I'm going to forgo my customary blatherings this month (hold down the applause please) so I can run a few reader reactions to Jeffrey Lacasse's letter featured in my M's Rems column in AVENGERS #290. Jeffrey's letter, for those who have other things to remember, classified all the types of letters a letters page prints. Take it away, readers!
I am sure that there are many different reasons that readers have for sitting down and writing to a comic book company. I would like to share my reasons with you and maybe along the way inspire other readers out there to take pen in hand and write (in my case, a word processor).
I feel that the comic medium is unusual in the fact that the readers can have a positive effect on the comics that they read. Imagine, if you will, writing to a movie producer and telling him who you would like to star in his next movie. Not much chance there. On the other hand, the comic reader has the opportunity to direct the course of each and every comic by writing and making his opinion known.
The comic writer's greatest tool is the sales figure. This figure tells the writer if his book is a success or a failure. This figure does not tell the writer why his book has succeeded or failed. This is where the comic reader comes in. Each and every one of us has the opportunity to let the writer know exactly why his book is selling the way it is.
If you have never written to a comic company before, I would like to share a few of the guidelines that I try to follow. Letters such as, "I love everything about your book, please print this letter", or, "I hate this book, I dare you to print this letter", are an incredible waste of time for everyone involved. When writing a letter let the writer, artist, or editor know how they succeeded or failed. Offer your opinion as to how you feel they could improve the book. Remember that your opinion does count and that the creative team can't provide the readers with the best possible book if they don't know what it is that the readers want to see.
--Charles S. Novinskie
Dear Mr. Gruenwald:
The crux of Mr. LaCasse's argument is, what is a letters page for?
Obviously, to sell comics, as with anything in a comic book. Not all are equally successful in this, of course; a good letters page is a plus, but a bad letters page can be an actual disincentive to buy.
All letters are printed by editors to gratify individual letter-writers and to establish a sense of respect and good feeling between creators and readers-- both good ways to sell comics. The specific types of letters cited by Mr. Lacasse are printed for other reasons as well:
No-Prize letters serve to correct errors, and thus have a legitimate place-- if the error is a major one. Errors which impeded appreciation of the story (misplaced balloons, mistaken summary of a character's history, omission of important information) should be corrected. Minor errors (coloring mistakes, typos, left-handed swords on right-handed barbarians) waste spaace and the readers' time.
Pure-rave letters insult the reader's intelligence. In printing them, the editor say, "If someone tells them that the book is great, they'll buy it." But one must buy the comic to read the letter, and it's unlikely that, between a rave letter and his own independent opinion of the rest of the book, a reader will choose the former to guide his purchases. (Pure-pan letters are printed to prove to the readers-- and to the editor himself?-- that his column is unbiased, which shouldn't need to be proven.)
Personal-compliment letters to writers and artists are printed for the same reasons as rave letters, plus the editor's wish to please the creators. These should be printed only if they're independently interseting; otherwise, send them directly to the creators. (The same goes for personal-insult letters, most of which ought simply to be trashed.)
Simple-comment letters ("Bring back the Tumbler") should be printed only if you're considering bringing back the Tumbler but want to test the waters first. Otherwise, consider the letter; act or don't act on it; but don't bore the readers with it.
Humorous letters are fine if they're legitimately funny; about 1 in 30 of those printed actually are, so standards need tightening. (By the by, the same holds true of poetry, except that the ratio is more like 1 in 30,000.)
Question letters ("How old is Tony Stark? Where did Cap get his shield?") are important: Editors need to know what is confusing readers, and should be sure the writers also know. But the proper place to answer such questions is in the stories themselves; to do otherwise is essentially to admit artistic failure.
Naturally, everyone enjoys intelligent, interesting commentary: it enhances enjoyment of the comic without bogging it down in explanation and detail. It also sells comics-- a letters column by editors heavy on such letters (Gruenwald, Thomas, Giordano, Colon) is a big boost towards getting my dollar.
Thus, my vote: Lots of great commentary, leavened with well-expressed compliment and criticism and the occasional correction of an important error. Eliminate everything else.
And a challenge to readers: Most chaf sees print due to lack of wheat; write so many intelligent, insightful letters that the editor need never resort to anything else to fill space.
--which this letter amply does, at least as far as filling space. Keep up the good work!
Dear Mark and Co.,
In reply to Mr. Lacasse regarding the "lettering" of fan comments-- I THINK IT REALLY STINKS! (Let's see, that's a type "B" letter, isn't it?) This is one of the most dehumanizing letters I have ever seen and that you are even considering doing such a thing both shocks and amazes me.
