How to Save Comics – A Defense of the Letter Columns!

06Jan11

When I started writing this a while back, Bleeding Cool hadn’t informed us all that DC Comics is bringing the letters column back to their comics.  So I had to rework this column a little bit and add a few things in light of the news.  Everything I thought still stands, and I’ve added in a little bit addressing some of the snarky comments I’ve seen on the net about the columns coming back, too.  Without further ado….

There’s a lot of discussions about how to save comics nowadays, as if they’re some damsel in distress tied to a train tracks crying as they’re about to get liquefied by an oncoming freight train.  Personally, I don’t think things are THAT dire, nor do I think that the hyperbole is particularly productive.  I think things are changing, sure, but a little foresight and work can help the business as a whole survive and, possibly, thrive.  Realistically, it is more about evolution and change than it is about strictly survival.  However, who would read a series of articles called “How to Manage the Oncoming Change in the Future of the Comics Business?”  No one, that’s who.  Just that line sounds like an obnoxiously boring business seminar.  Powerpoint anyone?  Heck no.

So on to the actual business at hand.  Saving comics.  On the monthly comic side of things, it is no secret that monthly comic books haven’t been exactly selling at historical highs for quite a while now, especially when it comes to the non-superhero side of things.  Getting people to read monthly comics, especially in the age of waiting for the trade, becomes a matter of creating a monthly package that people are compelled to buy.

The comic companies have done themselves a bit of a disservice by having monthly books often become simply the individual chapters that are then eventually put into a collected edition.  On top of that the collected edition then ends up often being cheaper to purchase than the individual issues contained within, and often contain “extras” that weren’t printed in the monthly comics.  Then the companies wonder why the sales on the monthly comic has lagged so much over the years.

One of the ways to make the monthly package compelling is to deliver compelling content.  This is more than just telling a great story within the pages of the comic.  For example, you can try to make things exciting on a weekly basis so people want to stay tuned in every week and see what is happening.  However, there’s other things you can do.

Like bring back the letters column.

I’ve been telling anyone who would listen to do this for several years, especially on DC’s Vertigo line.

Letters columns do many things to make the monthly book more interesting.

Letters columns add more reading material and insight to the book in your hands at a relatively low cost to the publisher.  Having even two pages of comments by other fans to read as well as comments by the editors and creators that give some insight into the book that a reader may not have thought of before adds a different kind of entertainment to the package.

Letter columns add to the sense of community surrounding a given book.  They encourage people to provide feedback in the hopes of getting their letter printed.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that two of the bigger success stories of the indie comic scene of the last 10 years has been Invincible and Walking Dead, which feature letter pages as a significant part of their monthly package.

Some naysayers insist that the existence of the internet and forums makes the letters column obsolete.  They’re wrong, for two primary reasons.

Everything on the internet is worthless.  Psychologically, people value things not according to the actual value that any given item provides to their life, but according to what they have to give up in order to acquire that thing.  Accessing online comments is completely free, and anyone who has frequented internet forums or comments threads of any stripe will tell you that those areas are less than worthless on the whole.  (Yes, that worthlessness extends even to this blog, but I like typing a whole lot of words, so here we are.)  People inherently will place greater value reading a letter or opinion that was screened by an editor and then printed in a physical comic than they would value that exact same letter or opinion.  They also don’t have to sift through 300 posts in all caps going “LOLZ SUPERMAN IS DUMB” to find a post of any quality.

I don’t expect anyone here reading this to agree with, or possibly even understand this point, but the truth is, there are people out there who have zero interest in wading onto the internet to discuss comics.  I have customers who spend all day in front of a computer at work, and when they get home, the last thing they want to do is continue to do so.  I have others who are far enough out in the suburbs that they don’t have a decent connection, and others who simply can’t afford an internet connection.  There’s more to the world than the echo chamber of the internet, and letters columns printed in the books allow those customers more of an opportunity to appreciate the community aspect of being a comics fan.

Finally,on a related note, a few people I know have complained about two pages of story being replaced with the letters pages in DC Comics.  I’m willing to bet that the real choice isn’t between two pages of story and two pages of letters.  It was likely two pages of letters or two more pages of ads.  I applaud DC for going with the former.

If you don’t care about the letters pages, then this won’t really bug you and you can ignore this whole thing.  However, I’m certain there’s quite a few people out there for whom the re-introduction of the letters page will bring more value to their experience, and I’m all for it.

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2 Responses to “How to Save Comics – A Defense of the Letter Columns!”

  1. Well put, Tim! I think you’re spot-on about the value-added benefit of a letters column for building community. Heck, top comments from the online forums could also be printed and just imagine what that level of competitive prestige might offer the overall quality of comments!

    It won’t surprise you that that’s my big issue with bringing back the letters column, the QUALITY of both the discourse and the reading experience. First, as you rightly point out, regular readers get some backstage and perhaps foreshadowing that then become “insider info”… cultural capital in the internet age of endless speculation. BUT there is also a benefit for creators and publishers, and that’s maintaining the pulse of their broader audiences rather than being captive of the forum troll echo chamber. Heck, the community could vet itself in true democratic fashion and thus save the creatives the hassle of enduring the endless “SPRMN SUX” and “Spawn Rulz” drivel. Win-Win.

    But secondly, the letters column can also educate and actually improve the community discourse. Back in the day when I bought my monthly comics off a grocery store spinner rack, I devoured the “Detective Comments” section of my Batman books and actually learned a thing or two. Sometimes it was about the realism of detective process (way before CSI, mind you), but my young self was also exposed to formative discussions about the social or political issues that were woven into the stories. That is, I actually learned about important stuff and saw a few editorial responses from Denny O’Neil that rival anything gleaned from a high school civics discussion. If comics are to remain vital, they must remain relevant, and its this potential civic function of the letters column that excites me most!

  2. NOT that the snarky back-and-forth can’t also be pretty entertaining or occasionally horrifying. Exhibit A:
    http://www.comicsalliance.com/2011/01/06/comic-book-letters-columns/


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