Ken Eppstein returns to talk about the importance of back matter and letters' columns in the latest edition of Indie Insight!
When I decided to include letter pages and an ongoing editorial to Nix Comics Quarterly, I had no idea that the modern jargon for that kind of stuff is "Back Matter." From what I gather, whereas Dark Matter is a catch-all for the undefined and undetectable matter that has been measured through gravity and electro-magnetic radiation absorption and other forces of attraction, Back Matter is the highly visible text-only material, usually in the back of comic book, that repels major publishers, distributors and the semi-literate comic readers who can't be bothered.
Its a good column that starts with me cracking a cosmology joke, right? Little secret: My list of top five favorite "Famous Neils" starts with Neil Armstrong, Neil Diamond and Neil DeGrasse Tyson before getting to Neil Gaiman. Sedaka rounds it all out because I love-I love-I love my little calendar girl.
Anyways... my top five Neils and astrophysics aside, there's a huge contingent of comic book readers who don't like Back Matter. Maybe even hate it. I think the perspective is that the Back Matter is filler and somehow the reader is ripped off by these pages of text with no pictures.
I can't speak to why other writers include Back Matter. Maybe they are using it as filler. Seems unlikely, given that most of the writers I've talked to for advice and critique tend to overproduce and then pare down their stories. I just recently got hipped to Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' Criminal, which features a chunk of Back Matter about 70s and 80s television as inspiration in every issue. It sure feels more like a purposeful invitation into a fraternity of gracefully aging couch potatoes than filler, but I could be wrong.
Conversely, I can say why I include Back Matter. What I include is meant to harken back to the days of my youth when every comic came with back matter. I greedily consumed editorial, nest issue teasers and letters alike in those days. It didn't bother me that these pages had limited graphical content, although I will confess that my favorite letter pages did usually include a Fred Hembeck cartoon. "Still Only 35 Cents" or not, each comic I bought was a pretty significant chunk of my weekly budget... The difference between having an ice cream sandwich with my school lunch or not come Monday morning.
So what am I saying? That the stuff stowed away in the back of my old comics was better than Frickin' ice cream wedged in between two cookies??? How is that possible?
Well for one thing, back in the day, I couldn't stalk my favorite artists on Facebook or pretend that I have some sort of talking-terms relationship with them on Twitter. No way of eavesdropping on gossip and tiffs. No source of comic book news. Really, outside of the small group of friends I had, there wasn't even a real way of knowing if you I wasn't alone in being a comic fan.
The Back Matter embraced me as a fan. The editorials were an assurance that actual people were behind the scenes at Marvel and DC. Letter pages acknowledged that writers, artists and editors were listening to us, even if that acknowledgement was little more than a wink, nod and a "no prize." The promotional and next issue blurbs were assurances that my favorite hobby would be an on-going source of enjoyment.
Without these kind of assurances, I don't think I would have become a life long fan of comics and clearly without having become a fan, I wouldn't be writing my own comics now. There wouldn't have been any sort of personal attachment.
I'm not a completely out of the loop. I recognize that the preferred medium for this kind of connection with my fanbase is social media. I have a Facebook page for Nix and for the Pander Bear webcomic, getting a little excited each time the number of people who "like" them goes up by one. I keep fairly active on Twitter, especially enjoying the aforementioned false sense of relationship with my idols. More than ever that sense of the people who make comics are actual people with actual personalities is alive and well.
What isn't quite there in social media is that embrace. There's no on going appreciation of the fan because Tweets and Facebook posts are rapid fire and cheap. Log off for a minute and you'll miss 'em, lost forever in the Internet ether. Where's the sacrifice? I gave up my damn ice cream sandwich for this comic... You can't take a page or two and write me a nice editorial? You can't give a fan the thrill of seeing their letter immortalized in print? You too big for the fan!?
Well, I'm not. I recognize that as a miniscule little piece of comic industry, each and every fan I get is to be pulled into the fold any way I can and that despite its omnipresence, social media has limits. So with each and every issue I present Back Matter in hopes that you feel my heartfelt gratitude for your hard earned money and in hopes that you too will take it your interest in comics to the next level, making your own.
Written or Contributed by: Ken Eppstein, Outhouse Contributor