Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Where have all the letters gone?

It seems like every few weeks, I start off a post with an apology for the lack of posts, and then post a mega-long entry. This is no different. (Scipio, I don't know how the hell you can keep posting short entries several times a week -- maybe I don't know when the hell to shut up.)

Anyway, hopefully once the semester is over on the 16th I can get back into some heavy posting over break.

I was sorting through my comics last night, trying to put together a Microsoft Access database so I can search quickly and easily for a certain author, penciller, or event.

And as I usually do when I flip through the comics of my youth, I started to wax nostalgic.

I miss letter columns.

They used to go on for pages, plus maybe a letter from the editor in chief. It's where more than a few comics creators got their first publication in a book. Like most bygone things in comics, it's one of those things I never really got the chance to participate in and regret.

My all-time favorite letter column was in Gerard Jones' Guy Gardner -- fans would write in and Guy himself would answer, his response usually laced with not-quite-curse-words he must have picked up from Lobo ("fraggin'," "bastich," etc.).

But letter columns have been largely replaced by comics blogs. Comics fans are still cheering and bitching about their favorite topics (costume changes, deaths, who is Earth's Green Lantern), but the mood is different. Now some hide behind avatars and pseudonyms -- letter columns used to publish your whole address, for God's sake. There's a certain honesty that comes from people knowing your real name instead of GLFan2814 or some such nonsense. People took more care in writing their arguments. Once you sent off a physical letter, that was it -- if someone misinterpreted your argument, you couldn't immediately respond and go, "No, you idiot. You weren't even listening to what I said." Or if you wanted to, you'd have to wait another month or two to respond.

Letter columns haven't died completely, of course. I can't speak for the independent labels, for starters. Mark Waid's Legion of Superheroes respond to their own letters in a way that is even more postmodern and meta-fictional than Guy Gardner's ever was.

But my personal favorite is what's currently running in Young Avengers. Even if you've sworn off Marvel comics (I'm looking at you, Scipio), you should really pick up this book. Given the fact that it sprung out of Avengers Disassembled, it's surprisingly accessible to people with only a vague awareness of who any of these people are. But I've already extolled the virtues of YA in the past -- let me get to the point.

In the letters column of this book for the past half-year, there has run an ongoing debate about homosexuality in comics. It's hilarious, because the argument started long before Asgardian/Wicca and Hulkling were revealed to be dating.

Most of the furor centered around a letter by some guy named James Meeley, published in YA #3:

"A super hero comic is not the platform for exploring 'sexual identities,' especially for characters who are teenagers. [...] I would hope that you and Marvel would not be so gung-ho to pander to every taste within society that would would forget that comics were never meant to be an outlet for changing society's view or forcing sensitive issues to be discussed among the readership. They are meant, first and foremost, to entertain in an all-ages type of manner."

I cut for length, but you get the gist. The point about comics not being a venue for discussion is ironic: the entire next letters column was filled with various responses to Meeley's letter. He himself was responding to another letter-writer, Philip Gasper, who expressed hope about positive gay characters in comics.

And for the record, as long as I'm discussing the argument: These representations are important. It's not a matter of them not being "real people." To someone out there, they're representations of themselves. They're someone they can relate to.

What an awful place comics would be if they were only populated by white, heterosexual, traditionally masculine men and their one-dimensional sidekicks. (And here I roll my eyes at Hal Jordan and his mechanic, Thomas "Pie-face" Kalmaku.)

And comics have long been a place for social commentary and discussion of mature issues, even when they involve teenagers. Roy Harper's addiction to heroin. Oliver Queen's new ward Mia's contraction of HIV. Stephanie Brown's pregnancy. And that's just off the top of my head.

But I digress.

And really, props to Marvel for posting Meeley's letter, misguided as it may be, and keeping the debate alive. It was really refreshing to see an honest discussion about what comics could and should be that didn't degenerate into "LOL STFU FAG" like I see on too many forums.

