Reading Comics at the Threshold: A Round Table on Letter Columns & Other Comics Paratexts (Part 1)

Editor’s Note: Welcome to the long-awaited first part of The Middle Spaces third annual academic round table, co-edited and curated by Leah Misemer. When we began planning for this round table in fall of 2019, we had no idea that 2020 would turn out to be a year of tragedies and obstacles for all of us, and we would end up pushing this project back several times. Thankfully, despite the delays, most of the folks who were originally supposed to contribute were still able to do so. Comics paratexts, including ads, but mostly letters, have long been one of the lenses by which we examine comics on The Middle Spaces, and it is a subject I have talked with Leah Misemer about (and seen her present on) countless times. So when the idea for a round table on the subject came up, I knew there was no one I’d rather have work on this with me than Leah. Readers may remember Dr. Misemer from the 2017 installment of The (re)Collection Agency featuring a discussion of her work and her comics studies origin story. Her work developing the critical notion of the “correspondence zone” is as accessible as it is brilliant. I feel lucky to have her input on this project, just as we’re all lucky to have an array of scholars participate in this round table. Full bios for all our contributors can be found on the Guest Writers page. Parts two and three will follow a week at a time on September 22 and 29 respectively. 

Letters column header from Wonder Woman #212 (June 1974)

“Overlooked Gems” – An Introduction to the Reading Comics at the Threshold Round Table

Leah Misemer (co-editor), Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgia Tech

Because my comics origin story began with graphic novels and trades, like Watchmen and Sandman, I originally paid very little attention to paratexts. In these long form comics, paratexts—which Gerard Genet defines as “reinforcement[s] and accompaniment[s]” to a text such as covers, title pages, and footnotes—are less intrusive; there are no ads interrupting the story and the printed letters to the editor (affectionately called “lettercols” for short by comics fans) are usually excised during collection. Yet, as book history and print culture scholars have shown, because paratexts serve as thresholds, mediating relationships between authors, readers, publishers and others involved in textual production or consumption of the text, elements like title pages and copyright statements can help capture its life cycle, as Robert Darnton has demonstrated, or piece together the history of entire publishing houses, as Adrian Johns has shown. What could we learn, I wondered, if we applied the tools of book history and print culture, usually applied to older texts, to comics?

I started paying attention to ads, copyrights, title pages, and, most importantly, letter columns. I was particularly intrigued with how letter columns enabled community formation. They seemed so vital to comics culture, yet were only available in single issues, where one can tell much about intended audience from ads and where copyright notices, especially in Marvel and DC comics, mark the erasure of individual creators that has caused such conflict in the industry. This attention to paratexts turned me into a comics collector, and soon I was hunting through comics shops around the country searching for the no longer readily available single issues that contained these elements. Taking cues from Victorian print culture scholars like Linda Hughes and Michael Lund, media scholars like Jennifer Hayward and cultural critics like Michael Warner, as I collected these single issues, I started paying attention to comics’ seriality, the fact that they are published in installments over time, and came up with the concept of the “correspondence zone” to capture how published reader responses enabled by serial publication format have historically provided comics readers with opportunities for building solidarity. This idea started with queer community-building in the letter columns of Sandman and built outward to include entries in comics anthologies responding to one another and comments in webcomics. I found spaces of queer belonging, spaces that enabled dialogue without flattening difference, and spaces where people built community through, rather than in spite of, conversations about stigmatized topics such as sex or depression. In other words, as a scholar, paying attention to paratexts helped me uncover and preserve many marginalized voices that might otherwise be lost to history.

