Skip to content

Odd things in the back of old comics

2013 October 11

A recent Kleefeld on Comics post about the author’s published letters to comic books got me thinking about a curious artifact of my own years as participant in that degrading game.*

Letter column paste-up page from Doom 2099 #20

“Take me back to 1994…”

This is, presumably, the paste-up page from the letter column appearing in Doom 2099 issue #20, cover dated August 1994. For whatever reason, it seems the good Ms. Pelosi or someone else at Marvel appreciated my correspondence so much that she not only printed it in the letter column but sent me this document as a bonus souvenir. I have one of these from an issue of The Silver Surfer, from a year or so later, also.

I post this here not to brag (see footnote), but rather because of what an odd object it is. I’ve had it for nearly 20 years now (owing increasingly to an incorrigible pack-rat instinct, I suppose), but it has spent most of that time filed away in various closets, and it may be that only this recent reminder of it has prompted me to fully appreciate its platypus strangeness for the first time.

It appears to be a paste-up page assembled after the relevant production department had access to desktop publishing. It’s subtle in the above photo, but as best I can tell, someone at Marvel produced this letter column with desktop publishing software (probably Quark XPress), then laser-printed it onto some sort of sticky-backed paper, then cut that into pieces and reassembled it on a big sheet of Bristol board.

The baffling weirdness of this may be difficult to explain to someone without document production experience, but it’s a bit like purchasing digital music and then burning it to CD so you can play it in a Walkman. Or, more loosely, like a c. 1900 farmer getting his first tractor and hitching up a team of oxen to pull it. Briefly, it seems to be missing the whole point of an incorporated technology.

It’s possible that I’m missing something, instead, but I’m not sure what that would be. Both the date and the typefaces (probably Eurostile, but in any event something obviously different from the standardized sans-serif that prevailed in every letter column prior to the early 90s) suggests that this was indeed produced with desktop publishing software rather than some  older typesetting technology that actually required this kind of literal cut-and-paste layout. Which makes this, so far as I can see, more or less absurd. It’s like the time my college professors (even later in the 90s) had us build a “mechanical” in much the same way: it makes no sense to print your layout in pieces and hand-assemble it when you’re creating those pieces in a program fully capable of composing and outputting the whole goddamn thing in a finished state.

I can imagine that for reasons of legacy production workflow, the whole page still needed to be placed on a standard paste-up page before it went off to pre-press, but why not just finish the layout in Quark and then print it onto a big sticker in one piece? The Silver Surfer paste-up page I have from late 1995 is mostly just such a whole-cloth layout, though even there a small amount of x-acto knife work appears to have been performed for reasons I can’t fathom. At any rate, it still suggests that there was no technical impediment to dispensing with manual cutting and pasting entirely.

So why hadn’t that happened? Again, I have a difficult time even guessing. I don’t want to presume stupidity, and yet it’s difficult to avoid suspecting at least some element of “I’m a paste-up person, paste-up is my job, I paste-up the letter columns on a paste-up page so my approach to this new technology will begin from the assumption that it will fit into a paste-up process” at work. Who knows; in fairness, I’ve also long suspected that my own workflow contains its share of equally archaic practices, and idly mused that perhaps I should hire a 23-year-old designer for a while just to examine my files, etc., and point them out to me.

* No, really. I will proclaim my nostalgic fondness for various 90s comics, even for largely rubbish stories like the Clone Saga, until the cows come home, but I do not mourn the demise of the letter column. There were exceptions, certainly, but for the most part what people call “letterhacking” (with, perhaps, varying degrees of self-awareness) was a sad game in which “winning” was the direct result of “strict adherence to toadyism, to sycophancy, to the grubbiest, lowliest submissions…” Although, in that sense, it may at least have been good preparation for freelancing.

4 Responses
  1. October 12, 2013

    Hmmm. My best guess to why this was done as it was is that they hadn’t actually gotten any page layout programs yet (or hadn’t figured out how to use them if they did) so they printed it all up in a single column (the width of which would’ve been easy to define in any word processing program) and used that for the paste-up. Given that there seems to be more paste-up work in the third column, I’d also suggest that had some minor issues getting those last letters and responses down to a short enough length to fit. The mid-90s were a very strange/transitional time for design and DTP.

    Fascinating bit of emphemera. Wonder why they opted to send you the paste-up, though. Nothing personal, of course, but there are five other people whose letters got printed and there’s (theoretically) only one paste-up. Why single out one fan out of six to receive a paste-up?

  2. Matt permalink
    October 12, 2013

    That’s certainly a plausible theory; some kind of kludge using a word processor to do desktop typesetting, but traditional paste-up for the layout. I’d buy it. Agreed that this is a fascinating document, in any event. I’ve been doing research on historic manuscripts, and learned a bit about the obsessive geeking-out over document details that informs a lot of current research… this feels a bit like my own modern equivalent.

    Meanwhile, why someone put this in an envelope and mailed it to me is indeed just as baffling. Of course, it doesn’t help much in explaining the later Silver Surfer letter column, but they frequently pursued some wacky ideas in the 2099 editorial offices (indeed, in the whole 2099 project). Between this and the “Possess this Mess” contest, which promised the entire contents of Joey Cavalieri’s desk top to the winner, there’s almost a pattern of “instead of organizing our papers, or just throwing them away, let’s mail them to readers at company expense.”

  3. October 17, 2013

    I don’t care about the hows or whys…this page is awesome. I had a few letters published (one which scored me a no-prize), but I never netted anything as cool as this. Kudos.

  4. Matt permalink
    October 18, 2013

    Thanks. Yeah, at this point I mostly keep it around as a personal souvenir and artifact of typesetting/design history. But back in 1994, I was probably right about at the peak of my fascination/worship for Marvel. Receiving a one-of-a-kind object hand-assembled by the magic-makers?

    Your comment actually reminded me that I had this displayed on my wall for years, afterward. Obviously not because it’s visually attractive; it’s a black and white page of dense text. But at the time, it was like a tablet handed down from god to me, personally.

Comments are closed.