Sunday, January 20, 2013

Why comic-books need a real letter column

When I returned to comic-books about a month and a half ago, I began with some #1 issues of +DC Comics The New 52, and with digital versions to boot.  Therefore, it was unsurprising to me that there were no letter columns appearing in those titles.  Historically, because it takes about 4 months from the time a comic is being created until the time it ships, due to the length of the composition and printing process, letter columns in the back of the comic (usually called simply the "lettercol") have always lagged behind.  At least up through 1999, and probably much later, new series generally didn't have a lettercol until issue #4 or #5 came out, and those letters would be about the very first issue.

And so, when I began reading The New 52 with the first issues, digitally, I didn't look for a lettercol, nor did it surprise me that they didn't have any. These were, after all, new titles, and there's usually a lag.  Eventually I got to issue #5 and #6, and still, at least in the digital version, there were no lettercols in any of the DC titles I was reading.  But there are no ads in the digital titles either, so I thought perhaps that the lettercols were appearing in print only.  However, as I've mentioned elsewhere, although I have gone mostly digital with my collection, I am still collecting Supergirl in hardcopy (becaues it's Supergirl, my favorite character of all time in comics) and also Batgirl (because it's the best damn comic on the market today, at least of the ones I've tried).  I now have most of these issues in print (Batgirl #7-16, and Supergirl #1-6, 8-15, as first-print single issues), and I am up to #13 reading both titles. And although the print versions do have ads, and they have a "New 52" column which is basically just more advertisement/hype about the company, there has yet to be a lettercol in either of these titles.

So I started doing some digging, and it seems like the lettercol, at least in +DC Comics , has gone the way of the dinosaur.  Reaction to this has been mixed, from the fans. Those who approve the loss of the lettercol point out that nobody mails paper letters anymore, and that even message boards (which DC had, but which they closed down early in 2012) are becoming "antiquated." Sources like Google+, Facebook, and Twitter are all the rage now.  If fans like something, they tweet the author about it. Instant access, instant feedback. No need to wait for the 4-month print cycle of an old-fashioned communication method like the lettercol.  And some of those are valid points. Facebook, Twitter, etc., are faster and reach more people -- you don't have to read the comic-book to see the comments (you can just look on the DC Facebook page).

However, there are huge limitations to +DC Comics  using the current social media framework as its only means of feedback (other than sales).  Twitter has very tight limits on message length, and even Facebook and Google+, though they allow longer text messages, are not conducive to the lengthier form of communication we used to call "the letter" -- page-long, essay-style missives.  Additionally, by design, Facebook and Google+ give the poster (in this case, DC) a hyper-inflated sense of approval, because, unlike YouTube (which allows both thumbs-up and thumbs-down ratings), a Facebook user can only "like" (but never "dislike") something, and a Google+ user can only "+1" (but never "-1") something. Therefore, if DC posts content about the latest issue of Action Comics, and 1,000 people see it, but only 300 like it, and 700 dislike it, all DC will see is "+300" likes.  They will think the audience loves their product, when in fact the vast majority do not.  And even if someone who dislikes Action Comics wants to bother to tell DC why, the only mechanism is the comment box, which does not allow lengthy, thoughtful discussion (just read any chain of comments on any topic to see what I mean).

The end result of +DC Comics  going "Social Media only" for feedback thus has a two-pronged negative effect. First, it over-estimates the number of positive responses by readers (because the only way to respond at all is to say you "like" it), which provides DC with a wildly inaccurate (albeit ego-stroking) impression of how readers like what they are doing.  Thus the company is unable to detect reader dissatisfaction early enough to head it off at the pass (which comics companies used to be able to do years ago when they got a slew of hate-mail over something going on in their titles).  Second, it prevents them from receiving thoughtful, meaningful feedback from their most intelligent readers.  Gone are the days when a reader could send in a 2-page letter that not only pointed out a potential plot hole, but also proposed a workable solution.  Instead, DC receives inane, useless negative feedback on Twitter like, "U screwed up @DC, plz fix #supergirl b4 it's 2 late."  And although such a tweet might let them know someone is unhappy, it's unable to tell them why, or explain how to fix it.  The end result almost certainly has to be a dramatic loss in sales, as DC prevents itself from receiving feedback that would allow them to make mid-course corrections in time to avert disaster.