What else might we learn from paying attention to paratexts?  The essays in this three-part round table answer that question in a number of compelling ways. Our first collection of essays takes a deep dive into letter columns. Margaret Galvan explores how printed reader letters help us envision queer communities and Stephen Connor discusses their evaluative potential, while both David Beard and Laura Antola consider letters columns as framing devices, Beard through analyzing how letters in Conan reframed comics as adult literature capable of exploring feminist themes and Antola through discussing how editor Lauri Narinen used letter columns to evaluate and interpret American comics for Finnish audiences. The second section expands the variety of paratexts to include title pages, adjacent mini comics, and advertisements, along with introductions and afterwards (also called “peritexts” as a subset of paratexts). Jean-Matthieu Méon analyzes the role peritexts had in ushering in the “graphic novel” as a genre in both France and America, Brianna Anderson discusses how an attached minicomic tells the history of the marginalized alongside the dominant narrative, and Mark Hibbett explores how readers narratively interpret advertisements with superhero characters. The third collection takes paratexts into the digital realm, appropriate for what Adrienne Resha has termed “The Blue Age” of comics, where so many readers experience comics on screens rather than in print. Resha and Kalervo Sinervo consider digital paratexts, with Resha focusing on social media conversations as an evolution of letter columns and Sinervo thinking through how the paratexts of scanned comics destabilize our notion of an “original” text and highlight the difficulties of digital archiving. Aaron Kashtan and Charlotte Fabricius focus on representations of the digital in comics, with Kashtan considering the connection between footnotes in print and alt-text online and Fabricius highlighting the practice of vlogging as a framing convention that speaks to both new and old comics audiences alike. In the interest of crafting a round table meant to spark discussion, each contribution begins with a central question about comics and paratexts in general, then moves on to an answering essay focused on a single example of comics paratexts in action. We hope the essays in this round table will encourage you to search out your own overlooked gems in the paratexts and will inspire you to read comics in a new way.

A sample of Mail-Man’s editorial remarks (in Finnish) in Ryhmä-X 3/1995.” Published by Kustannus Oy Semic (Ryhmä-X 3/1995)

How do letters pages in translated versions of superhero comics mediate the adaptation process?

Laura Antola, PhD candidate in Media Studies, University of Turku.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the editor of the letters pages of Finnish Marvel comics instructed the readers in a fannish mode of engagement where fascination and frustration are both present at the same time. In 1984 the editor Lauri Narinen, working under the pseudonym of “Mail-Man,” praised a particular letter where the writer starts with describing the reasons why the Finnish adaptation of Spider-Man is the best comic book in Finland, but then goes on to suggest further improvements to it, ending the letter with some questions. Mail-Man answers with: “Thank you for your letter, TR. It’s nice that you want to improve this comic book together with us”,  ending his column with a reminder for readers to explain why something about a particular issue was good or bad, “as did our friend TR.” Praising certain letters, Mail-Man instructed readers how to write better fanmail; a good letter should always include justification for the writer’s opinion, whether the writer liked or disliked a certain issue and its story. At the same time, he was teaching the readers what it is to be a fan: you can be critical and analytical towards something you enjoy.

The Swedish publishing house Semic began publishing the Finnish translation of Amazing Spider-Man, called Hämähäkkimies, in 1980, adding stories from other Spider-Man titles in 1984. This was followed by the launch of Ryhmä-X, a Finnish comic book dedicated to Marvel’s X-titles. While Marvel published dozens of superhero comic books each month—Spider-Man’s adventures alone were spread over up to seven titles at times, and the number of X-titles was growing rapidly—in Finland, this ever-expanding universe had to be confined into four monthly comic books. Ryhmä-X and Hämähäkkimies were focused on certain teams and characters, but the other two titles, MARVEL and Sarjakuvalehti, were collections of different heroes’ adventures. Each Finnish comic was twice the length (and sometimes even three times as long) as the American originals, which gave the editors room to combine pages and storylines from different original issues into one. This means that Finnish Marvel comic books in the 80’s and 90’s were not just translations, but adaptations of their American counterparts.

The first issue of Hämähäkkimies started right in the middle of an on-going storyline, originally published in Amazing Spider-Man #150 (November 1975). The comic book caught the interest of  young fan, Lauri Narinen. He had a growing collection of English language Marvel comics and, as a fan, wanted to help Hämähäkkimies’ publisher Semic in making sure that the new comic book would last. Narinen contacted Semic’s editor in chief Allan Tokoi, offering to start a question and answer column where readers could ask about new characters and get some information about the comic book. The publisher agreed to this, and in the eighth issue of Hämähäkkimies the first letters page was published.

