They were also great places to learn about the backstory of your favorite characters, because people smarter than me would talk about previous adventures. (Remember, it wasn't like there were back issue comic shops in those days where I could go out and buy them.)
And I also learned what the word "Excelsior!" meant. Sort of.
I was sort of stunned to learn that there was a Wikipedia page entitled "Comic Book Letter Columns," and was even more stunned to find out that it was fairly accurate (although there are a LOT of other names that should be in their list of letterhacks - Paul Gambaccini, Irene Vartanoff, Guy H. Lillian III, and Rich Morrissey, to name four off the top of my head). For a pretty good overview/history of comic lettercols, go HERE. Don't worry. I'll wait.
Pretty interesting, huh?
I loved lettercolumns and had many favorites. Of course, Stan Lee ran some incredible, anything-goes lettercolumns in the 60s (and his Bullpen Bulletins pages were so memorable and so much a part of the whole Marvel Experience, that The Hero Initiative is actually collecting them all into a book as a fund-raiser). Julie Schwartz's lettercols in Flash, Green Lantern, and Justice League seemed more austere on first impression, but there was always a lively discussion and occasionally Julie would set out some outrageous pun for the unexpecting reader to walk into. Later on, I was a big fan of Dick Giordano's lettercols (and even later, his Meanwhile... columns). Dick's columns had a certain warmth and honesty to them that made you really feel like you were a part of DC, just like Stan made you feel that you ran Marvel. And, although they weren't exactly lettercols, who could forget Archie Goodwin's hysterical cartoons on the inside front cover of each Epic comic?
I wasn't a big fan of Mort Wieisinger's lettercolumns for the Superman titles, being as they were big lists of "goofs" that popped up in the books, that encouraged the worst kind of fan behavior (and indirectly inspired Stan to create the No-Prize!). I did, of course, enjoy the "Bits of Legionnaire Business" sections of the Adventure Comics lettercol, and Mort's lettercols became much better after E. Nelson Bridwell was hired to assist him (mostly because Nelson loved history and trivia and there were many fewer goofs in the books due to his efforts!).
Despite being such a big fan of the lettercols, I never had a letter printed in either a Marvel or DC comic - mostly because I didn't write that many! However, somewhere out there is a Gold Key comic book (the issue and title of which I lost track of long ago) that has a joke attributed to "Casey" Carlson, which is how it was spelled before I got lazy and shortened it. I'm thinking it was probably an elephant joke. So much for originality.
*** Wrangling ***
As big a fan as I was of lettercols, I never thought that I would someday be assembling lettercolumns (or wrangling them, as I referred to it). But when I arrived at DC in 1989, I was quickly handed a lettercolumn as my first assignment.
Back then (and maybe forever - I never asked), DC treated the lettercols as a part of editorial content, so that one or two pages of letters were a part of the budget for every comic book. And because they were a budget item, people actually got paid to assemble them! Plus, you got paid for them on a freelance basis, meaning that before you could actually do a lettercol, you had to establish a writer's page rate for yourself.
Having a page rate established did not automatically mean that letter wranglers got the same amount per page as the folks writing the actual stories. Heavens no! Beginning lettercolumn assemblers were usually given a rate of about one-third to one-half of what "real" writers were making. But the cash was nothing to sneeze at, especially if you were the new kid on the block trying to make the incredibly stupidly high rents in NYC each month.
I had always wondered why, in recent years, more and more lettercols were being assembled by assistant and associate editors, or even by people not even associated with the comic in question. There were a couple of good reasons for that. First, the task evolved into part of the job requirement for assistants, freeing up the main editor for other increasingly time-consuming tasks, including developing new projects and talent, becoming more involved with the marketing and promotion of their books, and representing DC at an increasing number of comic conventions and trade shows. But more importantly - at least to the lowly paid assistants - the lettercolumns became a very important supplement to their salaries, and they were often the deciding factor in whether rents and utility bills got paid - much less money for food. (Have I mentioned that NYC is VERY expensive!)
