Martin Pasko: A Brief History of Mail Power Fantasies
Last week’s column, about the apparent suicidal impulses of the US Postal Service, advanced what I hope is a baseless and purely paranoiac thesis: Because UPS, FedEx, and their ilk don’t cover every form of deliverable and are prohibitively expensive for many small-business shippers, we are in urgent need of alternative low-cost means for shipping parcels and other three-dimensional objects that can’t – or won’t – be deliverable to us in electronic form any time soon. That’s because the P.O.’s collapse might happen faster than we can create the infrastructure necessary to take up the (very minor) slack.
That would be a Geek Apocalypse. Some momzer with an encyclopedic memory of The Overstreet Guide won’t be able to profitably ship you that copy of Tales To Astonish #12 you bid too much for. And your ability to receive items like priceless Mr. Terrific maquettes, or the Talents’ endless flow of royalty checks for $.35, will be jeopardized. And then suddenly, one day, before you know it…entire vital industries start getting wiped out. Y’know, like Hero-Clix.
But it’s hard to be too sympathetic to the USPS’ increasingly strident argument that it needs more funding and a different budgeting process. Perhaps because there’s a reason it’s OK to bail out Detroit but not USPS: the auto industry hasn’t yet come up with a car that can go anywhere except the direction you’re trying to steer it in.
If all this leaves you unmoved to lament the coming Götterdämmerung in Mail Valhalla, perhaps you might shed a tear out of nostalgia. When the Post Office finally goes, so, probably, will the memory of some – odd and arcane, to be sure – pieces of comics history.
For example, whatever else USPS is trying to preserve, it isn’t a commitment to the goal expressed in huge letters on the New York City main branch: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” That inscription is believed to have been carved by a young stonemason named Ira Schnapp, who went on to play a major role in comics history by designing the classic Superman logo and lettering most of DC’s top-tier output for roughly the first fifteen years of its existence.
Over the next 50 years, the USPS was indirectly responsible for some memorable, comics fanboy-beloved policies and procedures. I’ll discuss a few of those next week, when I perform the death-defying feat of ending this two-and-a-half part rant and starting a new one, establishing a premise that you will have forgotten by the time you conclude reading about it the following week.
Before USPS became irrelevant to comics, it resorted to printing comic book content, in a sense – such as with the 2007 Marvel Super Heroes series that put Spider-Man on a stamp. It was one such “issue” that inspired the project that arguably brought the uneasy alliance of comics and USPS to its disastrous apotheosis.
The negotiations for the use of Superman on a stamp to commemorate his create led to high-level talks that generated a custom comics initiative. This project, of which I was the alternately fascinated and appalled editorial supervisor, was The Celebrate The Century Super Heroes Stamp Album series. This was part of a much more ambitious campaign, The Celebrate The Century stamp series. It seemed like a simple, sure-fire plan: nine sets of stamps commemorating each of the nine decades of the 20th Century. The subjects of the stamps for the first half – the 1900s thru the ‘40s – were selected by a panel of scholars assembled by the USPS. The remaining stamps subjects would be chosen by polling…those notorious champions of intellectual rigor and high-mindedness, the American people.
Which means that our first five volumes were filled with cleverly-written, beautifully drawn, and impeccably researched two-page spreads in which Superman and his Justice League friends enlightened while entertaining on such worthy subjects as the League of Nations, the development of antibiotics, and the WPA. The latter half of the series featured third-tier super heroes no one had ever heard of, but which were chosen because they were minorities, got excited about I Love Lucy and the Slinky Toy.
We were on an aggressive schedule with a tremendous investment by the client: print runs in the millions. We managed to do the huge job of research, creating the Editorial, and fact-checking the first five books on the P.O.’s schedule, which required the comics-format albums to be on sale at the same time as the corresponding stamps. We didn’t get into trouble until we got to the issues based the stamps the Brand-Conscious American Consumer “voted in” – a slew of stamps featuring Other Companies’ trademarked intellectual property.
In the sort of bureaucratic failure of due diligence that has made USPS a company that could not lose more money if it subcontracted its shipping to Amtrak, the USPS had secured the rights to the images it used on the stamps, but not the clearance of, or payment for, use of the images in licensed products based on the stamps.
What ensued was a train wreck, with the rights-holders demanding outrageous and labor-intensive changes to the already-completed art before they’d be approved. Some of the licensors’ objections had to be negotiated away because they negated the very concept of the project itself.
The widow of a certain famous children’s book cartoonist withheld approval for over two months because she could not be dissuaded from what she seemed to think was a simple, reasonable request: that her late husband’s creation, which was the subject of the stamp, not be upstaged by a DC super hero character, and that the super hero who described the stamp’s history to the reader had to be deleted.
As Jules Feiffer once put it…a subtle pattern begins to emerge…
Next Week: “You’ve Got Mail!”…We Just Don’t Know Where It Is.
FRIDAY: Martha Thomases
SATURDAY: Marc Alan Fishman