Column: Box Brown’s Dear Pencil Pal #1

Categories:  Features

DearPencilPal

When written correspondence became “snail mail,” the letters section in the back of comics sort of fell out of favor. A few comic artists still do it. John Porcellino and Alec Longstreth come to mind. But, there was a time when it was standard practice to include a letters section in comics. In reading these comics I am often tickled to no end* when I recognize the names of the people who have sent in letters to my favorite comic artists.

When I saw Sandra Oh, actress of Arli$$ fame (also some pretentious wine movie called Sideways), in an issue of Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve, I thought it might be clear evidence of the moment Drawn and Quarterly made it to the mainstream. But, looking even further back in D & Q’s catalog I found a letter from famed doctor and Robin Williams’ eponymous movie character Patch Adams in a Chester Brown comic. But, these people aren’t celebrities to me. Comic creators are.

Creator of The Aviatrix and Kramer’s Ergot contributor, Eric Haven’s letter was featured in a Chester Brown comic, Yummy Fur #29. I came across this after reading a different Chester Brown comic, though. In Underwater #1, there is a letter from Eric Haven. But it turns out that it’s a completely different guy, says the comic artist Haven:

“I remember seeing that letter when the issue came out and being shocked that there was another Eric Haven in the world reading Chester Brown’s comics. I attempted to contact this other Eric, but was only able to reach yet a different Eric Haven in Rochester Hills, MI. I can only imagine what this third Eric thought when I tried to explain why I was calling him…”

These letters clearly serve a purpose for the creator. I know that fan mail (and alternately “hate” mail) can effect an artist profoundly. Haven says, “[He's] glad [he] wrote the letter. It’s nice to praise a creator if one is moved by their work… especially in a field where there is no monetary reward.” But as a fan of both Eric Haven and Chester Brown this letter serves another purpose for me and presumably other fledgling cartoonists. It serves to strengthen the connection of all cartoonists. And, a fan letter from another cartoonist is probably one of the highest honors a cartoonist can achieve.

joshneufeldchesterbrownletters

Josh Neufeld created the highly praised book AD: New Orleans After the Deluge. But before that he had a letter featured in Chester Brown’s Underwater #9. Neufeld says of Brown, “he is one of my comix gods. I loved Yummy Fur, and was mystified and entranced by Underwater. I particularly liked the life of Jesus stuff he did as the backup features in Underwater.

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This is an important note for noncreators to remember: comic artists have comic Gods! For every amazing comic artist you know about, they are part of an amazing comic lineage. Undoubtedly, Neufeld is some other future success’ comic God. Neufeld is well aware of the impact of the comics letters page. He maintains a list of cartoonists letters to cartoonist and is the curator of the Wikipedia entry on the comics letters page.

The most epic letters page of this generation though has to be the letters page in Ivan Brunetti’s Schizo #2, published in 1996. This page features letters from the greatest cartoonists of the last 30 years. Some (R. Crumb, Dan Clowes, Art Spiegelman) had already achieved wild success. And, were on their way (James Kochalka, Adrian Tomine, Tom Hart). The amazing thing about this letters page is that it’s clear evidence that Brunetti was making an incredible impact on the comics scene and was destined for comic greatness.

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[Click to Enlarge.]

If artists are reading this, consider it a plea to bring the letters page back to your comics! Let’s not let the letters page fade into obscurity. Maybe it’s because emails are so easy to dismiss and throw away. Maybe it’s because written correspondence made a greater impact on artists. But, there is no reason for the letters page to become something only comic archeologists care about.

*This is considered torture.

-Box Brown

9 Comments to “Column: Box Brown’s Dear Pencil Pal #1”

  1. oliver east | February 2nd, 2010 at 8:50 am

    doing just that, with the next but one issue of Trains Are…Mint

  2. Box Brown | February 2nd, 2010 at 9:15 am

    Yeah!!

