meant to say “Traitress!” Obviously, an error no one caught but my letter tried to prove that it wasn’t an error but a nice bit of characterization, showing that Conan obviously had bad experiences with female serving staff; thus, the worst thing he could call the wench was “Waitress!” I remember my closing line was, “After all, have you ever seen the big Cimmerian lug tip?!” I figured the letter was clever enough to make the letter column, and it did.
You may be wondering “Do we really need letter columns? We have so many places – including ComicMix – where we can post messages about comics and it’s more immediate. Doesn’t that take the place of letter columns?” I say: No, they don’t. I’ve written e-mails as you all have; hundreds, maybe thousands of them. I dash them off in seconds and, probably like most of you, barely look at them before I send them down the email tubes.
Letters are different, especially letters that are looking to get printed. They are composed; they are given some thought. The best are trying to find something to say, positive or negative, about the story. Yes, the quality deteriorated as editors started to decide that lettercols were simply places to sell the book. Only letters of praise would be printed and so that’s what the letter hacks wrote. However, the best columns always added value to the comic. Thoughtful letters, with thoughtful replies, made interesting reading. I remember the letter columns in Captain America during the Vietnam War were filled not only with letters about the story but about issues facing the country, including the questions of patriotism and the morality of war.
There were other notable letter columns that I can recall. Peter Tomasi took over the letter columns on The Spectre when I wrote it and questions of theology and philosophy were regularly posed and thoughtful replies given. Our own Mike Gold is a master of the letter column; in book after book that he edits you got some of the best letters and the best smart alecky and/or provocative answers. The Question was a prime example but nothing, I think, surpassed his work on Wasteland. He’d almost get into a dialogue with some readers and it was great reading. I’ve written the occasional letter column myself and Mike has always been the example I’ve tried to follow.
Today, Randy Stradley over at Dark Horse keeps up the tradition with letter columns in the Star Wars books; in fact, I think most Dark Horse books have letter columns. And one cannot slight a modern master, Brian Michael Bendis, whose profane and brilliant letter columns in Powers makes me sometimes head to that part of the book first.
Most important from a fan point of view (and first and foremost, I am still a fan) – you get your name printed in a comic book! People will read what you wrote in a comic book! One that, supposedly, you care about enough in the first place because you sat down and wrote a real letter to it! And if you don’t think that is cool, then you are not a fan. You are a sad, sad excuse of a fan.
Do yourself a favor, comics, and bring back letter columns. As a great man once pronounced, “’Nuff said.”
MONDAY: Mindy Newell