The ultimate impression +DC Comics  leaves the reader -- when you look on their site for any way to provide feedback and find only Facebook and Twitter; when you look in their books and see no letter column; when you look for a way to "contact us" and find no real method of getting in touch with editors the way we could in the days of the lettercol -- the ultimate impression we are left with, the unavoidable conclusion, is that DC Comics doesn't care to hear from its readers. They don't seem to want to know whether we like what they are doing or not, and they certainly don't want to know why.  This leaves readers with only one way to express dissatisfaction with a title they're reading: the almighty dollar.

And make no mistake about it: money is one form of feedback to which DC is wildly responsive. For evidence, just note the number of "New 52" series that have been canceled, some so fast it was almost immediate (Hawk and Dove ended after only 8 issues).  And more are probably headed that way.  DC's "talk to the hand" attitude toward its readers (at least toward those who are unhappy) leaves those readers no choice but to vote with their wallets.

I know some people would say that this is how it's supposed to work. You like it? Buy it. Don't like it? Don't buy it.  But that's a really coarse-grained way to run a comic-book company.  Starting and ending comic-book series are huge undertakings, much more difficult to manage than just changing an unpopular creative team or altering a story arc.

Significantly, comic-book fans tend to be loyal to their titles and are loathe to give them up if there is any hope of a turn-around.  Canceling a subscription or stopping a "run" of comics that's 20 issues (or more) long used to be the option of last resort.  We only did something so drastic after writing letter upon letter to the company (knowing back then that they read them all, even if they couldn't print most of them) and trying to effect a change that way.  We communicated with the creative team, and they with us.  If they got many letters upset about a given thing, they might change it. If they couldn't (or wouldn't), they would at least address the topic in the letter column, and the editor would explain why the unhappy fans could not be satisfied.  Maybe people still didn't like it, and quit the title anyway. But they only did so as a last resort.

Today, unfortunately, because there's only a "+1" or "like" button, no way to contact +DC Comics  outside of social media, and no way to be heard otherwise, quitting a title and halting purchases is the only resort we have as readers -- it's the first, middle, and last resort.  And that is why you are seeing these "waves" of series cancellations followed by new title launches. The only way +DC Comics  can keep 52 titles going a month is to do this -- cancel 5 old titles and start 5 new ones.  And why? Because they don't have any way of knowing early on that people don't like what they are doing. They especially don't have any way to know why people don't like what they are doing.  And this means that not only do series capable of being fixed and made more popular end up being canceled prematurely, but that DC is going to keep making the same stupid mistakes over and over again. Because all they know about Hawk and Dove is that it didn't sell -- they don't know why it didn't sell, because they provided us with no way to tell them.

Now, I don't want to leave the impression that I think a "lettercol" could solve all problems, or that no book would need to be canceled if DC still had lettercols.  But I think that DC, as a company, would be far better off to encourage long, thoughtful missives from readers inclined to write them, and to print some of those (if not in the issue, post them online). They'd do well to understand, to really get, what readers like and don't like, and why.  DC's staff may feel good getting 248 +1s on Google... but if they don't know that there are 2,480 who would like to "-1" the same thing if only we could, then they are missing vital information.  They are sacrificing knowing the truth for "feeling and looking good," and as we all know, in the long run, that's a bad play.

And so, if anyone out there at +DC Comics is bothering to read this, I suggest the company reconsiders its unwillingness to accept thoughtful, and potentially negative, feedback from its readers (such as, by the by, this very article).  Your ego might not feel quite so good after you do, but I bet your comics will get better, and you won't have to cancel so many titles.

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