LETTER’S, WE’VE GOT LETTERS

From: <jeff@jmetzner.com>

Here's a question for your column: Is there any chance of the Superman animated series you worked on back in 1988 coming out on DVD? I still have most of them on tape, but those tapes are pretty old and they're not going to last forever. Hopefully, since stuff like "Scooby-Doo meets Batman" can make it to DVD then this series can too.

Jeff, despite a few weirdnesses, I loved working on that old Superman show. I was extremely pleased to have used the original Superman “Faster than a Speeding Bullet” copy from the TV show (which came from the cartoons and the radio show) and mix it with the movie music. I really do wish the shows would be out on DVD – I sort of think it’s been completely forgotten. I made my own set of DVDs for my own use, but so far I’ve not heard about any commercial version.

A few stories: Back then we did a story in which Lex Luthor undermined the structure of the Great Wall of China in order to get the contract to repair it – allowing him access to a secret treasure under the Wall. Unfortunately, the head of network animation at the time insisted we have Lex BUY the Great Wall. I went insane trying to justify such an obviously wrong move. The way we finally got around such was have Lex’s assistant, Miss Morganberry, tell Lex that the Great Wall isn’t for sale, but Lex replies, “In this world, Miss Morganberry, everything’s for sale for the right price.” We never mentioned it again and nobody wrote to say that was a ridiculous idea. Whew.

Story two: One of the writers, Larry Ditillio (who we interviewed here on What Th--? A few weeks back) submitted a baseball story where Superman has to play against a team of robots. That selfsame head of the network insisted that Superman play on the SAME side as the robots against normal baseball players. And if the other team lost, Lois would be thrown into a volcano. No wonder I no longer have much hair left.

***

From: Martin Maenza (MCMaenza@aol.com)

Read your latest column and your request for comments about the "passing" of the letter columns.

I've been a faithful weekly comic reader since the mid-1970's. To me, the letter columns were like desert - what you took time to enjoy after the satisfying comic book story. In the last few months since the DC columns have gone, I've felt the loss. The books just end at that last panel. Sad.

I do not feel that the Internet message boards are a good substitute. Often folks on boards hide under pseudonyms which allow them to spout off with free abandon. They do not have to truly consider what comments they are making and do not form them intelligibly because there is no "editor" on the board that they are trying to get the attention of. One gets "published" on the boards merely by hitting the Post button.

Martin, I agree completely. Internet forums are more like the fanzines of old – which is where I got my start so I’m not putting them down – but they exist to let readers sound off – sometimes very strongly – about their views on different books, etc. Letter columns, on he other hand, are a way of speaking directly to the editors and creators. When properly used (EC Comics, Julie Schwartz, Stan Lee, etc.) they created a sense of club and belonging that made you part of something bigger. They spoke to you directly. It wasn’t a place to argue, it was a place to talk. I think the publishers are making a mistake by eliminating the columns. Internet boards are simply not the same.

***

From: Graeme Burk, Graeme.Burk@jus.gov.on.ca

I stumbled across your column completely by accident. I met you once back in 1984 at a convention here in Toronto-- I was a star-struck 14 year old at my first convention. I hung around your table and listened to you talk away, and as I was a huge New Teen Titans fan at the time, it verged on being something of a religious experience! My overriding memory was of your (to my ears) distinct New York dialect and your kindness and friendliness to me.

Anyway, there have been two things I've always wanted to ask/say to you:

1) Dial "H" For Hero, the Chris King/Vicki Grant version, was probably the first comic I ever seriously collected. I think it was because I was 11 at the time and the comic seemed to be geared to a younger audience, but as the series went on you continued to add subplots and character storylines (Detective King getting shot, the Master, Brad running away, Chris and Vicki's split-up) that just hooked me. I always thought it was sort of a bridge between the sort of DC fare I read when I was younger and the more 'mature' sort of comics like New Teen Titans. So I've always meant to thank you for making me, in a way, a devoted comics fan!

Anyway, my question was, how did the '81 revival of Dial "H" come about? I dimly remember when I asked you back in '84, you told me it was going to be something done for schools. How did it become a regular comic? And how did you go about writing it?

