Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Comics You Should Be Talking About For February 15, 2006: She-Hulk 5 and Runaways 13

Two books, 44 story pages altogether. But I only need to talk about 2 of them.

These books actually have a lot in common: they’re underappreciated, they’re actually better than most of Marvel’s top sellers, they keep a deft mix of drama and humor, and they both went on hiatus before a relaunch in an attempt to boost their profile.* But what I want to talk about today is something they have, that all the comics I grew up with had, but that most comics these days don’t have.

I’m talking, of course, about letters pages.

If you’ve followed comics for any length of time, you know the deal: as the comics Internet grew rapidly at the turn of the century, more and more people started expressing and sharing their thoughts on comics on online message boards, and fewer and fewer wrote letters. Meanwhile, the Big Two companies, faced as always with the looming threat of rising paper costs, began looking again to see if they could cut material. Shifting to a higher ad proportion had cost them greatly in the ‘70s (and played out very poorly for Marvel when they tried a similar approach last fall), so they knew cutting story pages was out of the question. At the same time, something had to go. The solution, at the time, seemed clear.

So, slowly but surely, letters pages began to fade from the back of many books. Marvel, in most cases, used the space to institute their recap pages, which filled in new readers on the cast and most recent issues. DC, meanwhile, replaced all of their letters pages with a weekly hype page advertising upcoming high-profile projects. (For the last several months, DC could have saved a lot of money and time if they’d just printed a big “Buy Infinite Crisis” banner in their DCU books.) A few independent books soldiered on**, but for the most part, the letters page seemed to have gone the way of the dodo.

Most reckoned it was a case of communications Darwinism, a new, better method displacing the old model. Me, I dunno. The more I consider it, the more I think that we sacrificed a great deal getting rid of the letters pages, and I’m very thankful they’re back.

The letters page as we know it began in the heyday of the grand pulp magazines. Amazing Stories, Weird Tales, Argosy, and more catered to a certain kind of customer: lonely, withdrawn, awkward young boys. Often creative types themselves, they desperately needed a sense of belonging, of community,*** and the First Fandom that sprang out of the pulps gave them that. And there was no greater symbol of that community than the letters page. Through it, these proto-nerds found a way to communicate with others like themselves, and lifelong friendships and bonds were formed.

Now, certainly the Internet has assumed many of those communicative and social functions. I myself have made a good deal of friends on the Comic Book Resources boards; indeed, many of my friends in New York come from that pool. But the Internet can be a very wild place, and that wildness removes a key element from the society that makes it, on the whole, an inferior means of correspondence.

Consider: Every actual mailed letter you have ever written, or will ever write, begins the same way: with an address. It takes many forms, the popular American one being "Dear (Name)." For roughly 75 years, every letter ever received by any publication, including comic books, began the same way. The psychological effect of that address on the writer cannot be overemphasized. I have the ones from the Runaways and She-Hulk lettercols in front of me right now. "Hey, BKV, Adrian, and the Gang." "Dear Aubrey Sitterson." "Hey Street Team!" "Guys." "Dear Whatever the letters column is going to be called." This last is extremely telling. This writer was so in need of someone to be talking to that he made a catch-all name to complete the address with. Someone to be talking to.

Very rarely is the fan expressing his views on the Internet talking to anyone in particular. He's talking at anyone kind enough to listen, but not talking to anyone. Communication is a two-way street, and without some idea of the receiver in his mind, a writer will flounder for the proper level of tone. Or, as happens all too often, abandon propriety altogether and give the raw, undiluted id control over the message. All too often, the product is irrelevant snark, ignorant ranting, partisan nitwittery and incomprehensible Internet graffiti. There is no message, merely barbaric yawps sounded out over the laptops of the world, so much sound and fury.

Contrast this with the more civilized commentary and criticism in the average letter column. Any bonehead who hated the last issue of Flash can express his rage in leetspeak over the Internet, but to make it into print, a critic must be eloquent, fair-minded, and above all civil. Consider the recent letters page debate in Young Avengers over the sexuality of Hulkling and Wiccan. Both sides (and more) weighed in, and did so in a courteous manner. Accusations of bigotry and ungodly deviance were absent. What was left was honest, passionate, and above all reasoned debate that, with any luck, made everyone involved step back and think about the matter some. I can say without reservation that this did not happen on the Internet. For every debater interested in furthering the discussion, there were a dozen immovable objects, adamant in their moral superiority and unwavering in their belief that they and only they had the "right" view on the subject. In the lesser moments, when truly moving posts were met with only rhetoric and insults, I shook my head in disgust. Was this the best the Internet could give us?

And the civility and community in letter columns. goes far beyond debate. The She-Hulk and Runaways pages are also improving the form, or at least trying to. Runaways writer Brian K. Vaughan writes and edits the lettercol himself, as do Young Avengers's Allen Heinberg and X-Factor's Peter David. The She-Hulk column has encouraged an almost unprecedented level of reader participation, first with a call for readers to display their She-Hulk tattoos, then with the first annual "Hunk-A-Thon," a vote for the dreamiest and sexiest member of the male cast. (I'm holding out for Dark Horse candidate Awesome Andy.) It's a goofy kind of charming, and worth the sacrifice of one page.

The Internet will always be with us, and it behooves each poster to work to improve it. But there's an air of legitimacy and professionalism to the fandom seen in the letters pages, and we all need that reminder that, just because we're nerds, doesn't mean we have to be nerds about it. And that's something you should be talking about. Thoughts?

*That in and of itself is fodder enough for an entry, and if they ship in tandem next month, I’ll do it then.

**I”d be sorely remiss if I neglected to mention one Marvel book that maintained a steady letters page presence during this time: Peter Milligan and Mike Allred’s X-Force (later relaunched as X-Statix so Marvel wouldn’t have to cut Rob Liefeld a check every month). For the first year or so, they printed nothing but the most virulent hate mail they received regarding the drastic reboot of the concept, with the responses left mostly to fan-favorite character Doop. It was a low comedy geekshow of the worst kind, and I loved it to pieces.

***Keep this one in the back of your brain; it'll be important tomorrow as well.

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