SInce you guys are continually saying that every reader comment is important and how we should all write tons and tons of letters I find it hard to believe that more people would write if all they had to look forward to is basically a public slamming for not having a letter "worthy enough" to be printed in full, just because it doesn't fall into the "F, G, or H" categories (historical or current questions or "interesting commentary").
Besides all of this, you are the ones who pick the letters that get printed-- whether it is to massage your ego (letter "c"), humble yourselves, because you think it is funny and would like to share it with your readers ("e") or whatever your criteria is; the point is that if you don't think it's appropriate or worthy (or whatever) then you don't print it. We should not be denied the "glory" (if that's the right word) of having our full letter printed just to save space! If that's all you want to do then why don't you just tally up all the A-E letters and at the top of the letters page write "Well, we got 200 A-type letters this month and 50's B's, etc." That way you'd have plenty of space for those "meaningful" letters that (gasp!) "NEED TO BE RUN!"
Anyway, I have always thought and always will (I hope) think that you care about each letter a fan has written and that you will always give us our fair space to air our thoughts. Please don't prove me wrong.
My first reaction to Jeffrey Lacasse's letter is "yes, keep the categories A through E to a minimum." But on second though I'd like to point out that your readers/letter writers go through stages-- if they stick to reading comics long enought that is. And as your 'readership' is constantly renewing itself you'll always have readers writing letters in all categories. I don't believe one category of letter writers is better than the other, so not printing any letters that fit into categories A through E at all would be unfair to a large percentage of your readers.
I think it's up to the editor (yep, that's you) to find the fine line between interesting and representative. I'd like to compliment you on making the effort of writing your columns in the comics you edit. They're enjoyable and interesting to read. I particularly appreciated the frank way you told us why Roger Stern stopped writing the AVENGERS.
So there you have it, four interseting reactions of the Great Letterspage Controversy. Rest assured that most editors appreciate any kind of mail they receive, and no editor I know would belittle or alienate his/her readers by type-labelling their letters. If this discussion has moved anyone to write more interesting, more specific, or more helpful letters, I think Mr. Lacasse's efforts should be commended.
What is truth? No, wait, let me amend that question. How does one recognize the truth? Hmmm, let me make it a bit more specific. How can a reader tell if what s/he's reading is what really, actually, truly "happened" or is slightly distorted due to the imperfections of the storytellers (writer and artist), or worse, is a total fabrication that is passed off as truth until a later storyteller sets the record straight? In recent columns, we've been discussing how Marvel doesn't do wholesale revamps of its heroes' legends (origin and history), but does on occasion provide new revelations about old events, and on the rarest of occasions, "explain away" certain details, phenomena, or incidents that are inconsistent with the consensus of past accounts (or aesthetically displeasing to the current storytelling team).
Last month I wrote about how biographical information about Steve Rogers before he became Captain America was revealed to be false. I've got two other famous examples of amended Marvel history. First there's the origin of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. In GIANT-SIZE AVENGERS #1, evidence was presented indicating that the mutant siblings were the progeny of the Golden Age Whizzer and Miss America. This didn't jibe with previous recollections of Quicksilver's of hos he was raised by gypsies. In AVENGERS #186, the Whizzer/Miss America theory was "explained away", the gypsy upbringing was accounted for, and the twins' true mother, a Gypsy named Magda, was revealed. (Their father, Magneto, was revealed to the readers but not to them in that month's X-MEN.) The Magneto/Magda parentage is what is believed to be true today.
The second great example of amended past history concerns the Hulk. In the short-lived RAMPAGING HULK black and white magazine, new accounts of the Hulk's activities between the time of the cancellation of his original comic (a 6-issue Limited Series) and his assumption of a regular feature in TALES TO ASTONISH (with issue #60) were given. These new accounts undercut certain classic Marvel tales by featuring the Hulk's first meetings with such folkds as the Avengers and the X-Men prior to the previously known first meetings of said heroes. Furthermore, since these new accounts didn't appear for at least a decade or so after the original accounts did, no mention could be made in the origina accounts of recognizing the Hulk from these "continuity-implanted" stories. Then in INCREDIBLE HULK #269, the RAMPAGING HULK material was revealed to be have actually been the movies of alien movie-maker Bereet, and thus didn't actually happen at all. (So that's why no one mentioned these prior meetings with the Hulk before!)
So the question is, how do you know if a story's "true" or if it won't be revealed to be somebody's misconception or an alien movie at some later date? The answer is you don't. But Marvel's writers tend to be a pretty responsible lot-- they don't mess with past stories lightly, and when they do there's generally a pretty valid reason. As a general rule, be suspicious of flashbacks (events that are not presented at the time they occurred) because these are subject to the subjectivity of whatever character is having the flashback. Also be leery of stories whose details are inconsistent with the consensus of information in other stories. Beyond that, the bulk of Marvel history is pretty much was it says in print.