To quote Young Avengers writer Alan Heinberg:

"To me, one of the most remarkable aspects of this discussion is that it began with the topic of sexuality and quickly evolved into a thoughtful consideration of the nature and purpose of comics as art.

"You guys make me proud to be a fanboy."

I wish Marvel and DC would run more letters columns, whether they're silly and snarky in the line of Guy Gardner and Legion of Superheroes or more serious and intellectual as seen in Young Avengers.

Blogs are an interesting and entertaining replacement, but there's something about seeing your name in print in your favorite comic book that is so freaking cool. The closest adrenaline rush a blog can create in that respect is to have a creator comment on an entry (Hi, Gail, if you're still reading).

Or, perhaps, letters columns of years past really were as immature and superficial as modern forums, and I'm just sugar-coating through my nostalgia.



Blogger Jhunt said...

Well, I know Robert Kirkman and Erik Larsen both maintain humongous letter colums in their creator-owned books, but you point is well taken.

I loved the few times I was letter-column published when I was a kid, and it's too bad kids don't have that same opportunity today. But, on the other hand, the removal of Marvel's letter pages wasn't that great of a loss, for the most part. They were, for the most part, reduced to one-page blurbfests with little to no interesting content.

DC, on the other hand, seemed to have a little more respect for their letters pages, and I do miss reading them.

But blogs are less filtered and a lot more fun, even with the pseudonyms. (And how much more difficult is it for your boss to search back issues of Firestorm for your name, as opposed to a quick Google search for blog postings. Interent pseudonyms are kind of a necessity nowadays for many.)

5:03 PM, December 06, 2005  
Anonymous the Jack said...

I've been lamenting the loss of the lettercol since they first disappeared, and they're one of the things I enjoy most about rereading twentieth-century back issues. I (somehow--!) hadn't heard about the letter-writers' debate in the back of Young Avengers; your description of it tempts me to try to pick up some back issues, but I know from the few Marvel titles I do read that, if you miss one, you need lots of luck or lots of cash or both to fill the gap in your run. Still, thanks for this -- it's got me thinking.

8:17 PM, December 06, 2005  
Blogger James Meeley said...

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7:20 PM, December 08, 2005  
Blogger James Meeley said...

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9:15 PM, December 08, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I felt, and still feel, that certain topics do not belong in comics aimed at kids (which, at the time, Young Avengers surely was). Any type of "sexual exploration" doesn't belong in an all-ages mainstream superhero book."
See I don't get it. It all depends on how you define "sexual exploration" How is Hulking and Wiccan any differnt then Spider-man and Gwen Stacy? or any of the other girls he dated in Spider-man?
How is one relation ship any differnt then another?
And could you expand on what other topics don't belong in comics?
Maybe you should make a list then e mail it to them. There is not too much you could list that was not done in the 60s and 70s by Stan Lee or DC. Social commentary has been part of Comics from the ground floor. And I am sorry you eyes are closed to the issue.
...Oh ja ...Homophobe= James!

Sorry about the name calling but I think you are an ass.

11:58 AM, December 09, 2005  
Blogger Amy said...

You guys make me miss Fanboy Rampage. :(

4:18 PM, December 09, 2005  
Blogger James Meeley said...

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5:18 PM, December 09, 2005  
Blogger James Meeley said...

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5:30 PM, December 09, 2005  
Blogger Amy said...

"Unnecessary insults?" I suppose that comparing me to a terrorist is perfectly reasonable?

But I digress.

I may be a bit behind in my comics but to the best of my knowledge, Wicca and Hulkling haven't so much as kissed yet. That's quite a ways away from on-panel sex. (Or even off-panel allusions thereof.) I think you're jumping to conclusions as to what "exploration" means. It could just mean an exploration of what it's like to be a gay teenager.

And I will stress again, because it bears repeating: we need homosexual role models in all forms of media, including comics. Because there are queer kids out there who need those role models.

5:44 PM, December 09, 2005  
Blogger Gordon said...

I think that there are issues that need to be teased out - issues that are probably not necessarily separate.