Having spent a big chunk of my meager savings just getting to NYC from the wilds of Wisconsin, I still owe big thanks to Richard Bruning and Karen Berger for allowing me to crash on their sofa for the first couple of months and to Mike Carlin for instantly offering up a couple of lettercols (Teen Titans for one, I think), which helped immensely in saving for that big first-and-last-month's-rent-plus-security-deposit payment to secure an apartment. Both Mike - and later the Denny O'Neil/Dan Raspler team - kept me loaded with lettercol assignments for my first year or so at DC.
Mike Carlin showed me the ropes on how to structure a good lettercolumn and shared his interesting philosophy about them. According to Mike, letter columns were just a different kind of house ad for the comics. The main point in doing one was to promote your book, promote the other books you edit (when you can), and promote DC Comics in general. Letters were to be chosen on the basis of how you should respond to them, either setting up plugs for future storylines or creative changes, accepting reader's praise gracefully, or - when possible - setting up a "chain" of letters with similar points so you could segue from one to another. You shouldn't try to argue with letter writers pointing out mistakes - a simple "Oops! We goofed!" should suffice, with possibly a short explanation. He also didn't like critical letters, unless you could find a way to turn the criticism into a positive. For instance, it was always okay to run a knock on an artist that was on the way out, because you could say "Sorry you didn't like Joe Blow's work. You'll be happy to know that Jimmy Bigfeet is our new artist - beginning next issue!", but you shouldn't run a lot of letters that complain about your talent unless you could counter them with at least two or three letters praising the guy in question. Besides, Mike pointed out, if everyone's crabbin' about your talent - you probably should get better talent!
(Years later the effects of this kind of situation became crystal clear to me when I was talking with an artist who had worked at DC early in his career - and was born to work with DC's characters - and had left DC, unexpectedly, in the middle of a storyline. Later, he went to Marvel, where he became a big-name artist. I asked him why he had left DC so unexpectedly. He told me that he was having a problem with his editor. He couldn't get the editor to return his phone calls, and he couldn't get any feedback on the work he was doing, which he felt was crucial since it was a new, high-profile assignment. Finally, after months of no communication with this editor, the current issue of the book in question came out, including letters about the first issue the artist had drawn - the majority of which were negative letters about the artwork. The artist was crushed and phoned the editor to quit the book. He had to leave a message, and predictably, the editor never returned the phone call. The artist believed that DC was finished with him. The saddest part of this story was the fact that the artist's work wasn't deficient - far from it! It was simply that the artist's regular style was one which wasn't normally used for that particular character. Which was why the artist wanted to discuss the work with the editor in the first place.)
Mike also showed me how to handle what he called the "circular file" letters. These were the letters that went more or less like this: "Dear Moron, Your book sucks! Your artist sucks! You all SUCK!" except that I corrected the spelling for this example. I was so naive at the time, I didn't get the "circular file" pun until Mike plopped a handful of these letters into the wastebasket. (LITTLE KNOWN FACT: Did you know that all DC wastebaskets were equipped to display the famous "PLOP!" logo whenever you dropped something into them?)
After hearing Mike's ideas about what lettercolumns should be, I thought back to the lettercolumns that I enjoyed as a reader and realized that in a lot of ways, Mike was right. Stan Lee, of course, was constantly plugging everything in sight, Dick Giordano occasionally ran a box about the other books he was editing, and Julie Schwartz was one of the very first DC editors to actively promote the talent who worked on his books - long before DC officially started crediting the artists and writers. I just never thought of these things as "promotion" before now. But all of these fine gentlemen also ran critical letters from time to time, and often the back and forth of the commentary would flow thought the lettercols for months. This was one of the things that made these lettercols memorable. I decided on my own that I would try to use critical (as opposed to negative) letters whenever I could, although this meant butting heads with Mike on the rare occasion. But I had absolutely no tolerance for "circular file" letters. Out they went.
I quickly learned that you did not always have the luxury of picking and choosing the letters to be printed. While you could regularly expect to get 40 or more letters on the more popular titles, like Batman or Justice League, I frequently prepared letter columns for Doc Savage or New Gods with every letter I received. Sometimes I only got enough letters for one page of column (the other page given over to a house ad). And occasionally there weren't enough letters for even that - I would have to hold those letters and add them to the letters for the next issue to be able to make up a column. Sometimes there wouldn't be enough time to assemble a lettercol or someone forgot or was just plain lazy, but when you saw extra house ads at the end of an issue where the letters usually went, it might be because there weren't enough letters. When DC cut their letter columns from two pages to one, the main reason for doing it was to sell more advertising. But I can't help but think that the decline in the number of letters that were received was also a factor.