(Okay, can I ask a *really* geeky question. In the Preview in LSH #272—I can't believe I still know the issue number-- The villain---The Flying Buttress, created by Rich Morrisey... how did I remember that?--Chris and Vicki is about to face off with has an 'alpha band' -- a giant saw around the earth, poised to destroy it. In the first Adventure Comics Dial "H" issue that continues from it, all of a sudden, the Buttress is actually a good guy and the Alpha Band is never even mentioned. So what I want to know is-- why was the story changed between those two issues? Okay, you probably don't even remember and I'm really sorry, but I'm almost 32 years old and that question has bugged me since I was 11!)2) I was a huge fan of your work on Adventures of Superman with Jerry Ordway, and thought it was far, far better than what was being done in Superman and Action at the time-- the characters were great, the dilemmas they faced were often moral ones (I remember you had Superman thinking something like "I can fix things but I can't change the hearts of men" while the same month in Superman, the other book had Supes thinking "My eyes are sensitive to radiation in the x-ray spectrum..."), and the ongoing plot lines were interesting (I loved The Circle, and the gangwar storyline that led to the creation of Gangbuster). It was in every way the superior book but at the time I felt it was treated as the ugly sister of the Superman range, and then you were just dumped. Can you say something about what was going on behind-the-scenes at the time?

Anyway, I've always wanted to say and ask those things. Glad you're doing the column! I'll keep coming back!

Wow. A lot of questions and some very nice words. I thank you very much for them. But I must take exception to one thing: I have a New York accent? I never knew that! I thought I spoke flawlessly! (Kidding).

I don’t remember much about Dial H. I do remember it was being done for the younger DC fan and I have dim memories of writing it so it could be in schools, and once that didn’t happen I aged it up just a bit. Not putting it on the same level as say, Titans, but for slightly older readers. Instead of 5-9 year olds, it was written for 7-14 year olds. I am a believer in doing good adventure comics for young kids. That’s how I became a reader and probably a writer. Kids need stories aimed at them. That doesn’t mean you write down to them, you just make it understandable to them. Dial H was such an attempt. We al

o tried to sell it as an animated series. I was brought out to LA to pitch it for animation but that never happened.
As for Superman, I loved writing the book. I loved writing stories that meant something but still had action. I loved creating Cat Grant as the first woman who actually liked Clark. I have never kept it a secret that Supes is my favorite comics character. As for being dumped, it wasn’t that. I was going through a very bad writers block at the time and for the ONLY time in my career I was terribly late on my deadlines which cannot be tolerated by anyone, myself included. When my contract ended on the book it wasn’t renewed. I would love to do Supes again – and I did last year with a four-part story. But whether I ever get to write the book on a regular schedule or not would depend on the editors. Feel free to let them know what you think.

As for the Dial H story with the flying Buttress, unfortunately I have no memory of this at all. Sorry. But thanks so much for writing.

***

The survey has generated a lot of comments. Some of them are on the message board, but I know many of you don’t visit there despite all the encouragement. So I’ve decided to print one of the better letters here.

From -Matt Maxwell (maxwellm@pobox.com)

Marv:

My, how very informal. But email is just like that, it seems.

First of all, I wanted to thank you directly for your reply to my query regarding pacing comics at the page level (assuming you don't do it Marvel house style and let the artist do the hard stuff...) It was awhile ago, i know.

As for your survey. Funny how some folks get all worked up about how it's "statistically meaningless." Of course, getting non-comics readers to read and reply to the survey seems basically impossible, though nobody's bothered to mention that. The implications are far more interesting than the survey itself.

What the survey points to, and anyone who's been paying attention can figure out, is that comics companies aren't _trying_ to expand their audience. In particular, they're ignoring future readers and seem to assume that they're writing for 13-year old white males (at the low end, but more on that later.) Comic companies also seem to assume that readers are fairly familiar with the continuity of a title (no matter how convoluted it might be), which presumes longtime readership and frightens away casual readers (even though Marvel makes a nod to them with their recap pages. I'm not sure that a couple paragraphs of text can wave away years of continuity, and indeed may turn off readers who feel like they're in the middle of a thirty year soap opera, which is often the case.) It doesn't help that there are old school comic fans who act as continuity police and get up in arms when their favorite characters are subjected to the ravages of editorial change. These are the same people who've been reading these comics for extended periods of time and feel as if they have some ownership of the characters (a subject for another discussion at another time).

What has happened is that comic companies have spent too much time holding onto the audience that _they once had_, and updating their look and artwork/story to keep up with the maturing audience. Part of me thinks that's great: we get higher quality artwork and far deeper story with more mature subject matter featuring characters i've known for years and years. Fabulous, huh?

It's great, unless that's the only thing that you do. Unfortunately, comic companies have been heading precicely in this direction, to the exclusion of attempts to increase readership. The Ultimate line that Marvel puts out takes away one of those problems: that of the weight of continuity. They're all issue ones, a fresh start. Wonderful. Too bad they're written and illustrated exclusively for more mature readers (particularly _The Ultimates_, which is great, but it's a bit edgy for kids and younger teens, but they'd probably just stare at the Wasp and Black Widow anyways...) But as far as i've seen, the Ultimate line isn't a good jumping on point for younger readers. One step forward, one step back.

