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August 9, 2009

Things I Miss, Part 1: Letters


On a panel at Comic-Con, several people were discussing the lack of letters pages in today’s comics. “The Internet is the letters page now,” quipped Gene Luen Yang. “Except everyone’s mean.”

Years ago, when I first started reading comics, letters pages were an art unto themselves. They were where readers shared not only their comments on individual issues of a comic series but also where you could guess at ongoing plot lines, offer suggestions for upcoming stories, lament missing characters, ask general or specific questions, and basically get the background information you wanted about the comic you theoretically were very interested in. In short, the letters page was like the extra content on a DVD. You didn’t have to read it to enjoy the comic you were holding in your hands, but if you did, you might learn something that would enhance the experience.
I developed a system of reading comics based around letters pages (LOCs, or letters of comment, as they were referred to in shorthand). With every new comic I bought, I would read the letters page first except for the “Coming Next Issue” box that ended it. That I would not read until after I had read the story in the comic. It was a system based on building anticipation but not spoilers. The letters reacquainted me with what had gone before, a few issues back, and they got me excited about the book again. I was primed. I was ready to read and find out what new was going to happen to the Legion. Or the Titans. Or the X-Men. (Scratch that last one; the X-Men did not have a great track record for printing LOCs in the ’80s.)
Years ago, in more seemingly innocent times, addresses were printed along with the letters. This was done to encourage the comics community to communicate with each other. Maybe you’d spot a fellow comics fan in your own town and become friends. If not, maybe you’d write a letter to someone and become pen pals.
My one and only time having a letter printed in a comic came in Batman and the Outsiders #26, wherein writer and editor Mike W. Barr said I came the closest to guessing the real identity of Halo (I guessed she was an angel, which she kind of was). I experienced a rare sense of pride that day: It was the first thing I’d ever gotten published! And in doing so, I got complimented by the very guy writing the book! Not bad. I anxiously awaited the kudos that would no doubt come my way for coming so close to unraveling Halo’s identity. Sadly, I was disappointed. No letter ever came, no exotic, comics-loving pen pals to correspond with.
Still, I miss the days of the LOCs, even after they stopped printing the addresses (no doubt a wise move, considering how many minors were putting their home addresses out there in the world). Something about comics just doesn’t seem right without them (and here I have to once again give credit to Jeff Smith’s brilliant Rasl series, which does include letters). There might be series I’m not reading that do have them (let me know!), but their absence is felt throughout so many books. Books that could only be bettered if an ongoing, back-and-forth communication were allowed—and promulgated!—by the editors of them. The dialog was helpful. It was part of the grand experience of reading comics…the very idea that others were as passionate as you (and didn’t have to be rude to express a thought) and noticed the same things you did.
Yeah, I miss that.