Back Matter Matters – A Study In Commitment

It is a story in words and pictures; that’s comic, kids. That’s what the companies sell, that’s what we buy. But I always want more, and I don’t think I’m asking for too much. There are some comics out there that offer you just a little more bang for your buck and I know I not only appreciate the effort made by creators to include back matter in their comics but I also try my best to pick those titles up each month rather than trade wait. I love back matter, it elevates every comic I buy, and there are so many different ways to go about adding that extra layer to your product.

Casanova

Many years ago, when characters died to stay dead and comics were just for kids, each issue would have a letter column at the back. If you cast an inward eye way back to your youth, you can possibly remember the letter columns that would feature all sorts of discussion about the title. The best part was always the editor’s reply. Sometimes I’d just read the replies and if the answer came in the form of a list then I’d back track to see what the questions were. It’s a beautiful historical document to be able to see what the fans of the day thought of the titles. Brave editors would run letters of both praise and vilification. It felt like each issue ended with a round table discussion and you could sit in and listen.

To read these letters now is to understand the gut reactions that fans felt strongly about. This was an age where previews for comic were scarce and you would find out what the issue was about when you read it. Then you’d even have to hand write your letter and mail it through the post to the company. It was an exercise in love and dedication, or hate and devotion, but either way it showed the audience was connected. You could see that people cared and cared deeply.

The letter column isn’t exactly what it used to be anymore because the fans have found other ways to communicate with the publisher, the creators, and other fans. In a new world of chat rooms, message boards, email, Twitter and other electronic connections, stating your opinion to be heard is much simpler and more instant. The letter column died a natural death and most didn’t really seem to care too much.

Another form of back matter that Marvel had was the Bullpen cartoons and Stan’s Soapbox. Both of these things were little soundbites for the fans to enjoy. You didn’t pick up the comic to read them but you certainly enjoyed them as you went along. It was a slight touch that reminded you the companies loved the fans and celebrated they were there. It was another access point that made you feel like you were on the inside.

See, that’s what good back matter does. It invites you out the back to see how what you love has been made. It gets you to connect with the creators and feel a part of the club. It insulates us all within this kooky four colour world we love so much.

For much of recent history, comics held no back matter; or very little of it. Enough that I didn’t find any in anything I read. But now it’s back and there’s a variety of different ways creators are rewarding their buying public for showing up to the party each and every month. Most back matter doesn’t impact the cover price, or so we hope, but it adds a depth to the product as a whole that I always love it. Back matter is the one thing that turns a comic from a mass produced item to a personal gift.

I recently picked up issues #3 and #4 of Casanova from a charity book fair, they were 50c each, and I was excited because I knew there was some solid back matter waiting for me in the back of each of these comics. I love Casanova, the spy-fu tale by Matt Fraction and Messrs Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon. I love the comic and celebrate it as being one of the best things written in this millennium but it pains me to admit that I missed the ground floor. I got the first story in trade and this means I wasn’t there for seven issues of back matter that I desperately want to read. Getting two slices of this for a dollar was a no-brainer. And I didn’t regret the purchase one bit.

Fraction’s back matter in Casanova is interesting because it’s basically a creative journal. The back matter isn’t quite an essay, nor is it an Author’s Note; it’s just Fraction talking and us listening. You read the comic, blink your eyes in the glinting genius you know it to be, and then Fraction steps into the frame and has a quick chat with you. He tells you how he wrote this issue and why he did so. He opens his brain and when you step in you notice elevator music like you’ve never heard before and you feel a shifting in the air like particles of vibranium are drifting straight into your lungs. There is nothing held back and you know secrets are not being kept from you. It’s an amazing and emotional journal as Fraction documents his troubles with certain scripts, or just in life, and gets candid about his influences for scenes, characters, words, or anything else he synthesised through the pop culture melange that influences his mind at all times.

The back matter in Casanova is all about process. It isn’t about the formal process, the kind of stuff you see in text books, but it’s more about the real process a writer goes through to create a comic that is extremely personal and possibly perfect. To read these text pieces from Fraction is to understand what he thinks before, during, and after each issue. There are insecurities, and gleeful giddiness, as well as sickness, and satisfaction. It’s the sort of thing most people don’t talk about so to read it here is an insight. This is inside access like you get nowhere else so it’s a fair degree of fun.

Some people have seen Fraction’s text pieces as too personal, pretentious, something that only takes away from the actual comic you bought. I can understand how people might feel that way, Fraction is certainly not backwards in coming forward, but I certainly don’t agree with that view. Fraction has stated when the new arc of Casanova finally reaches us, after a two year hiatus and a change of publisher, he will not be using the back matter to journalise his process any more. He did it, and had his fun, but he sees the danger inherent with being so open and available and so the text will most likely become a little more academic and discuss the genre instead of the direct process. That will be a shame but it is nice to see Fraction is still committed to some form of back matter.

Ed Brubaker has been a large proponent of bringing back the extra pages of back matter as he’s included a little something at the end of his issues for Criminal and Incognito. Criminal kicked things off by including a variety of pieces for the monthly audience. Brubaker would often add a page of personal views; things that have caught his attention lately, things that should catch your attention, that sort of thing. He addresses the reader directly and personally but his page has a formal structure, it doesn’t share that mellow flow found in Casanova.