One thing I didn't resort to in my columns was making up letters - or if I did, I made it so obvious - like signing it "Jake Fakeletter" - that everyone was in on the joke. I can't say that was always the case at DC. I know of at least one case where one of the regular DC "letterhacks" (people that had a number of letters printed every month in a number of different comics) was totally fictitious. I won't completely spoil the fun by telling who it is, but I will reveal that the one and only time I did use a fake letter (that wasn't obvious), I used this fictitious name, mostly as a joke on the editor who made it up in the first place. (And no, it wasn't Sidney Mellon. That was a totally different joke altogether. Although I think Sidney popped up a time or two at DC, somewhere...)
The main reason for making up a fake letter (and the only reason I ever did it) was to set up a plug for an upcoming story or creator. It felt more natural to set up a plug in this way than to just shout it out. It made it seem just a little less like hype if "someone" asked about it, not that that justifies the act. What I didn't agree with was when a letter wrangler made up a fake letter to praise the comic or the creators (or the editor themselves), or to fill up a column that didn't have many real letters just to get the paycheck.
*** Structuring a Lettercolumn ***
As Mike Carlin pointed out, the first letter in any lettercolumn should clearly state which specific issue (such as Captain Atom #23) the letter column will be about, followed by a quick summary of the key points of the issue. And this would also be one of the few instances where I would edit letters (except cutting them for length) in order to get the title and issue number of the book in the first sentence. A number of the regular DC letterhacks were quite clever and recognized this technique, and that's one of the reasons why their letters were used over and over in that opening slot.
The second letter should also be upbeat and positive, hopefully offering a different point of view from the previous letter. For the third letter, I tried to find a question to answer - or better - a question that another letter answered, setting up a sort of dialogue between readers. Occasionally, a critical letter would be brought in here, leaving enough space to follow for other letters to either counterpoint the criticism or, if we were lucky, to deflect it a bit.
At this point, having chosen a number of letters, I would skip to the end of the column and write the hype boxes. (Assuming I knew what was coming up next. Early on, I was working on letter columns for books that I had no attachment to editorially, so it was often left to the actual editor to do the hype.) Then I would pick the last letter, which was just as important as the first letter. The finale had to have the right tone to end the column on a good, strong note. Often the last letter was something to lead into the hype, but I was always on the lookout for something unusual or funny - either someone being goofy or who had an really unusual take on the issue. Good jokes or puns always worked for me (as they did for Julie, way back when). Sometimes I got lucky and went directly to the heartstrings when I got a letter from a soldier serving abroad to whom the comic had a special meaning or a note from a parent relating how wonderful it was being able to share their comics with their child at bedtime.
After I knew how much space this back matter was going to take up, I could go back and finish up the middle of the column, hopefully being able to find enough different points of view to have it not bog down in the middle. If I couldn't, I would frequently move one of the hype boxes up to the middle to act as a small break from the letters.
*** Kid Stuff ***
Out of all the early lettercols that I did (before I had my own books), I think that my favorite was Batman. Not because I had great love or connection to the character, but because it was an "important" book, so there were plenty of letters from very passionate fans to choose from. And, the biggest thing for me, there were always letters from kids! They were always so cool! First of all, they hardly ever talked about the comic at all - just about Batman. In fact, most of their letters were addressed TO Batman. A typical letter went something like this:
Your car is really neat!
Do you have a DOG? My dog is Duffy.
I love you.
I ran as many of these letters as I could.
And then some of the Batman letter writers got mad! "How dare you waste space on running these kiddie letters?" one said. "My letters are more important than these stupid things!" said another.
This was about the time I lost my patience with a certain segment of fandom.
As far as I was concerned, every letter I ran from a kid like this got DC a Batman fan for life. All it cost was less than an inch of space in a lettercol. And the thrill that kid got when he saw his letter in print - Priceless. Every little kid that had a letter published could be inspired to grow up and write or draw or even edit Batman someday. And the real lesson to take from it is - never forget where you came from. Never forget those early thrills - the things that made you excited or happy! It was obvious that some fans had forgotten that.
