A longtime showbiz journalist and fan's thoughts on comic books, movies and other cool stuff.

Month: September 2021

Comics Letters Pages, Part 3

In 1990, with few journalism classes under my belt, I decided to write a letter good enough to get published in a comics letters page.

I loved the letters columns in DC’s Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation. I think editor Bob Greenberger did the most professional, fun and informative letters columns I’ve ever seen. Not only was this letter column the best place to discuss the comic, but for Trek in general.

I wrote off one letter, commenting on Star Trek #5 (Feb. 1990). And another on the following issue.

The first was printed in Star Trek #9 (June 1990).

Star Trek #9 letters page.
Letters column for Star Trek #9 (June 1990)

And the second letter showed up in the following issue.

Star Trek #10 letters page.
Letters page to Star Trek #10 (July 1990).

I wanted to write a serious letter. I had just read and had some criticisms of Wolverine #25 (June 1990), which had a spiffy Jim Lee cover. This is a fill-in issue written by Jo Duffy and drawn by John Buscema. In it, an old friend of Logan’s named Morrow calls in a debt. He needs Wolverine to protect his son, Gabriel, during the climactic battle of a gang war. Logan reluctantly accepts. He tells Gabriel a story about a boy lost in the Canadian wilderness who is raised by a pack of, uh, wolverines. That inspires Gabriel to “help out” when the gang war comes home, allowing Logan to decide the battle in Morrow’s favor.

I really disliked the story at the time. Wolverine had become quite the success as a solo character and the number of writers now contributing to his ongoing story had grown far beyond the vision of longtime X-Men writer Chris Claremont.

Plenty of interviews quoted Claremont as saying he saw Logan as a man of mystery. It was better to never know his origin because no story could measure up. (See 2001’s six-issue Origin series for proof.) I agreed with Claremont, and therefore disliked this story.

And raised by wolverines? Really? I am a big fan of Jo Duffy’s work, but this was goofy.

So, I wrote up a letter, mailed it and — to my surprise —  it saw print in the pages of Wolverine #31 (Late Sept. 1990). My letter was printed without editing — and there was a response from the editors!

Wolverine #31 letters page
Letters page to Wolverine #31 (Late Sept. 1990).

And then my letter got a response two issues later.

Wolverine #33 letters page.
Check out the second letter. This is the letters page from Wolverine #33 (Nov. 1990)

Two issues after that one, there was another reference to my letter.

Wolverine #35 letters page.
This time, it’s the last letter that replies to mine. Letters page from Wolverine #35 (Jan. 1991)

I didn’t write more letters until after I had graduated and had started a career as a newspaper editor.

It was this period when I could finally afford to subscribe to the Comics Buyers Guide, and its weekly letter column was a real highlight. I was deeply into comics now that I could afford them to some degree. I even wrote a few articles about them at the newspaper, and made my first trek to San Diego Comic-Con in 1993.

Copies of those issues of CBG my letters appeared in are long gone, but I do have a couple of printouts I made before sending them.

Here’s the first, which discusses the issue of ratings systems for comics that was controversial in 1994, the era of the V-chip!

Letter to CBG, May 26, 1994, page 1
Letter to CBG, May 26, 1994, page 2

Amazingly, I don’t cringe when I read that, and I still mostly agree with what I said.

And here’s another letter, from 1997, that’s more critical of CBG and the industry as a whole.

Letter to CBG, Sept. 3, 1997, page 1
Letter to CBG, Sept. 3, 1997, page 2

I received the following reply from Peter David, though I don’t recall exactly what I wrote in the letter he was replying to.

I had a couple of comics creators or publishers send me samples of their work. In particular, I remember receiving copies of an indy black-and-white comic called Hilly Rose from B.C. Boyer. It had a Pogo/Bone vibe to it, and I ordered subsequent issues after liking what Boyer had sent.

Letter from B.C. Boyer, circa 1996.

Those also were the early days of the internet, and like everyone else, I used my Macintosh Performa 630CD to log on to America Online and check out its comic book areas.

If you weren’t around in those days, AOL charged a monthly fee of something like $12, and that got you, say, five hours of connection time. Once you went over that five hour limit, they started charging you by the minute. And it quickly became clear that five hours a month was nothing, and it only took a few big bills to switch to an ISP that charged only a flat rate.

Anyway, I was in a comics group when someone from Dark Horse Comics was asking for volunteers to read a new first issue and write a letter about it so they had some letters to put into that first issue. I immediately signed up, and soon a package from Dark Horse arrived with black and white copies of a comic called Heartbreakers, by Anina Bennett and Paul Guinan.

