Serial comic books seldom end with a letters column these days, but I’ve begun to appreciate the notes from readers more and more in my research. I never imagined that I would be planning a trip to the Library of Congress to read 1950s comics that are readily available in reprints, merely so that I can browse the original fan letters as well as the ads and other promotional material in circulation at the time.

So my question this week is pretty simple: what is the value of the letters column to you?

Of course, letter pages from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s were hardly straight-forward monologues of fan response. The columns are well known for staging conversations between readers and comic book creators in ways that I have always found fascinating. The replies from the editors are often carefully crafted teasers for upcoming issues or tongue-in-cheek rebuttals to criticism; witness the way in which the Green Lantern editor responds to the above letter by ridiculing the reader’s spelling errors! Even the most selective, highly-mediated exchanges can offer some insight into the brambles of reader response and the creative process.

The abundance of today’s online message boards and review blogs (and perhaps even comics scholarship?) may have replaced the traditional letters columns, but while mainstream comics creators admit to reading online feedback, they seldom participate in the same way. It’s especially unfortunate that trade paperback reprints jettison the letters pages altogether.

Independent comics in print and on the web are developing new ways to recapture the energy of the letters column. For example, in an essay from Comics and the U.S. South, Andy Hoefer remarked upon the interactions that surrounded the web version of Josh Neufeld’s AD: New Orleans After the Deluge in SMITH Magazine:

In the context of work of documentary art, the comments played out in a surprising way: the readers could not only offer their reactions, but in fact, engage with the author and even the subjects of the text. And given the serial form in which A.D. first appeared, readers could even offer editorial decisions. (315)

In a different context, Brian K. Vaughan ended the second issue of his new series Saga (Image) by initiating a conversation under the guise of a reader’s survey that he hoped would generate responses for the comic’s letters column. Below are the last five questions:

21) Who had a greater impact on your upbringing, your favorite librarian or your favorite coach?

22) What are you working on these days, anything creative?

23) Wait, why did you abandon it?

24) Relax, I’m sure it’s great. Listen, why not put down this comic and do a little work on your thing RIGHT NOW?

25) Cool, but before you do, if you were to be reincarnated as an inanimate object, what would it be?

Interestingly, Vaughan encourages readers to tear out the survey page and mail their responses to a street address, not through email or Facebook – despite the fact that consumers like me read the series on an iPad. (Anyone else out there keeping up with Saga by the way?)

So how do you read comic book letters columns? What do these letters reveal and conceal? Do you use them in your research? And have you ever written one yourself?

About Qiana Whitted

Associate Professor of English and African American Studies

3 responses »

  1. Qiana,
    I’m on shaky ground here because I’ve read precious few letters in comic books. I had heard stories about comic book publishers “planting” letters to help shape reader perceptions and, of course, shore up comic book sales.

    One web comic that makes strong use of reader input is Scenes from a Multiverse. Jon Rosenberg offers two platforms for readers to provide comments and direction for the comic. First, Rosenberg allows readers to vote on which “multiverse” they’ll see in upcoming episodes. Second, he tweets about each comic he posts, and readers are usually quite forthcoming with their opinions about the comic. Often, the tweets are related to the political and/or social commentary that Rosenberg builds into each comic, but sometimes the readers are tweeting the love they have for the comic and the respect/admiration they have for the artist.

    There is of course the possibility that Rosenberg has multiple twitter accounts and can create “conversations” about the comics. Does he plant ideas for his followers to think about? Does he stoke the flames of controversy by tweeting sarcastic or demeaning messages? Who knows? But it seems that even though the modes feel very different (the printed letter column in a comic book versus a twitter feed about a web comic), readers have an ongoing impact on how comics are created and how artists present themselves and their comics to the world.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Frank. I’m very curious about the publishers who planted letters – was that in recent or older comics?

    I think this may be the second time – or you may be the second person – to direct me to Scenes from a Multiverse! (I love the May 25 strip about one of my favorite topics – the problem of evil.)

    • I’m sorry, Qiana, I’m not remembering any details off the top of my head. But it reminds me of the “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” story that the letter was dreamed up by somebody at the newspaper rather than written by a little girl. I’ll try to remember which comics I heard about, though. And if I do, I’ll let you know. Maybe some of our readers have ideas or even some evidence to show that letters were planted in the letters columns.

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