The cover to Ryhmä-X 1/1984.

In addition to editing the letters pages and answering readers’ questions about Marvel’s superheroes, Mail-Man also translated the stories in Ryhmä-X from 1984–1989 and edited the books in 1990–1992 and 1996. Starting in 1984, Mail-Man participated in the making of the publication of Spider-Man titles available not only in Finland but other Nordic countries as well. Starting out as a fan who wanted to help readers get involved with Marvel’s comics, Mail-Man quickly gained a larger role in the publication process of Finnish Marvel comics, mediating the adaptation process through the letters pages by explaining editorial choices, publication plans and plotlines.

 By 1985, the single letters page had been expanded into two or three pages per issue. The expansion was a result of the need for more and more clarifications and plot summaries to help readers keep up with the storylines. Not every issue making up each storyline was published in Finland, especially as the late 80’s-early 90’s saw the rise of “event” storylines and crossovers as Marvel’s peak publishing strategy. The omissions were executed in a way that often affected plot or character development. The function of the letters page changed as the stories grew more complicated. In the 1990s each letters page started with an editorial note by Mail-Man, bridging the gaps between issues that had not been published in Finland. For example, in Ryhmä-X 3/1995, a whole page is dedicated to Mail-Man’s editorial remarks; he describes the issue’s villains The Upstarts, as well as summarizing the relationship between time-travelers Cable and Stryfe: “In this issue we received useful information about the identities of Cable and Stryfe. A brief review of the past is thus in order” (Ryhmä-X 3/1995).

Upon taking an editorial role, Mail-Man’s responsibilities for the Finnish adaptations of both Spider-Man and X-Men comics included choosing what was to be published. He used the letters page as a forum to explain his choices in that role, fill in the gaps of the storylines, as well as educate the readers about American popular culture. For example, he explained in Ryhmä-X 1/1986: “We have skipped over some pretty poorly drawn (Cockrum) as well as some better quality (Smith) adventures,” or simply described unpublished stories as not “good enough to publish” in Hämähäkkimies 1/1990. By expressing his judgement regarding “poorly drawn” stories left unpublished, Mail-Man made the adaptation process transparent and emphasized his important role in it.

Mail-Man mediated the adaptation process of Ryhmä-X and Hämähäkkimies on the letters pages by writing openly about publication plans and unpublished issues, emphasizing the role of the readers, and expressing his own opinions. It was made clear that the Finnish comic books were adaptations, curated for the new audience, and fan engagement was vital to make the adaptation appealing for readers. What could we learn about the current adaptation processes of superhero comics by analyzing fan engagement? (For a more in-depth view of Mail Man and Finnish comics letters pages see Laura’s article in the May 2020 issue of Participations: The Journal of Audience & Reception Studies.)

Letter page header from Blitzkrieg #5

How do letters to war comics reflect mixed on-going cultural attitudes towards “the enemy?”

Stephen Connor, Assistant Professor of History at Nipissing University (North Bay, Canada).

In 1975, DC Comics published Blitzkrieg.  Edited by Joe Kubert and written primarily by Robert Kanigher with pencils by Ric Estrada, the comic only lasted five issues.  While the book never enjoyed the popularity of DC’s Our Army at War, assistant editor Allan Asherman noted that akin to Sgt. Rock stories, Blitzkrieg intended to “show the horrors of war.”  But, as Asherman explains in an editorial essay printed in the debut issue, the book was also different, “as it comes…through a largely unexplored set of eyes…the enemy.”

Over five issues, Blitzkrieg offered eight World War II stories featuring a trio of seemingly ordinary German infantrymen. While the stories themselves proved fanciful both in chronology and setting, their depictions of violence were decidedly consistent, centered on atrocities rather than the martial prowess or battlefield exploits of the Wehrmacht. Indeed, only in two stories did protagonists Frank Steiner, Ludwig Goertz, and Hugo Radl battle uniformed combatants.  Rather they engaged in a litany of war crimes ranging from reprisal killings of Soviet villagers to liquidating the Warsaw ghetto to the infamous Malmedy massacre.  Whatever their lingering moral qualms, they are perpetrators, a characterization of the German military largely in step with contemporary historiography.