Letter from Jamie S. Rich, Jan. 15, 1996.

I wrote up a letter, sent it back, and it was published in that first issue.

Heartbreakers #1 letters page.
Letters page from Heartbreakers #1 (April 1996).
Cover to Heartbreakers #1 (April 1996).
Art by Paul Guinan and Tony Akins.

A number of years later, I met Anina and Paul at a dinner a mutual friend threw at Comic-Con. I told them this story and we all had a laugh. Stopping by their booth the next day, Anina had a copy of that comic on the table and I was able to show her the letter.

I forget exactly when letters columns faded away from most comic books, but I miss them. Even when they crop up these days, they lack the kind of thoughtful missives and discussion that turned up back then.

Comics Letters Pages, Part 2

Cover to Avengers #289
The cover to Avengers #289 (March 1988). Art by John Buscema and Tom Palmer.

It was 1985 when I returned to comics reading and collecting. I still dug the comics letters pages.

The letters in Marvel’s Star Wars series — the book that got me into the hobby — were solid. I remember seeing in issue #103 that the next issue was coming in 60 days, instead of the usual 30. I thought it was a typo. The two month wait revealed the book’s schedule had been demoted to bimonthly. Not long after that, the series was canceled.

I also read V, which DC published based on the TV miniseries and then regular series. The original miniseries was terrific, and the followup, V: The Final Battle, was five-sixths great — the ending left a lot to be desired. The weekly TV series was a disaster and put out of its misery after one season. But I really wanted the show to succeed and stuck with it. There was nothing else sci-fi related on TV. If you liked that stuff, V was it.

The comic book version ran 18 issues — long past the series’ cancellation. And it had its high points: The covers by Jerry Bingham were terrific. Carmine Infantino penciled the series and his art had many of the same qualities I had come to like from his Star Wars run. And the letters pages also were lively, with lots of fans writing in and good engagement from the editor, Bob Greenberger. More on him later.

Cover to X-Men Annual #10 (1986). Art by Arthur Adams.

I wrote one fannish letter to X-Men editor Ann Nocenti and writer Chris Claremont in autumn 1986, after we had moved to Arizona. I was trying to work out the continuity of the Mutant Massacre storyline, and where X-Men Annual #10 occurred in the run. I’m still not clear on that point, but I’m also glad they didn’t publish it.

A year later, I was a student at the University of Arizona. My initial major was general business, mostly because I had to pick something and had no idea what else to choose.

In Canada, I had been a strong science and math student. But my interest in those subjects was frustrated by the way they were taught at the Arizona high school where I finished my diploma, and in my freshman year at university.

I had intended to take calculus in high school in Alberta, but Arizona — to no one’s surprise — lacked that option. In university, it was taught in an auditorium with 600 freshmen. The weekly session with a teaching assistant was not helpful. Teaching my group was a thick accented man unskilled at — and apparently uninterested in — helping us make sense of the topic.

Buying a set of notes for the class from a local copy shop, I basically re-took the class at home in the last weeks before the final. I got an A, but none of it stuck, and I was already looking at other interests.

I enjoyed being a university student, and liked taking classes on topics as diverse as psychology, world literature, and military history. Few of the other students in my classes, however, seemed to have any real interest in learning about these things. They loved the social scene, but classes were merely tolerated. They were something to get through on the way to the degree and job that would afford them the flashy car they wanted. It was disheartening to see so many people just going through the motions and failing to take an interest of any kind in the amazing world we live in and the opportunity we had as students to learn so much about it.

I also had always liked current affairs, history, and politics. In school, we had studied the history and culture of Canada, obviously, but also places like Africa, India and China. We also studied the industrial revolution, the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Russian Revolution. Given the threat of global thermonuclear war, the latter fascinated me as much as it scared me. For more than a year after watching “The Day After,” I had to distract my mind with the radio to fall asleep each night.

At university, I took advantage of being a student to read lots of newspapers, magazines and books I had never had access to before. I often stayed up late to watch Nightline, with Ted Koppel. That was a great show, though I always wished he had more time to discuss things — an hour instead of a half.

All this inspired me to put more effort into my writing at college and the results were immediate — good grades and some very flattering compliments from teachers. That had never happened before. I also was really enjoying it, following topics down a rabbit hole and using the power of revision to refine ideas. It was at minimum very satisfying, and more often than not a lot of fun.

I also was reading as many comics as I could get my hands on. I was particularly fond of the X-Men titles and the writing of Chris Claremont. He had a strong style, but he also told complicated stories and defined his characters in ways other comics and books did not. I was a fan. It made me think that one day I could do something related to comics. Maybe.