I also feel that the comic publishers are pursuing more mature readers as they're more likely to drop three bucks (ten times what i paid for comics back in the day, as i started reading when they were about .25 or .35) on a single issue of a comic. True, we're getting nicer paper, with blacks that actually print black instead of muddy brown on anything thicker than a hairline, and beautiful color that we wouldn't have _dreamed_ of back then. However, we're still only getting the same amount of _story_, if not less (with the advent of the so-called "widescreen comics" that maximize panel impact, but burn pages at a frightening rate). I don't buy comics for art. I buy them for story (but I'll bet dollars to doughnuts that I'm in the minority there.)

As an aside, i wonder how much revenue is generated from advertising now, as opposed to filling a page of ads in 1978 with tiny boxes advertising GRIT or X-Ray Specs. I'm guessing that Sea Monkeys didn't put all that much money down to buy the back cover of your typical comic. Now ads are primarily magazine style, full page with card inserts and the like.

The publishers are spending too much effort retaining readership and not anywhere near enough to increasing it. Both are important, but in the long term, without growth in readership, comics will become at best, a niche market (and some folks already feel that they're doomed to be such. I try to be more optimistic about it.)

Publishers need to work to reach out to younger readers. And there's a lot of competition for their time/money/attention. Movies, television and videogames (all of which until recently could not compete with comics on a level of sheer imaginative power)are all looking at the same target audience as comics once did. This isn't to mention the myriad of musically-derived pop culture diversions, either. Yes, all of these were present when i was a kid, but none of them were nearly as technically sophisticated as they were now (but to tell the truth, not too many kids read comics at the schools i attended as a child/teenager). I think that younger readers could be re-targeted by doing a few simple things.

1) Drop the price of comics. Make them a dollar. Retailers are going to hate this, though. The power that the direct market (not that I think there's anything like a conspiracy to keep prices high; I'm getting real tired of any kind of conspiracy theory in general) exerts is considerable. Ask how many retailers thought that the 9 and 10 cent comics were a good idea. They ate shelf space like there was no tomorrow and returned very little in terms of profit. However, I think that this is crucial. A kid can buy 10 comics, or get a video game on sale. They can buy 15 comics or a game at full price.

2) Don't be afraid to start over again. Though I'm not sure if the weight of continuity prevents younger readers (but I'm sure it can't help), it certainly scares away older ones who'll figure out quickly that they don't know what's going on and move on to something else more rewarding. Marvel in the '60s certainly figured out how to get new readers, both kids and older readers, and that's carried them far. Something like this needs to happen again.

3) Change the monthly pamphlet format. At three bucks, they're a little dear to just throw around and carry with you and treat like, well, a kid'll treat a comic. And I doubt that most older readers will want to bother with something that flimsy (which is why I think that trades are a good thing, but are still mishandled to a degree). Perhaps digests of various titles would work (though reducing the artwork to digest size is probably impossible with the art that's being used to sell comics today).

4) Get comics out of comic stores. The direct market was great, except for the fact that it's become the ONLY market for comics now. Yes, bookstores carry trades now, but I don't think that they carry too many monthly titles, and I can't remember the last time I saw comics at a newsstand. Probably because stocking a spinner/rack with $500 of fragile merchandise in a month sounds very risky (and I'm being conservative here.)

5) Give older new readers a reason to read comics. Some of the more mature Vertigo titles might've been a good start, but the imprint has lost steam overall (though there's still great stuff coming out of it.) Do literate comics that aren't comic books. Of course, this tackles the larger issue of readership in the US is particular and how it's dropping off. Yes, there's a chance that we might have to move past superheroes and science fiction and horror titles. Horrors!

6) Quit riding your big titles into the ground. How many Spiderman/X-Men/Batman/Superman titles do we *really* want to read a month? I touched on this in the letter i wrote awhile back about the lack of iconic characters in modern comics. But really, depending on a handful of characters to drive a sizable percentage of your monthly titles is never a good idea. Diversification, people!

7) Evolve or perish. I mean it.

Speaking of things that have just about run out of steam, you can count me on that list. I started rambling awhile ago. I've taken up enough of your time. Thanks for reading this far.

***

Matt seems to have read my mind or at least used the same language I have on so many of his concerns. Since the early 90s I’ve been calling comic books pamphlets which was the most derogatory word I could come up with to describe the same poor package that hasn’t changed, except for the quality of printing, since the 1930s. When I first started using the term others laughed, which was what I expected. Now it’s starting to be picked up by everyone.

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