According to Asherman’s introductory essay in issue #1, Blitzkrieg represented the first significant effort by a mainstream American comic book publisher to represent wartime Germans as both pro and anti-Nazi and address their horrific behavior and motivations free, as he put it, of value judgement.  However internally contradictory Asherman’s reasoning, the creative team not only understood that reader’s letters would certainly follow but expressly welcomed and encouraged comment.  Given the comic’s short run, only eight letters and six responses saw publication, featured on a letters page entitled “Blitzkrieg Briefs.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the title’s raison d’être, only a single letter focused specifically on the book’s artistic or literary merit and while certainly DC Comics received other such letters, they remained unprinted.  Further, only a single letter addressing historical inaccuracies in terms of uniforms and weaponry saw print. Given considerable space, the writer pointed out a litany of errors. As letter editor E. Nelson Bridwell noted in his response, other writers too had “properly chastised us for our errors.”  While Bridwell also assured readers that “we are doing better now,” inaccurately rendered machine guns or helmets alone failed to undermine Blitzkrieg’s overall aim of shifting focus from ‘us’ to ‘them.’

The bulk of published correspondence offered comment and criticism of Blitzkrieg’s enemy perspective.  Taken together, as Bridwell put it in issue #4, such letters responded to both the “idea to show…human beings on both sides” and the book’s ability to do so accurately and truthfully.  DC printed no letters suggesting the comic offered an overly sympathetic view of the German enemy.  Rather, in two letters, writers claimed their treatment was, in fact, too harsh.

Blitzkrieg #3 (June 1976). Cover by Joe Kubert.

Indeed, one letter opined that stories presented a “stereotype German.” For this writer, wartime perceptions of a bestial and barbaric foe lingered, fueled by contemporary popular representations including DC’s own Our Army at War.

Of course, this writer’s perspective proves out of step with serious scholarship that has undermined what historian’s call the “Myth of the Clean Wehrmacht,” the historically erroneous notion that the “regular” German military (the Wehrmacht) did not engage in mass murder, genocide and other war crimes. Yet the fact remains that such sentiment remained unchallenged, indeed entirely unaddressed by Bridwell. In neglecting to counter the writer’s claim that the Germans had undeservedly “taken a great beating from the media,” Blitzkrieg Briefs failed to challenge this historical fallacy.

The final published letter (in issue #5) proved even more shrill and accusatory, the writer claiming not only that Blitzkrieg fails to depict “German soldiers as human” but actively de-humanized them, wryly adding that he had expected to see them “gorge themselves on … Kinderfleisch.”  Again, Bridwell offered little challenge. Instead he maintained that while some readers felt DC had “missed the boat,” others praised the book as having “hit the nail on the head.” Unfortunately, Blitzkrieg failed to print letters representative of this latter view. While the editorial reasoning for doing so remains obscured, the fact remains that DC opted to print critical rather than congratulatory letters.

This brief overview of published letters in Blitzkrieg allows for some general observations. First, Bridwell’s comments proved free of counter-argument. Indeed, even when writers expressed contradictory perspectives, editorial responses acknowledged the opinion rather than actively engaging with its reasoning or feelings. Yet it is also true that DC Comics did not shy away from printing multiple, even controversial, opinions. In this sense, the publisher lived up to their claim that commentary was welcomed whether focused on the title’s artistic, literary, historical or ethical merit. Second, the majority of letters raised concern not based on objections to ‘humanizing’ an enemy but rather the opposite. Certainly, given the wider ‘Nazi pulp’ pop culture representations of Nazism in evidence in the 1970s, perhaps best represented in the books of Leo Kessler (aka Charles Whiting) and Sven Hassel (aka Børge W.R. Pedersen) that disconnected German soldiers from the politics that empowered them, such perspectives should not be particularly surprising.  At another level however, the ‘too harsh’ letters seemed to reflect the longer term phenomenon historians such as Klaus Naumann dubbed the “Unblemished Wehrmacht” myth.