  3. Eric | February 2nd, 2010 at 9:21 am

    i remember sending letters to comics, but none of them posted. :p

  4. Robert Boyd | February 2nd, 2010 at 9:48 am

    There are two classes of cartoonists letters to cartoonists. One is a letter from an established, well-known cartoonist–a peer. These letter, for me, come off as logrolling in the Spy Magazine sense. “You’re awesome!” “Not as awesome as you, pal!” I mean, I don’t think they are insincere–but they are less interesting to me than the other class of letters from cartoonists.

    This other type are letters from cartoonists before they became well-known–often before they even started cartooning. When I read those (always years later, obviously), I get a little thrill learning something about the inchoate development of that cartoonist. They can sometimes be quite revealing–even embarrassing!

  5. Chris Schweizer | February 2nd, 2010 at 10:06 am

    Thanks for the article!

    Since I’m not doing periodicals, letters are hard to swing, but I have put together a print newsletter and the letters page is a part of that.

    I’ll mail you a copy. Since it’s the first issue, there’s no letters page YET, but there is an invitation to send some in.

  6. Simon M | February 2nd, 2010 at 11:01 am

    I wonder if perhaps there’s another sort of letters page out there, too, which serves to break down the (already) arbitrary creator/non-creator distinction. I think what King-Cat does very well in its letters page is to pick out bits of correspondence that stitch together the community of the readership. The letters, from what I have seen, rarely concern the merits of the comic (which are many!), but rather offer poignant or funny or angry snapshots of the ephemera of the correspondent’s everyday life. I like the way this draws people together, opens up the scene to all sorts of readers and, if only a little bit, challenges the distinction that we can’t help but create between the artist and the audience.

    I guess there is always that distinction, too, between ‘artist’ and artist. I barely consider myself in either category, but when I received some words of encouragement from one of my heroes, I was so chuffed and proud. So I appreciate the circularity of the argument – as the article says even people’s heroes have heroes – but I really like it when the letters aren’t mutual backslapping.

    Being so new to the scene, and with only two issues under my belt, means that I haven’t got that many people writing to me yet. When (if!) that day comes, however, I’ll be putting a letters page in my comic for sure, and in my case, I’d hope that the page would be about the letter writer and not the comic writer (me). I’m not that interesting, y’see!

  7. Sarah Morean | February 2nd, 2010 at 11:46 am

    In 2008, we featured highlights from the zine collection of Mike Haeg (Mr. Mike) at the Twin Cities Zinefest. To prepare, me and a few other coordinators went over to his house for pancakes and he showed us his suitcases full of zines and old correspondence from other artists. He got a pretty icy one from Dan Clowes that surprised me, so Mr. Mike told us the story.

    See, Haeg and Clowes had a correspondence going inasmuch as I think Haeg would send him his work and Clowes would write back through on post cards with feedback etc. (see http://thedailycrosshatch.com/2008/06/29/zines-of-the-cities/).

    Then, as a joke, Haeg had his girlfriend (now wife) write Clowes this sad letter explaining he’d how Haeg had died. He even made a fake funeral program to go with the letter. The program was sort of jokey, but Mr. Mike is totally the kind of person who would have a ridiculous pre-written program at his funeral, so why not believe it?

    I can’t remember how taken in by it Clowes was. As I recall, there might have been a condolence letter. Anyway, I’d be pissed too if someone joked with me like that.

    I still think that’s one of the best/worst stories I’ve ever heard and I totally wish I’d thought up the gag first. I wonder how Clowes remembers it now.

  8. chuck forsman | February 2nd, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    Box,

    Cool article. A few weeks ago I was re-reading all of my Yummy Furs and Underwaters and noticed all of these names as well. But there is one more I remember that I think was in an issue of Underwater. There is a letter from a Tom Kaczynski. I am at work so I don’t have the issues in front of me but I am pretty sure about this.

  9. Box Brown | February 2nd, 2010 at 7:02 pm

    Hey Chuck,
    Thanks! I actually did contact Tom and was waiting on a comment from him, but I didn’t really follow up on it. I’ll have to holler back at him for the next article. There are a lot of others all over the comic world.