Once upon a time, when the Marvel Universe was young, and the first generation of Marveldom began writing fan letters, our founder Stan Lee received admist the paens of praise, notes and cards pointing out errors and oversights. Marvel had in its first few years of existence already become famous for its continuity and consistency, and so these pioneering mistake-spotters were reporting these small foul-ups in the spirit of bettering Marvel. It was the practice at the time at certain other publishers to award cash prizes or original artwork to readers for booboo-spotting, etc., and so some early Marvel fans requested that Stan do the same. Now Stan thought it was pretty silly to reward others for pointing out your mistakes. After all, everyone makes mistakes, and conscientious folks like Stan felt bad enough that he and the gang made them once in a while-- now he's supposed to pay folks for pointing out his small failings?!? Weren't written reminders of one's imperfections punishment enough?
Anyway, Stan was always a good sport-- so to have fun with this reader expectation of getting something for flaw-finding, he began awarding no-prizes (originally uncapitalized), which was just a clever way of giving awards to people without really giving them anything. At first, Stan announced no-prize contests for specific things (such as evidence that the Sub-Maariner is a mutant or not). And then, fans began to demand no-prizes for everything and anything, announced or not. Stan had hoped to joke the nit-pickers out of wanting anything but fun for their efforts, but now non-existent no-prizes were in demand. As time went by, readers began to think of no-prizes as actual things, rather than non-things. Some of those who were awarded them in print wrote in to say that they hadn't actually received the no-prizes they were promised. Initially, Stan could joke that he put it in the no-mail. But soon it became evident that the majority of the readership thought the no-prize was a thing rather than a nothing.
So Stan, eager to oblige his frantic following, began to send out actual envelopes to no-prize recipients, on the front of which was marked "Congratulations! This envelope contains a genuine Marvel Comics no-prize which you have just won!" A clever solution it was, since the envelope was empty, preserving the no-prize's essential feature, it's non-existence. Yet no-prize winners actually got a keepsake for their troubles, the envelope it came in. This system worked for years, and long after Stan left his editorial post to become publisher, his successors kept the no-prize tradition alive. The only problem was an occasional recipient, a bit slow to see the no-prize's non-existent nature, who wrote back to say, "What gives? My no-prize envelope was empty!"
To be continued in the letters page in AVENGERS #269.
When our fearless leader Stan Lee was in charge of handing out all no-prizes, he kept the award criteria consistent. The no-prize was awarded to a reader who spotted a mistake that all others overlooked, or a mistake that many people spotted but only one came up with a plausible way to explain, or some great suggestion or service to Marvel in general. But when Stan's many editorial successors (like me) took on the responsibilities of bestowing these much-coveted non-awards, the standards for awarding them became very inconsistent.
Some editors sent one to practically everyone who wrote in, regardless of what he or she wrote in about, some sent them to anyone who asked for one, some sent them only to people who didn't ask for them, some categorically refused to send them to anyone, and finally some came up with their own methods for determining the no-winners. For well over a decade, this non-system's been the system. The result is that you readers probably no longer know exactly what no-prizes are given out for. Still, a vast majority of all the mail that Marvel receives contains a request for one, no matter what it's for!
There are some editors, and I must admit to being among them, who think that maybe no-prize mania has gotten out of hand. Imagine if you will that you're the writer of say, CAPTAIN AMERICA, and you're doing your best to create some really good stories for the Living Legend, okay? With the editor's permission, you go through the month's stack of mail. You can't wait to see what the fans have to say. Their praise will help make some of the hard work you put into a story worthwhile. Their criticism will let you know the areas where you need to improve. But what happens? Ninety per cent of your mail says "On page 14 panel 3, Cap's glove is colored yellow not read. I think I deserve a no-prize for spotting this." And that's the entire letter! No opinion is expressed about the story at all. A writer can only assume that this one flaw either ruined the reader's enjoyment to such an extent that it's all he or she could think about when he or she wrote...or the mistake actually enhanced the reader's enjoyment of the story because finding fault in others is that reader's main joy in comics reading! Picture this-- a nation of people who love fault-finding...who only speak to one another to inform them of their imperfections! I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want to live there.
Join me on the letters page to IRON MAN #208 when I put it all together and discuss the future of no-prizes in America!