Since the silver age of superhero comics, the letters column has played an integral role in bridging the gap between publishers and readers. Over time, the letters column disappeared from mainstream comics as Internet forums and social media usage expanded. Though it’s never made a big comeback with DC or Marvel, creator-owned comics have ushered in a renaissance of comic book backmatter.
Creator-Owned Crime Comics Are Playing Their Part
A range of genres have contributed to this recent resurgence. Sci-fi and horror comics have had many notable examples of quality backmatter, but since this is Pulp Crime Fiction, we’re going to look at a few of the creator-owned crime comics that are doing it best. Now before we look at how these crime comics do it, let’s look at how it was done before them.
A (Very) Brief History of the Comic Book Letters Column
Letters columns were started in the 1960s. Readers would send questions and comments to the publishers. Select letters would be printed in the back of the comic, accompanied by a response from the editor. For the most part, the printed letters were focused on the story.
In modern creator-owned comics, the writers and artists are usually the ones answering the letters. This has closed the gap between creators and readers even more, cultivating a platform for hyper-niche conversations that further develop and expand beyond the world that the story takes place in.
Two Crime Comics With Hyper-Niche Letters Columns
The Southern Bastards (Aaron & Latour) letters column opens with the message “Send comments, recipes, and your gambling tips…” and that’s exactly what readers do. Flipping through an issue, you’ll find recipes for everything from fried chicken to apple fritters. The best part, each recipe usually comes with pictures and a background story. This aspect of the Southern Bastards letters column enables the creators and readers to break bread together, forming a new bond around a meal that has meant something to the reader and their family for generations.
Sex Criminals (Fraction & Zdarsky) has taken their letters column to such a masterful level that it’s even gotten its own book titled Just the Tips. As the name implies, the letters column acts as a sex advice column of sorts, with some of it real, much of it a joke, but all of it encouraging interaction amongst the fanbase, developing a community in a way that only this sex-fueled crime comedy can. As with most comics, the backmatter is not included with the trade paperbacks. But with a book like Just the Tips, you can still trade-wait and then catch up on some of the backmatter you missed.
Backmatter That’s More Than Letters
As the letters columns evolved, so has backmatter as a whole. Process pieces like character sketches, scripts, and even research has become popular additional content for comics across genres. Numerous creators have even started including entirely new content to further expand the world that their story takes place in, whether through minicomics, narrative prose, or insightful essays.
Crime Comics With Expanded Backmatter
The Violent (Brisson & Gorham) is a Canadian crime story with a setting as vivid and vital as the actual characters. To further expand this world of street crimes and drug use in Vancouver, each issue features a short story or comic that takes place in the city. These works are contributed by fellow Canadians, so they not only develop the setting with which the story takes place, but they give a greater voice to talented creators that otherwise might not have much exposure outside the Great White North.
Possibly the greatest team to ever tell crime stories, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have been publishing The Secret Ingredient in the back of their printed single issues for many years. From the creator update and “what I’ve been watching” discussion, to the letters column and sub-genre specific essays, this backmatter tradition has run across a number of Brubaker/Phillips titles, proving that the community is more about connecting with the creators and their influences than it is about connecting with the individual story being told. This backmatter has helped Brubaker and Phillips build a following of devoted fans that will buy any book they put out.
…and now for our backmatter
For further reading on comic book backmatter, check out this article on why backmatter matters, as well as this article on backmatter and the golden age of comic book letters columns.