So Why a Website?

posted 4.18.2010

I can hear the resounding “DUH” from hither and yon. Just about everybody on God’s Green Earth has one of these things. Why bother even asking why?

After all, I’m not living in some cave, somewhere. I’ve got a cell phone. I’ve got an email address. I even flirt with that strange little forum called Twitter. I haven’t clunked away at the John-Henry keys of a manual typewriter since well before the last of them were put away and lost in that vast, dusty warehouse, forgotten, fork-lifted and hauled off, left to squat between Rosebud and the Ark of the Covenant.

But changing fashion is never reason enough for me to change my ways, as any observer of my day-to-day wardrobe would attest.

Fact is, I like this website idea. I like it a whole lot. It fills a void I’ve long ignored, and long missed. As with many mechanisms of what we momentarily call “new media” (we’ll simply and accurately call them “media”, minus the “new”, soon enough), the website takes something clunky and old and gives us something new. And better. To wit:

A Brief History of the Letter Column

I loved letter columns, back when they existed. For those of you who never heard of the things, letter columns ran in the butt end of comic books. That was awhile back, sometime after the last triceratops went belly-up and the first nanobot inched its way across the human brain.

Usually two pages long, the columns offered the closest approximation to an opportunity for a direct, written, give-and-take between the people who read comics and the people who produced them.

This give-and-take was, however, invariably prophylactic.

Normally, the “fan mail” that saw print would be carefully screened, not just for long-standing concerns about libel and obscenity. No, the publishers’ standards were positively Stalinist. Complaints kissed the wastebasket. Only glowing praise survived comics’ letter-column pogroms.

One exception. Inquiries were allowed, so long as they were utterly toothless. “Will Saturn Girl marry Cosmic Boy?” was acceptable. “Why does Superman keep all his fellow Supermen stuck in a Mason jar?” was less likely to be deemed tasteful enough for our tender souls.

But if you stuck with “if Krypto thinks in English, why doesn’t he talk to Superman?”, your chances of publication were better.

These penetrating, cut-to-the-bone questions would merit response from the editor or some employ of his, almost always with a coy non-answer. Just enough to keep the fan reading issue after issue.

I didn’t find back then, and nor do I now, anything sinister about all that. A comic-book letter column was never Thomas Jefferson’s public square, and never did it pretend to be such. Letter columns were a couple of pages placed to build reader enthusiasm.

Nobody with a brain more complex than a speed bump would find a comic-book letter column a battlefield for the First Amendment.

Also, and this is no secret, the columns saved the publishers scarce-as-hen’s-teeth money. Comics, back when that sad old triceratops was staring skyward and breathing her last, cut corners wherever they could. They only ran advertisements because the silly things cost the company less cash than story pages did.

That’s right. Even the ads lost money (Just imagine if those X-Ray glasses WORKED! But they didn’t, and the sea monkeys were just brine shrimp…).

Even the ads were losers, just cheap page-filler. That’s how low-profit the comics industry was. Even paying Curt Swan, Joe Kubert, and Nick Cardy in nickels, comics survived by the skin of their teeth.

Say what you wish about Mort Weisinger, Jim Shooter, Paul Levitz, Julie Schwartz, and all the rest. I’ve said plenty myself, some of it pretty rough. But we probably wouldn’t still have comic books without them. It was an ugly job, but somebody had to do it.

Then along came Stan Lee. Maybe it was naked egotism. Maybe it was sharp, inventive marketing. My friend is capable of both.

Stan gave us slobs credit.

He gave it to himself first, of course, but that’s Stan.

Not that Mr. Lee was the first to acknowledge that human hands attached to human names made comic books. Bob Kane’s name was splashed all over BATMAN, no matter whether Kane even saw the pages. C.C. Beck and Otto Binder are stretched across CAPTAIN MARVEL like a chained Prometheus. Harvey Kurtzman, George Evans, Bill Elder, Al Feldstein, and the genius Wallace Wood all signed their names to their wonderful EC Comics.

Credit was hardly a brand-new notion. But never, until Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics, had it been codified, so systematically and enthusiastically celebrated. Now we didn’t just have their names. We had their nicknames. Need I ask anybody the name of “The King”? Or who it was that made Spider-Man the first triple-jointed nerd to wear a skintight suit?

The comic-book star—the guy who actually drew the stuff and garnered a following of his name--was born.

Jim Steranko, and, more influentially, Neal Adams, grabbed the football and took it to the end zone.

The genie smashed its way out of the bottle.

It took Phil Seuling and his compadres, including Denis Kitchen, Robert Crumb, Richard Corben, and other pioneers to turn “head shop” distribution into what became the “direct market”, making comics more profitable. With this revolution came meaningful, indeed bankable, name recognition. For fans like me, it became habit to identify the artists worth following.

No longer was anonymous Curt Swan “the good Superman artist”. Nor, of course, was the astonishing Carl Barks “the good Duck artist”. The men had names. And we knew them.

So there I was, a teenager in Vermont, dumbstruck, my eyes super-glued to the first page of an issue of the X-MEN. The statue of a Pharaoh loomed. The X-Men sailed along on some contraption. But all I could see were wings.

It was the Angel. His wings swallowed the page, and devoured my own young mind. Suddenly, Jack Kirby’s portrait of the same character’s wings, in cruel contrast, looked like clumsy cardboard cutouts. These were wings, glorious wings, carrying an Angel. And there, prominent in the credits, was the consecration: “introducing the penciling wizardry of NEAL ADAMS”.

I knew his name. I could even spell it.

Us readers knew the names. This might just be the seminal change between the age of that sad, belly-up triceratops, and the now.

Years passed. I got to draw and write Marvel Comics’ DAREDEVIL. I couldn’t resist taking over the title’s letter column myself. If a letter was well-written, I ran it, and responded. Editor Denny O’Neil and Big Boss Jim Shooter allowed me my own voice, and agreed that I could run letters that offered a rush of honest comment and criticism.

The letters were passionate. Every month I dove in, relishing praise, suffering withering commentary from feminists over my twenty-something portrait of my character Elektra. I even wound up marching to the local FBI offices with threatening responses to Elektra’s inevitable death. I was honestly scared for my own mortality, as my then-girlfriend Laurie Sutton will attest.

Along the way, in all this letter-columning (no, that can’t be a word, don’t bother to look it up), I made worthy acquaintance with several good people, sincere lovers of comics and the importance of fantasy as a necessary tool in dealing with the muck of day-to-day life. I single out Elizabeth Holden, media star Mark Askwith, and, more important than any others, Diana Schutz, as good an editor and friend as anybody could ask for. Diana and I work together to this day.

So ends my personal history of the comic-book letter column. As with every communication form, it doesn’t die. It adapts. Just like the Homeric Poem gave birth to live Theatre, then to prose, comic books, radio plays, and movies, so the letter column goes the way of the nickelodeon and makes way for a more direct, participatory way for us to stay in touch.

This site is just for you and me, dear reader. Let’s mix it up.

I haven’t worked a letter column in years. This should be just about every kind of fun there is.