In depicting atrocity and casual violence as a consequence German aggression, Robert Kanigher’s writing certainly undermined Asherman’s initial claim of stories free of value judgment. On the contrary, readers were reminded that German war crimes were not incidental to their racist war of extermination but rather at the very heart of it. Kanigher’s stories certainly invited criticism – and it came in droves.  But in doing so, and by printing critical, often reactionary letters, Blitzkrieg exposed the longevity and entrenchment of a dangerous and exculpatory myth.

Blitzkrieg was not free of judgement and depictions of war ‘through enemy eyes’ proved largely accurate, if more in spirit than historical nuance. However, cancelled after five issues, readers it seemed did not want such stories for the reasons some letter writers expressed. Seen in this way, Blitzkrieg challenged the erroneous notion of an ‘ordinary enemy’ in which individual soldiers could be disentangled from the Third Reich’s genocidal project. And on its letter page, while failing to challenge this myth directly, its enduring appeal and attendant cultural attitudes were exposed, at least among some of the title’s readership.

How did comics letter columns work to establish comics as an adult medium?

David Beard, Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

In Savage Sword of Conan #12 (June 1976), reader Richard Guion exclaims that “Conan has raised the literary content of comics!” Letters like Guion’s, and the letters pages generally, from Marvel’s 1970s-era Conan the Barbarian (CtB) and related comics were the space where Marvel asserted the sophisticated, adult quality of such  comics. These paratexts were edited to create the impression that Conan continues the literary tradition established by Conan’s creator, Robert E. Howard. They also created the impression that Conan was bringing the sword-and-sorcery tradition into the present by responding to questions raised by feminism. Letter columns conditioned how readers read Conan, and so attempted to advance the transformation of public perception of comics from a kid’s medium toward an adult medium.

Many letters justify the merit of Conan comics by appealing to its literary origins. A letter from “Glen Lord, literary executor of the Howard estate” appears in CtB#2 (December 1970) expressing regret that “Howard didn’t live to see his literary creation achieve its present popularity.” In the same issue, reader Don Thompson evaluates Roy Thomas among the Conan creators: “You can hold your head up when compared to others who have written of Conan since Howard killed himself in 1936. You are not as good as Sprague de Camp, but the other imitators have fared worse than you.” These letters frame the Conan comics as inheritors of a literary tradition, and in turn this speaks to their perceived quality.

Often, the comics’ merit was demonstrated by the literary reputation of the letter writers. The third issue of Savage Sword of Conan (SSoC) included a letter from Harlan Ellison (described as a “sf author and editor, screen and TV scripter”). Ellison wrote in often. In CtB #2, after his letter, editors describe him as a writer who “collects Hugo and Nebula awards.”  By implication: if a creator of Ellison’s merit reads Conan, surely, the book must be special. Other literary figures writing letters include Bob Weinburg, author of The Weird Tales Story (1977, reprinted in 1999 by Wildside Press) in SSoC #5 (April 1975).

Eventually, the Conan comics began to win their own literary acclaim. In SSoC #10 (February 1976), David Sutton writes to inform Marvel that Savage Sword won the August Derleth Award from the British Fantasy Society for best comic.

At the same time that Marvel was leveraging Conan’s literary antecedents to assert its quality, those antecedents were being seriously interrogated as masculinist. In pulp fiction, women characters were often reducible to problematic tropes: as sex objects, as victims, as damsels in distress, as prizes for masculine feats. While the Conan comics were (and often still are) sexist and masculinist, the letters create the sense that the comic book reinvention of Conan included awareness of female representation. In SSoC #4 (February 1975), reader Charles Saunders writes in to evaluate “Conan’s Women Warriors” by Fred Blosser, an article which appeared in SSoC #1. Saunders notes that Blosser does not reference characters Queen Nzinga or Gamburu. Saunders, sensitive to both gender and race, asks, “Was it because Queen Nzinga was black?” (Marvel did not exclude those characters for any notable racist or sexist reasons but because they only held license to characters created by Howard, and Nzinga was created by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter.) While the pulp source material reveled in stereotypes, the comics used the letter pages to demonstrate awareness of the politics of race and gender.