I think that, if you're talking solely about sexually explicit (or near explicit) scenes, that's one matter. I don't believe comics are solely for kids; however, I do think there are ways to connote sexuality to an adult audience that would go over a child's head. (An infamous Steranko sequence from NICK FURY - AGENT OF SHIELD comes to mind; as a teenager, seeing a series of interrelated pictures had an entirely different meaning to me than they did as a child. I think being suggestive is OK, as long as it's done with some intelligence.

However, I also believe that if you are writing comics that take place in (presumably) modern times, you have a responsibility to reflect the sexual/gender/racial diversity of these times. (Otherwise, you would end up with comics in the 21st century portraying women - as an example - as housewives who dress up like Betty Crocker and talk like June Cleaver). One of the things that I enjoy about YOUNG AVENGERS is that the "gay" themes are underplayed, and that those scenes are actually quite charming. I don't think it's realistic to suddenly say, "Hey, comics are for kids! No adult themes!", but I do think that "adult" themes, when cleverly written, can be included in most comics.

5:49 PM, December 09, 2005  
Blogger James Meeley said...

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5:53 PM, December 09, 2005  
Blogger James Meeley said...

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5:55 PM, December 09, 2005  
Blogger Amy said...

...Am I the only one who thinks homosexuality isn't an "adult" theme? Maybe I'm a titch biased by my own queerness, but why does an otherwise G-rated scene jump into the "mature audiences only" arena just because the people involved are the same sex?

And James: It's not hard to interpret "It's funny when you think about it, as most of us look at the actions of the various terrorist groups as that of madmen, yet here in our own backyard comic fans have already taken up the same sort of stances. "Religious zealotry" don't have to just be about a holy 'God', you know" as:

"Terrorists are religious zealots. This particular Green Lantern fan shows a large degree of religious-esque zealotry. Isn't that funny how they're exactly the same?"

And that's all I'm going to say about it.

6:04 PM, December 09, 2005  
Anonymous methane said...

Of course homosexuality isn't an 'adult' theme, but there are many people who still believe homosexuality is something that is caught, like a disease. If you just don't expose the children to it, they won't catch it!

Oh, and some of the more notable letter writers wrote with pseudonyms, TM Maple being probably the most famous (at least in the DC comics I tended to read). Eventually he started using his real name, but that was far less memorable, so he'll always be 'TM Maple' to me.

12:37 AM, December 10, 2005  
Blogger Gordon said...

Amy wrote:

...Am I the only one who thinks homosexuality isn't an "adult" theme? Maybe I'm a titch biased by my own queerness, but why does an otherwise G-rated scene jump into the "mature audiences only" arena just because the people involved are the same sex?

I was speaking of sexuality (both hetero and homo) in general, especially in terms of adult relationships. However, I never considered it from the other end, and in rereading my entry, I come across as being rather heterocentric. My apologies.

10:29 PM, December 10, 2005  
Blogger Amy said...

Gordon: I wasn't venting at you -- just a pet peeve of mine. I think methane hit it on the head -- queerness itself, no matter how otherwise innocent it is, can't be "all ages" content for some people because they don't want to answer the tough questions their kids might ask about it.

10:34 PM, December 10, 2005  
Blogger Shelly said...

As someone who had LoCs published in DC lettercols in the '80s (and a couple in the early '90s), I miss them, too. They were always entertaining and even educational. And getting published was a thrill. Online, anyone can post to a board or do a blog.

7:29 PM, January 02, 2006  
Anonymous Kali said...

"assinine" = Best. Typo. Ever.

And it's funny you should mention Tom Kalmaku, Amy. I can remember reading the early 90s Green Lantern books as a kid, and totally loving Tom. The "Pie Face" thing went over my head; I was just excited to see a brown person in comics. Even just having a nonwhite character in the sidekick role made me feel a little bit more included in the world I was reading about.

Hopefully, Teddy and Billy will provide the same sense of inclusion for the kids reading Young Avengers today.

10:36 PM, January 02, 2006  

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