Besides, I told one of the nay-sayers, you never write that you love Batman. THAT kid loves Batman!
*** Editing the Wrangler ***
I learned a small "life lesson" from Denny O'Neil while preparing a lettercol for either Batman or Detective. I came to understand that Denny generally ran a "assume everything is great unless I say otherwise" type of editorial operation, so I was used to not hearing about the lettercols I did for him, other than the occasional "nice job." So it was highly unusual to be stopped by him in the halls one morning and have him hand me back the lettercol manuscript that I had turned in the previous day. All he said was "Sarcasm seldom works in print," and then he went back into his office. I flipped through the manuscript, noticed that he had circled a couple of my responses to letters and scribbled something like "please fix" in the margin. And, of course, he was right. I rewrote the responses and made a mental note not to ever forget the advice. And I never have.
Mike Carlin occasionally changed my responses to letters, usually because he had more info about what was coming up in the books than I had, but mostly because his jokes were better than mine. And I still got the credit for 'em. Thanks, Mike!
I have plenty to say about working on the letter columns for the Legion books that I edited, but this is running a bit long, and I think I'll save that for some upcoming columns where I'll get around to talking about editing the Legion in general. Please don't hesitate to remind me if I forget.
*** The End of the Trail ***
I wasn't all that surprised when DC decided to drop lettercolumns altogether in 2002. I saw the handwriting on the wall several years earlier, first when DC's art department redesigned the letter columns to emphasize design elements and reduce the amount of text per page, and later when the lettercols were dropped from two pages to just one. There simply wasn't enough room to get a decent dialog going in the reduced space. Also, I think that the level of discussion had been steadily declining over the years. The hardcore letterhacks were still at it and going strong, but, as I said earlier, the number of letters received kept decreasing, except for the big titles. Those that we did get seemed less optimistic about comics and more and more cynical. It often felt that the letters we received were more calculated and formulaic in an effort to see print. One got the feeling that some letter writers were more motivated in seeing their names in print than actually coming up with interesting or challenging opinions. Or perhaps that was just a reflection of the books themselves.
The Internet has obviously changed the way in which we all talk about comics. Certainly the reality of "instant" feedback is enticing to publishers and creators alike, but more than one comics pro has wished for some level of self-restraint on the part of overzealous fans. I, for one, tire of the endless message boards where "First Post!" is often the high point of discussion, and much of what is being said are things that were once routinely deposited in the circular file in most editor's offices.
But all is not lost. I am heartened by the efforts of good commentators to crush the few trolls who only seem to exist to cause trouble. I am pleased to discover many wonderful blogs and controlled message boards where thoughtful and important discussion takes place. I am encouraged to see others using their enthusiasm and knowledge to help others in their efforts to annotate comics (something else that lettercols used to do - sort of - and more about this in a future column).
I am energized with the thought that the lettercol isn't completely and totally dead. Good guys like Tom Brevoort and Steve Wacker keep trying to do lettercols over at Marvel, and they're still going strong in indy books like Usagi Yojimbo, Hellboy, Savage Dragon, Powers, and many others. As long as there are comics, there will always be fans with opinions. Fans, it's your job to make sure those opinions are worth hearing! 'Nuff Said!
*** TM Maple ***
This column is dedicated to the memory of TM Maple, aka The Mad Maple, aka Theodore Maddox Maplehurst, aka Jim Burke (his real name), who wrote over 3,000 letters to comic book lettercols between 1977 and 1994, including fan letters to The Westfield Newsletter. I had the pleasure of communicating with him by mail, on and off over the years, and was honored to meet him at one of the thousands of conventions that I have apparently attended. He was a proud Canadian, and I still have the two Canadian flag pins that he entrusted to me.
He wrote good.
And apparently he's the only letterhack to have his own Wikipedia page. Really.
KC CARLSON lied about DC's wastebaskets going "PLOP!" when you threw something into them. Sometimes he can't help himself. (But wouldn't they be cool, Mark?)
BTW, if you haven't already figured it out, the LOC in this column's title refers to "Letter of Comment." It's also a medical abbreviation for "level of consciousness," which, in a weird way, also applies.
Got comments or questions about this column? You can contact KC at AuntieKC@WestfieldComics.com
To link to this column, use this link (right click and copy)