Discussions of Red Sonja (who existed within the Conan comics universe when initially published by Marvel but is not a Robert E. Howard creation) further address gender representation. Reader Jeff Brown admits that cheesecake sells in Savage Sword of Conan #3 (December 1974),  “What good is a magazine that doesn’t sell?”  Nonetheless, Brown exhorts the creators to give us a Sonja with “a  frame” who is “a dangerous person.”  In artist Roy Krenkel, he finds a Sonja who is “a hard bitten and entirely capable-looking warrior woman.”  In artists John Buscema and Pablo Marcos, Sonja had “vitality and muscle.”  Hypersexualization may sell magazines, but Brown exhorts the artists to do better. Furthermore, Marvel uses the letters to assert that just publishing Red Sonja comics works against the sexist limitations of both genre comics and its source material. In Marvel Feature vol. 2, #6 (September 1976), a comic starring Red Sonja, a letter from the Anderson family (Matthew, Ted, Rebecca, Amy, Ann, and Dick) congratulates Marvel for “a comic telling about a woman instead of the usual hero, a man.”  The editors reply that “There’ve been way too few comics devoted to super-heroines,” using the paratext of the letter to assert that they are bucking the trends.

If you read the letter columns when you bought a 1970s Marvel Conan comic, you bought membership into a community of critical thinkers and literary giants. You bought participation in a fifty-year literary tradition. And you bought work critically engaging the limitations of that tradition in light of contemporary reconsiderations of gender. In this way, the letter columns reframed the comics as more than kid stuff.

How can reader letters visualize community?

Margaret Galvan, Assistant Professor of Visual Rhetoric at the University of Florida.

In comics, letters pages are an important space of community engagement where readers can respond back to the comic and its creators. While more often associated with mainstream comics, letters pages and letters more broadly have been important shaping forces in other comics communities, particularly in queer and feminist spaces. Though the letters didn’t appear within the comics themselves, Kirsten Leng has been researching how fans demonstrated their investment in the Dykes to Watch Out For (1983-2008) comic strip through the letters they wrote to Alison Bechdel, and I have written on how Howard Cruse mentored Gay Comix (1980-1998) cartoonists through letters in my scholarship on Jennifer Camper.

Unlike these comics and others where reader letters appeared sporadically or not at all, Diane DiMassa’s comic-zine, Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist (1991-1998), devoted significant page space to reader letters over the course of its 21 issues that she and her partner Stacy A. Sheehan self-published under their own Giant Ass Publishing imprint. This comic focused on the exploits of the titular Hothead, whose deep hatred of patriarchy often manifested in spectacular violence against men, which was cathartic and troubling for readers. Very quickly, Hothead Paisan achieved something like cult status with “50,000 copies in circulation” by its 15th issue. This popularity led to three collected editions of the comic with indie publisher Cleis Press. The letters printed in each issue make visible a demographically diverse community of readers. In this short response, I want to pay particular attention to their geographic range, which provides a snapshot of how and where queer and queer-friendly folks thrived.

While readers weighed in on the characters and plot of Hothead Paisan in their responses, they also conveyed much about their own local experience, collectively forming a queer comics counterpublic. I draw upon Michael Warner’s sense of counterpublic here as denoting a subcultural group identity that’s “transform[ative]” in its “association[s];” that is, “queers exist by virtue of the world they elaborate together” (Publics and Counterpublics 2002, 57). We see this elaboration in the nearly 300 responses printed in the comic, as readers identify not only their own individual locations, but also place themselves in relation to local and national venues where they heard about or purchased the comic. Their letters map out a directory of gay, feminist, and independent newspapers and bookshops supported by clusters of readers in major metropolises as well as in smaller cities and rural areas. For the first half of the series, DiMassa created collages with photocopies of the letters. (Figure 1). She later switched to retyping letters in different fonts, but continued to arrange them on the page with reader drawings. DiMassa’s methods of collating roughly a dozen letters per issue and retaining their unique style underlines the local differences that readers evoke in their responses.

