Like a lot of modern comics readers, I’ve mostly become a trade-waiter.
For those who don’t know what that term means, “trade-waiters” are readers who eschew collecting monthly comics as single issues, instead waiting for the book-like collections that show up at comics stores and mainstream retailers like Barnes & Noble.
On the whole, trade-waiting is much easier than buying single issues. It requires less logistical headaches and drives to the comic store. It eliminates the chance you’ll miss, say, issue 20 of a particular series, leaving you to fill in the gaps between issues 19 and 21. Trade collections are ad-free, and they’re easier to move from place to place than single issues (in my life, this consideration comes up a lot).
But there are still good reasons to buy single issues. Some publishers use only single issue sales to gauge how successfully titles are selling. So if you want the series to continue, you need to buy the single issues. There’s also something to be said for reading comic stories in their original, serialized form, in getting to enjoy the story as it was conceived. And in getting to talk about it with the other readers hanging around your local shop on Wednesday.
But the best reason to buy single issues is this: They’re the only place you can find the comic’s letters page.
In the tradition of most monthly periodicals, comics have almost always had letters pages. Or at least, they go far enough back that a young George R.R. Martin could write in to ask Stan Lee and Jack Kirby about Fantastic Four. That network of communication, from fan to creator, is what comics letters pages have always been about. Letters pages gave creators and editors a way to build a like-minded, positive community around each character and title. Before the Internet, letters pages were the primary way readers could see there were others like them out there, asking the same (or better) sorts of questions, considering the same stories, and not-so-patiently waiting for the next issue.
Recently, some publishers have begun ditching letters pages. It’s hard to blame them. With first message boards and then comics websites and now stupid ol’ Twitter providing a lot (but not all) of the same functionality, it’s easy to see why a publisher like DC would waffle between including or not including a letters page. After all, the Internet’s doing that work for them.
But titles that still have letters pages make great use of them. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl team uses their page to encourage their younger readers, post fan-art and cosplay, and just make goofs. Over in Lazarus, Greg Rucka’s detailed essays on his research and the state of the world, as well as his incredibly well thought-out answers to reader questions, are the primary reason I buy that book in single issues. I even often read the letters page first. (And as a quick aside, Lazarus is the only book I’ve actually taken the time to write in to.)
I mentioned before that Twitter et al. don’t exactly replicate or reproduce the experience you get from a good letters page, and that owes primarily to letters pages’ focus. In the letters page, creators and editors can signal boost good questions or observations, and they can take the time to spell out their thoughts or answers in an amount of detail that 280 characters simply doesn’t provide. In short, Twitter is a nightmare-o-sphere of people yelling about 50 bazillion different things at once, some of which are not worth spending time on. Letters pages, at their best, are a focused discussion between just a few people, about a few actually discussion-worthy topics.
The other part of letters pages that the Internet can’t reproduce is the feeling of holding an old comic in your hand and traveling back to the exact moment in time that you first read those letters. While writing this post, I searched around for some Chuck Dixon-era Nightwing letters pages, as those are some of the first letters pages I read. I can distinctly remember reading the letters in Nightwing and coming to terms with the larger community of readers and superheroes out there. In particular, I remember wondering who this “Wally” character that people kept asking about was.
Most of my collection is in Wisconsin (and I am not), so I had to look for Nightwing letters online. The below page was the only one I could find, but I think it does a good job of conveying how letters pages can tie a comic to a particular moment in time.
This is letters pages at their best. Receiving and answering letters allows creators to instill readers with a sense of empathy toward not just their characters, but themselves. Within the span of six paragraphs, this letters page jumps from addressing what 9/11 meant to the then-New-York-based DC staff to reassuring people that, yes, their concerns about Trevor McCarthy’s art have been heard. (And if you’re talking about letters pages as preserving a moment in time, imagine a world where readers were asking for Greg Land over Trevor McCarthy on Nightwing.)
Letters pages give readers a look at the best part of fandom and allow creators to react to their own work and its effects on people. They open up avenues of discovery for new readers and provide support (and an outlet for griping) to established ones. In the social media age, letters pages might seem a little old-fashioned. But they’re still one of the best parts of single issues, and they’re the only reason I’m not entirely a trade-waiter.