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

Category: Journalism

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!

Ways to stay atop the news in the social media era

I used to love to read newspapers, the bigger the better. As a journalism student in the late 1980s and early 1990s — before the internet — each newspaper was different in some way or another. The big guns, like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, were thick, juicy sources of knowledge. And they were produced daily, each with hundreds of original articles written by professional journalists who had to work hard for the opportunity to write for those papers. It was always too much information to absorb — even a college-age brain can absorb only so much — but it was inspiring and exciting to know that this knowledge was out there and available for the reasonable price of 50 cents or maybe a dollar a day.

Twenty years into the internet age, that experience is much harder to come by. Each of those big papers has shrunk — some significantly — as more and more data has gone online. And even though it’s easier than ever to find any particular article or report, knowing what to search for has become harder than ever. Even skimming headlines in a newspaper, the editorial choices affected what you saw. What was on the front page and got big play mattered, all the way down to the smallest brief. Each article was chosen as the best way to fill the available space, and those choices affected the experience of everyone reading the paper. When a major event happened, you couldn’t miss it. And if you browsed through the whole paper, you usually got a very solid and interesting overview of what’s going on in the world.

I’ve found myself missing this experience of late. Like many, I’m sure, I was getting too much of my news from Facebook and other social media, or websites of my choosing that covered various topics. This is how bubbles are formed. My social media connections often are my connections because of shared experiences or viewpoints, meaning the same messages get reinforced as the same story — often from different sites — gets posted and reposted and commented on again and again. I found myself increasingly disconnecting from Facebook for that reason. I like the Trump jokes, but the cynicism that comes from seeing important news events through snarky commentary or overly earnest pleas for honesty became unsatisfying.

So I’ve been looking for ways to recreate a more focused and objective way to follow the news — both the big picture stuff we all should care about and the more specific stuff that I am personally interested in: movies, comics and guitars. Resubscribing to print seemed impractical, as I knew how often the papers delivered to my driveway went unread. So here are some of the digital tools I’ve found to develop a well-rounded news diet.

  • E-newspapers: It’s nothing new that newspapers have been making PDF versions of each day’s edition (or at least their front pages) on their website. But the new e-newspaper editions at the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times are a welcome evolution. The L.A. Times‘ e-newspaper appears to be a work in progress because it’s not the smoothest or most polished presentation. But it is an app that launches within your browser that lets you page through PDFs of each day’s paper, with links to jump to each section. But best of all, if you click on a story, it opens up in an easy-to-read window that clearly shows the photos and text in a continuous display that’s very easy to read. Better yet, there’s a “Next Article” link through which you can browse through every article in that day’s paper. Today’s edition has 128 articles over 46 pages, and each article can be shared, highlighted, printed, translated or read aloud. Again, it’s not perfect: Sometimes stories show up twice (once on the cover and once on the jump) and there’s the occasional formatting error that surely occurred when the copy was exported from the print production system to whatever is used for the e-newspaper. But it still is a focused way to read the paper and its content. The New York Times‘ version of this is similar but more polished in its function and presentation. Its e-newspaper allows you to scroll through all the articles in that day’s edition, with a sidebar listing headlines so you can jump to a specific story or section. I typically will scroll through all the articles in the Front Section, and then skim the World, Nation and Arts section. I can read through both papers in about a half hour, without generating trash, or getting ink on my hands, seeing all the photos and graphics in color with captions, and I can feel confident that I’ve got a basic idea of what’s going on in the world.
  • Email newsletters: These aren’t new either, but good ones are increasingly hard to find. My personal favorite is from The Week, which sends out a daily “10 things you need to know today” newsletter each morning. Like the magazine version, this is an extremely well edited summary of what’s going on, gathered from the best web sources all over the globe, and you can read it in a couple minutes. The New York Times (them again!) also have an excellent Daily Briefing email that goes out each morning and summarizes the day’s event and highlights some of the feature reporting in that day’s newspaper. There’s a fair bit of overlap, but I find reading The Week first allows me to avoid duplication and scroll through the Times‘ briefing to get the stories unique to that e-letter, backing up what I’ve already read.
  • RSS feeds: I used to rely heavily on a solid list of feeds and a good RSS reader. But in the era of social media, it seems like no one really talks any more about this simple but useful technology. I use Feedly, but I’m always on the lookout for a good, free (or very cheap) RSS reader for Mac, so if you have suggestions, let me know. One of the problems with feeds is they can be tough to manage. Smaller sites in particular can dry up and stop posting, leaving you with a dead link that has to be remembered to be routed out and deleted.

I’d love to hear how you keep up on the news, so please leave a comment or drop me a note at thomasjmclean@gmail.com. Thanks!

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