I would read the Writer’s Market — a guide to publications that buy freelance work — in the university bookstore. It reported at the time that top talent at Marvel earned six-figure incomes. That seemed unreal to me.

But a career related to comics just didn’t seem like a viable goal. And certainly not a serious one you could confess in Tucson, Arizona, in 1987.

All of this came together in the pages of Avengers #289, which came out in November 1987. The book’s editor, Mark Gruenwald, had a series of columns he wrote, called Mark’s Remarks, that ran in the titles he edited. And in this one, he was talking about what it takes to be an editor at a company like Marvel. He wrote that comics require highly structured writing, like journalism. So knowing something about journalism was helpful. Read the whole thing here, especially section 3:

The Mark’s Remarks column from the letters page of Avengers #289.

That stuck with me. It definitely played a role in my decision to switch my major to journalism. It wasn’t the biggest or most important reason. I had noticed in reading so many publications of all types that the people who worked on them seemed to really enjoy what they did, and that they felt it was important and worthy work. And that seemed like the right reason to point myself in that direction.

That choice was the right one for me. And I’ll never forget that moment of clarity, of the fuse that led to that decision being lit by reading that column.

I never had a chance to meet Mark Gruenwald, who died unexpectedly at the age of 43, in 1996. But I owe him at least a thanks for some simple words of encouragement. It’s amazing what a little of that can do — most people hear so little of it.

Next: Writing letters that actually got printed!

Cover to Battlestar Galactica #22

Comics Letters Pages, Part 1

In the days before the internet, comics letters pages were important to fans. It was one of the few places you could connect with other fans and read what they thought about recent issues, the art, the quality of the writing, etc.

Letters pages also gave most fans their first insights into how comics are made and who made them.

I first read the letters columns in Marvel’s Star Wars comics starting sometime in 1978. Those comics were for a while one of the few Star Wars products available, and the only official new stories. I read and re-read those comics — and re-read them again.

I specifically remember reading the first arc with Archie Goodwin as writer and editor. It was issues #11-15 (May-Sept. 1978). The art was by Carmine Infantino and Terry Austin. I bought each issue as it came out and loved it. It was the first time I read an extended story over multiple issues of a comic book and I was hooked.

Eventually, I noticed the letters pages, and read those, too. It was then that I began asking questions like, “Who’s Archie?” “Who’s Carmine?” “What’s an inker?” Discovering the credits finally clued me in that there were actual people writing and drawing these comics. And they were different. I had read the previous issues by Roy Thomas and Howard Chaykin, and I probably was even vaguely aware of having seen their names in the book. But it wasn’t until seeing the completely different outcome that Goodwin and Infantino brought to the comic that it became clear just how much impact the writer and artist had on a comic book.

Putting pen to paper

I remember only once writing a letter of my own. It was after reading Star Wars #26 (Aug. 1979), which had this really cool sequence where Luke Skywalker flies a stolen TIE Fighter into the gas giant Yavin to take out a hidden Imperial base. The story ruled, but Infantino’s art had become increasingly abstract. I’d looked at other comics with more conventional art styles and wanted the characters and ships in Star Wars to look a little more like they did in the movie.

Cover to Star Wars #26
Star Wars #26 (Aug. 1979). Cover art by Carmine Infantino and Bob Wiacek

I have since changed my mind about Infantino’s art on Star Wars and love it unconditionally.

Being that into Star Wars at the time meant I was really down for Battlestar Galactica. In Canada, the pilot was shown in theaters months before it aired on TV. I saw it several times and was excited for it to become a TV show that would air every single week.

Of course, it also became a comic. A friend had the treasury version that came out with the movie release, but Marvel re-adapted it for the first three issues of its monthly comic series. The next two issues after that saw Walter Simonson draw an adaptation of “The Lost Planet of the Gods,” and it was better than the show. I read that comic for the next two years — long past the show’s cancelation — and in particular loved the issues Simonson drew. He later started to write the book as well, and it somehow got even better.

It was at the time a special thing for me — almost like the show hadn’t really gone away. Of course, that didn’t last.

I read on the letters page of Battlestar Galactica #22 (Dec. 1980) that the series “was not much longer for this world. Next issue will be the last.” I was bummed. And the next issue, #23, was indeed the last.

Shortly after that, I stopped reading comics — and letters pages — for a few years. When I resumed reading and collecting comics in the mid-1980s, the letters pages were still there to inspire.

More on that next time.

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