Figure 1: Spread of letters pages in Hothead Paisan #6 (1992) [click to enlarge]

As DiMassa was building her audience in earlier issues, the feedback of notable subcultural figures like Kate Clinton, Alix Dobkin, and Jennie Livingston demonstrated the comic’s appeal and potentially encouraged further readership. Numerous enthusiastic responses from across the queer cartoonist community, who themselves hailed from all over the map, foreground the reach of the comic. Alison Bechdel, Howard Cruse, Fish, Leanne Franson, Diane Germain, Roberta Gregory, Rob Kirby, Andrea Natalie, Terry Sapp, Roz Warren, and Zana all wrote in. I have cataloged the reader responses printed in every issue of Hothead Paisan and made maps of all the readers who specified their locations . They represent a subset of a larger whole, but they visualize the expanse of that whole.

The first map (made with Google Maps) shows the locations that readers wrote their letters from and includes a drop-down list of locations to jump to points on the map labeled with the information of who wrote the letter and in which issue.

The geographic distribution of these readers moves beyond the expected locations, pinpointing often overlooked radical sites. Of course, numerous readers sent letters from major metropolitan areas like New York City (15 letters), San Francisco (10 letters), Philadelphia (six letters), Seattle (six letters), Chicago (five letters), and Montréal (five letters). In addition to reaching readers across the United States and Canada, people wrote in from international locations in Australia, Azerbaijan, Germany, Iceland, The Netherlands, and Russia. Clusters elsewhere on the map indicate additional constellations of queer energy. One of those hotspots was Gainesville, FL with seven letters; an additional letter was penned from nearby Ocala, FL. Gainesville’s well-documented punk scene was particularly active in the 1990s, inspiring women like Sarah Dyer and Celia C. Perez to start making their own zines. The letters recall this milieu and remind us of the many ways that queer life can thrive outside of large urban spaces.

The second map (made with CARTO) shows the density of where readers wrote their letters from (the darker the color, the more letters that were written from that location).

If Hothead Paisan functioned as a community meeting space, then DiMassa and Sheehan were the community organizers. From the very first issue, DiMassa encouraged responses by penning her own letter to her readers. In subsequent issues, she expressed written gratitude for the letters and created comics that responded to readers, both imagined and real. Amidst the letters printed at the back of Hothead Paisan #7 (1992), DiMassa includes a six-panel comic that shows Hothead and her cat, Chicken, visiting their P.O. Box and delighting in photos that feline and human fans sent with their letters (Figure 2). In dialogue, they engage letters printed in that same issue, and the message that appears on Hothead’s shirt in the final panel sums up the sentiment: “(We love it!)” By incorporating references to real reader letters in this comic, DiMassa illustrates how much these missives matter to the series by showing Hothead—rather than DiMassa—intercepting them. As much as the readers shared their personal lives with the comic’s characters, Hothead’s own lack of spatial specificity furthered this feeling of proximity. As DiMassa noted at the end of an interview reprinted in Dyke Strippers (1995): “I never mention where she is. I leave it open; I want people to imagine it’s their town.” In both this comic and interview response as well as throughout the series, DiMassa merges the world of her readers with that of Hothead, welcoming all of them in to share page space together.

Figure 2: DiMassa’s six-panel comic responding to reader letters in Hothead Paisan #7 (1992) [click to enlarge]

We encourage readers to contribute comments and questions below and to come back in one week for part two of our round table when three more scholars will explore a question about comics paratexts. If you want to see more comic studies content like this and others please consider signing up for our Patreon for as little as one dollar a month. Alternatively, you can make a one-time donation using ko-fi.

4 thoughts on “Reading Comics at the Threshold: A Round Table on Letter Columns & Other Comics Paratexts (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Confusion (Pump Panel Reconstruction) – This Week’s Links - Avada Classic Shop

  2. Pingback: Reading Comics at the Threshold: A Round Table on Letter Columns & Other Comics Paratexts (Part 3) | The Middle Spaces

  3. Pingback: WAUGH and On and On #8: The Duck is Dead. Long Live the Duck! | The Middle Spaces

  4. Pingback: Year-End Meta 2022: “Escaping Total Nullification” | The Middle Spaces

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s