Tuesday, February 10, 2015

My Year With Marvel: An Ode to Letters Pages

A square photo of The Hyperborean Page, featured in Conan the Barbarian #111.

‘Round about fifteen years ago, the comics publishers I most loved--Marvel and Dark Horse--raised their cover prices.

My budget being what it was, this effectively marked the end of my reading-by-issue days. I eventually got back into comics through trade collections, many of which I borrowed from the library, but I haven’t purchased a paper issue from that day to this. (Digital issues are another matter entirely.)

It was a ginormous blow at the time, but in the long run I ain’t so sure the death of my single issue purchasing prospects was a bad thing. Transitioning to trades taught me I don’t really like reading by issue. It’s tolerable if the story is episodic, and I’ll do it if I have to, but I’d much rather sit down with a complete arc I can barrel through all in one go.

I’m firmly in the trades-over-single-issues camp in every respect save one: I miss letters pages.

Letters pages are the best. Even in my days of scrounging ancient back issues from grotty thrift stores, I made sure to take in the decades-old reader reactions at the end of each issue. If I was lucky enough to find a few sequential issues, I followed conversations between folks who corresponded solely via their favourite comics. I got excited for anyone who won a No-Prize. I even learned stuff; like, an old CONAN letters page taught me that "cretin" is a bastardization of the word "Christian" and thus not much of an insult at all.

When I transitioned to digital comics a couple years back, I was thrilled to discover that most of the bundled story arcs I bought were made up of single issues. I could read letters pages again!

It’s been a wild ride. The SAGA letters pages provide some much-needed relief after the tension of each issue, while the BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER pages either introduce me to my long-lost brain twins or make me furrow my forehead by turns. Whatever my reaction, I’m mighty glad to get additional perspectives on everything.

The first books I read via Marvel Unlimited came sans letters pages, so I assumed that was par for the course with the service. It was comics-only, thank you very much; none of that supplementary material that pads out the page count. I might've squeed out loud when I moved on to some more recent comics, like HAWKEYE, and found letters pages present and accounted for.


Y’all, these pages bring me a ridiculous amount of joy. Like, it’s so gratifying to look at the current NOVA’s letters column and see how many other people were scared to try the book because they loved Richard Rider so much. That's me to a tee. Likewise, I'm glad to know we all like Sam Alexander very much, with the exception of those people who're all, "Damn, does he ever need to grow up." (He's a kid. I assume growing up is gonna be part of his character arc?)

At the same time, it’s frustrating to encounter folks like the person who wrote to YOUNG AVENGERS just so’s they could shame Kate for sleeping with Noh-Varr right off the bat. Grrr. At least the creative team didn't put up with it.

On a less grumpy-making note, most Marvel editors print fanart, cosplay, and other fun stuff alongside the letters. The editors banter with readers. The writers and artists step in to respond directly to comments or to recommend other things folks might like. Many of the comics recs tie back to Marvel, but not all of them. Letters pages come across as a pretty inclusive zone.

They also make comics feel like a long, self-contained conversation. There’s no need to browse message boards or hit people up on Twitter (though of course, you should do that too. Y’all know you can always talk to me about comics, right? @xicanti?). Letters pages give fans a way to share their thoughts right within the books themselves, and that’s a beautiful thing.

And I still get mighty excited for the No-Prize winners.


  1. The letters are fun. I am trade reader mostly, but I do enjoy reading the letters when I pick up a single edition. I much prefer trades so I don't read many singles any more. It's a space thing, too. I have a bunch of old X-Men singles I am thinking about getting rid of because I have no where really for them. But, I haven't yet...

    1. I've got two full storage boxes of floppies, but some of them are actually my mother's. I really ought to get 'em out the door--after I take another peek at the letters pages for nostalgia's sake, of course.

  2. So, what's a No-Prize? The link's a 404.

    1. Ugh; curly quotation marks snuck in and messed up my link.

      It's fixed now, but a No-Prize is basically a prize for pointing out a continuity error in a Marvel comic. Some publishers used to give cash prizes for that sort of thing, but old-timey Marvel was cheap so all they handed out was the honour of telling the world you'd been awarded a No-Prize via a letters column. I think they eventually sent out certificates, too, and expanded the scope of the award to recognize people who could explain why the error wasn't an error at all. It was basically a joke that turned into an actual thing.

  3. I don't like reading issue by issue either! I do it for some comics because I don't have the self-control to wait for the trade paperbacks (ahem, Saga, Hawkeye), but it's not my preferred reading method. It's much more fun and satisfying to read in huge gulps (at least for me). But yes! The letter pages! The ones for Sex Criminals are a particular lot of fun, if you don't mind em raunchy.

    1. Yes! Huge gulps are GREAT! I've started reading a couple of series by issue through Marvel Unlimited just to see if I can ease back into it (and because I didn't want to wait six months to learn what happened to Richard Rider), but I'm always gonna prefer to read lots at once instead of small snippets at monthly intervals. I have the same problem with TV, so I sometimes save four or five episodes of a show and have myself a mini marathon.