Next up is usually some sort of essay or review of something that fits the noir genre of Criminal. Brubaker has been blessed to access a glut of renowned novelists and persons of interest who are willing to donate these essays on favourite movies and stories they feel the reading audience should be made aware of. It’s all about sharing the love and so reading this back matter is always an exercise in broadening your horizons. It’s enjoyment expansion because if you like the comic in your hand then it’s a safe bet you’ll like the essay given to you, and you’ll want to locate the source material to enjoy that as well.

Incognito was slightly different in that the essays were all by the same person, the extremely erudite Jess Nevins. Each essay introduced us to a different pulp character. While this back matter was broadening our horizons it was also world building around the comic itself. Incognito is a two-fisted pulp delight and so each essay by Nevins just mired us further in the world mindset that we needed to be in. We were placing this story within a historical context. The essay in the final issue of the first series, “The Zeppelin Pulps”, completely detailed a weaving history of a series of stories but it seemed that the truth behind it all is of dubious, and awesome, quality. Even without reality behind it, this final essay helps build the world, feel, and vibe around Incognito. This is an instance of back matter really making the comic something more.

Brian Michael Bendis has recently launched Scarlet, which you’ll notice is yet another title through Marvel’s Icon imprint, and as per the course for his creator owned series there is a wealth of back matter. Bendis lets his text fall somewhere between Casanova and Criminal. He rolls through his words finding things of note to promote and ideas to bash out. He’s had interviews and articles right along lists and thoughts. It’s a very informal text area and it certainly gives you an idea of the frame of mind Bendis gets in to create this comic. He has been doing the same thing in his other creator owned title, Powers, for years as well.

Marvel has brought back the letters page in certain titles but the most fun has to be found in the back of Jonathan Hickman’s run on the Fantastic Four. He answers the letters with the help of Franklin and Valeria Richards. The feel of the page is old school fun, like Stan himself is taking part, and that says a lot. It’s the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine and this sort of fan interaction shows it’s certainly the most enjoyable.

Any time a comic offers you just a bit more in some form of back matter I feel like the creators are caring. They’re having fun and they’re connecting. Back matter makes the readers feel welcome and it builds an overall experience that warrants the monthly price tag and makes people want to keep up. This is especially the case when the back matter is not going to be reprinted in the collected trade format. All back matter is something special for the monthly audience and it’s a reward for being in on the ground floor.

I admit, I am a reader who enjoys all sorts of extras, especially those that come close to showing some tricks of the process. I have read some of Stephen King’s forwards and extras dozens of times and there are DVD commentaries that I have listened to more than the actual film. Seeing behind the curtain is a pleasure nearly every time as it doesn’t spoil the process but merely enhances the pleasure of the overall product.

If more comics included back matter I’d certainly consider buying them. Imagine a Frank Miller comic with essays in the back by him about how he created the comic or the influences he feels in his head. Having lists of other great zombie fare in the back of The Walking Dead would be a great help to the brain-eating genre. There’s room for plenty of today’s great comics to give us just that little bit extra to help world build.

If I had my way, every comic would come with some sort of back matter. And that text would not be collected in trade form. It could be essays or diary form or even just be lists. Anything always means something and it’s nice to buy a comic and get a little something else, too.

Note: The writer of this article has had a handful of letters published in various comics as well as had an essay featured in the Brubaker/Phillips comic Criminal. This has in no way influenced the view portrayed within this text.

– originally published 10/21/2010

Ryan K Lindsay is an Australian writer who finds time in nearly every day to get words of some description down. He was published by Marvel once, in a back matter essay in Criminal, but he can more regularly be found penning reviews and op/ed pieces on comic news website The Weekly Crisis. His favourites are; character, Matt Murdock; story, Y: The Last Man; novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay; movie, Chasing Amy; and woman, his wife.

6 Replies to “Back Matter Matters – A Study In Commitment”

  1. Splendid stuff.

    So would you argue that Plato’s idea of spiritual ascent through philosophy and mathematics is bad faith or is it just that Ash avoids bad faith by imposing her own (rather than the genre’s) hierarchy on the various levels of reality?

    Minor note : Wizardry isn’t Japanese but it is safe to assume that the name ‘Wizard’ is an RPG reference.

  2. I’d say the latter, as usual we don’t really get into the head of Oshii’s protagonist, there is a distance (no doubt, like with the Major in Ghost in the Shell) intended to further create a sense of alienation. Her actions to me seem very much about rebelling against the rules of the game in which the game is also reality.

    Ah, I always thought it was as it is so popular in Japan, my mistake. It is definately relating to the Wizardry series though, it can be seen in the background of the making of special, and there are a number of clear references.

  3. The Walking Dead has a 2-page letter column that currently is answered alternately by the editor and the writer. It used to be completely by the writer and have more pages for the column, but he has trimmed back input on that front due to his involvement in other projects.

    I love this article and I’m completely on-board with this point-of-view. A lot of the books I buy have these back-up materials and that kind of lovely package is what makes them some of my favorite comics of all-time.

    1. Thanks, Matt S, I am really glad you liked the article.

      I really dig back matter of all kinds, and I’m sure heaps of good comics out there do it too and I’m not there for it. I, sadly, get Walking Dead in trade form, so I miss these letter columns of which you speak.

  4. Great piece Ryan. Being something of a flighty hussy when it comes to comics I have often wondered about the point of those letters pages. Love the title of the column too

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