Wednesday, January 5, 2011

DC Letter Columns Return!

So, DC Comics is boldly moving forward by moving backward and bringing back Letter Columns to the backs of their comics.

From very early on in the publishing of serialized comics, readers were encouraged to write into their favorite titles to congratulate or complain.  The readers also asked silly or scientific questions, and it all made for a "hey, gang!  We're all enjoying Superman together!" sort of vibe.  The editors took on criticism and occasionally released formal mea culpas,  and sometimes spent some time explaining a point in a story if enough people wrote in with some confusion.

As a reader growing up pre-internet and generally not tuned in to fandom, if you were the only kid on your block reading, say, The Heckler*, then it was nice to look at a letter column and know what your fellow fans were thinking and that you were a part of some larger community.

I didn't just like letter columns as a kid, these days I LOVE reading vintage letter columns in back issues.  Many letters are from some poor schlub pointing out this-or-that continuity error (fake ex:) "In the first panel Jimmy Olsen is wearing his camera and three pages later, where is the camera?", and  you can practically hear the derisive self-satisfied nerd-snorting.  Often, editors would cop to their mistakes and say "yup, its a comic book.  Our artists work for horrible wages at amazing speeds.  They @#$% up every once in a while and so do us editors."  And in even better cases they come up with an answer intended to simply irritate the asker,  like "Ah, but Jimmy handed it off to Lois, who you didn't see walk through the room between panels".

Those, by far, are my favorite answers.  Its a reminder that "holy %$#@, kids, its just comics, have some fun with it for chrissake" that the modern comics reader could certainly stand to ponder.

I also appreciate this tactic as it is one I often similarly employ when Jamie attempts to point out any of my errors.

She:  You left the garage light on all night.
Me:  Indeed I did.  It needed to be on for the spiders.
She:  No, it did not.
Me:  Did you want the spiders tripping over their own feet?  They have eight feet you know...  Think of the spiders.
She:  It is a miracle we are still married.

...and.... scene.**

What's very interesting about the letter columns in older comics, when folks tended to think that comics were just for kids, is that, pretty clearly, a lot of letters are sent in by a range of ages, and include quite a few girls and women writing in (women, in particular, tend to be furious at Jimmy Olsen in their letters.  Its sort of charming.).  And I recently read a letter column in which an angry fellow from the Bronx predicted the inevitable passing fad of The Beatles, as something everyone would soon wise-up to (Jimmy had traveled in time and made up several cavemen to look like The Beatles.  Don't ask.).

I don't remember what year letter columns disappeared.  I do know they gave way to message boards, including those owned by the publisher.  Then other means of web communication.

I don't go without opinions on this, but I want to see what they've decided to do before I say "this is a good idea" or "this is a bad idea".

But I half wonder if DC isn't trying to remind its fans that (a) they can listen, and (b) possibly remind their fans what a constructive conversation with the editors looks like.

The rules are as follows:
Please include your full name, and address, for confirmation purposes. Letters should be no longer than 500 words and should not include attachments.
Letters may be edited for length or clarity and may be published in any medium. Letters become the property of DC Comics.
500 words?  Man, that's asking people to be precise, get to the point and not ramble on about how their Batgirl fan fiction improves on continuity and how they think it IS part of continuity (in their own crazy head, I guess). 

The return of letter columns also

  • eliminates drive-by trolls who, for example, hit every DC Blog column they see on Superman just long enough to post "why don't they retire that character?"
  • eliminates the "axe-to-grind" trolls, like say, Kyle Rayner fans who use every post about Green Lantern to complain that Hal is not Kyle
  • not have to publish wild type-o's and misspellings and publicize the failure of certain public schools
  • allows them to ignore the Nth poster who insists that Grant Morrison's approach must be wrong because, basically, they can't read.
  • enables DC to demonstrate what sort of questions they'll answer and what a respectful exchange of ideas looks like
While letter cols no doubt will manage the conversation, there's also no doubt that the internet is an enabler for misplaced entitlement and bad behavior (why DC bothers to have a comment section on its blog is beyond me.  Its the same six guys criticizing every single item that goes up) and DC can manage their conversation with fans a bit better.

Part of that managed conversation is the fact that readers sending in letters will have to stop and think about what they're saying so as not to wind up in the crank file or circular file.  Can you provide constructive feedback?  Ask a thoughtful question?  Is this something the current generation of eager fans will even know how to do is asked?   (They've never SEEN a letter column in the past decade!)

I don't foresee DC removing comment sections or giving up on their discussion board, necessarily.  And the internet will always have its own unique voices and communities, but at this point I am 100% okay with a managed conversation between the fans writing in.  But, interestingly, the questions of record in print comics will be the ones that make the cut.  And that's worth something.

Its a two-edged sword.  The internet most certainly gave fans a sense of community and ownership over DC Comics that it had never before seen.  But it was always an illusory entitlement.  At the end of the day, no matter how much the fans perceive a love of, say, Superman...  its always DC's toy.  Surely the thrill of having a letter printed in an issue of your favorite comic will provide a great sense of participation with DC (some creators actually broke into comics this way!).   And if this is to work, editors will have to include and address criticism, or the whole exercise will look like useless hype.

So... I am curious to see how this goes.

And I'm also curious to see what the editors have to say for themselves in the letter columns.  The fanbase is a bit different than it was even by 2000.

I guess, in many ways, I'm looking forward to seeing this first batch, and then seeing how the letters evolve.

*I tend to believe I was one of five people in the world reading (and enjoying the heck out of) The Heckler.
**every day I thank my lucky stars that Jamie has been willing to put up with me, lo these many years.  I can barely stand being in the same room with myself.  How she does it is beyond me.


Simon MacDonald said...

On a related note, I think that digital comics should at the end of the issue have a link that takes you to the company moderated message board where fans can discuss the issue. I think this would be a good way to enhance the digital comic reading experience.

The League said...

Geez. That's one of those things that's so correct when you say its, baffling they haven't done it.

Simon MacDonald said...

I have so many ideas to make digital comics better it is not even funny. I've toyed with the idea of getting a job with Comixology but a) I'd need to move to NYC and b) don't think it is quite as stable as my current position.

mcsteans said...

"She: It is a miracle we are still married."

This is ridiculous, I would never say this. We are still married because you are thoughtful enough to leave the light on for spiders.

The League said...

And this is why we work.

I'd look at Comixology, but I'd also look at DC's LA offices. <--not kidding.

rhpt said...

Moderated message boards are time consuming to, uh, moderate. That's why most websites don't do it. You could have volunteers that moderate, but then you also open up a whole other can of worms there.

The League said...

I would guess the real issue with the DC message boards (which were somewhat moderated last time I checked circa 2004) is (a) that some people use the boards as their living room and get kind of weird in there and (b) the ratio of signal to noise makes them almost unreadable unless you're unemployed.

The League said...

by that, I mean: you have nothing but time to sort through the noise.

Simon MacDonald said...

Yeah, it takes a bit of effort to moderate a board. However if they are accepting letters again someone is going to have to read them as well. With some good spam filtering they could easily remove the crap and still have a pretty good discourse going on.