With Apologies…To Letter Columns

This is confession time. I haven't been honest with you. In the last two weeks, I have come to see the iFanboy readers as a second family. You are distant, anonymous, and judgemental. The readers of this site have been kind enough to welcome me into their electronic homes, but they don't know who I am. I am not a 31 year old man from Green Bay, Wisconsin. I am a 55 year old man from Iron Gate, Virginia. 


This lie goes back to a comic book and a dream. Iron Gate, Virgina had a population of around 200 people back in the summer of 1969. It was a small town that felt miniscule in my mind. I was a fifteen year old kid enamored with comics. My favorite was the Jack Kirby created Challengers Of The Unknown from DC comics. The series followed an adventurous group of friends who survived a plane crash and decided that they were living on borrowed time. They would use the time they had left to investigate the "unknown." This could lead to fighting aliens, evil scientists, or even travelling into other dimensions. For someone stuck in a small town these stories were a revelation.

Comics themselves were a revelation. In the back of my mind, I held hope that someday I could be in the comic book industry. First, I tried my hand at drawing a comic. The nicest thing that could be said about that experiment is that it could be read in any order, and still make the same amount of sense. I tried to write my own Challengers type story. It was called the Fisticuffs Five. They were five boxers who had all been knocked unconscious at the exact same moment in different boxing matches throughout the world. While unconscious they received a vision of the "Big Bruiser in the Sky." The "Big Bruiser" demanded that the boxers band together to fight boxing related crimes. I never attempted to write an issue two. 


There was still one more avenue into the world of comics. I could still get a letter printed in a letter column. At that time, that was the best location to find sharp critical thinking about comics. From these very letter columns sprouted the fan community of the sixties. Fans like Jerry Bails and Roy Thomas pushed for addresses to get printed in the letter columns. This led to fans being able to communicate directly with each other. Many creators (like Roy Thomas, Martin Pasko, Mike Friedrich, Kurt Busiek, and Fred Hembeck) were letter writers first before they got into the industry. It was the fertile ground for creative and critical thinking that I was seeking.


Some would consider the internet to be a similar fertile ground for today's fans. On the internet you know your comments are going to get published. They appear the instant you write them. It was entirely different with letter columns. You had to formulate an cogent comment about the comic. You had to write it out in an interesting manner. You had to wait to see if the editor printed your letter. If it didn't catch the eye of the editor, it was simply lost in the pile of mail. Nothing printed, nothing gained. It was a true feat to get a letter printed.  Not to mention the pride in becoming a recognized letter writer or "letter hack". There wasn't the same sense of anonymity as the internet seems to foster. You definitely wanted everyone to know your real name when your letter got printed. My goal was to get a letter printed in Challengers Of The Unknown.

I had to formulate the perfect letter about issue #69. I didn't want it to be too critical. The book was  perfect in my eyes. I loved the Dennis O'Neil story and the Jack Sparling art was awesome. A critical letter would require me to make up some complaint about the book. The editor would see through my lies and my letter would be tossed aside. I also couldn't be too much of a brown-noser. The editor might not want to create the illusion that he only picks letters of praise for the book. I was stuck. Then inspiration struck me. What if I made myself part of the story? I could fabricate a story that would link me to the Challengers. Perhaps I could leave some open threads in my letter. A story so outrageous that readers would demand to contact me to find out what happened next. A story so incredible that the editor himself would be licking his chops to get my next letter. I sat at the kitchen table, closed my eyes, and created my own story of living on "borrowed time".  My shaking hands could barely write legibly as my incredible tale was written down. My mouth was dry from nerves as I attempted to place a postage stamp on my letter. It would be a long couple months as I waited to see my plan come to fruition. 


October 9th, 1969 was the date that it all came together. I went to the local drugstore and right there on the spinner rack was Challengers Of The Unknown #71. Flipping straight to the back of the book for the Let's Chat With the Challs, I almost yelled out loud when I saw my letter printed. I have attached to this article a scan of the letter. For your convenience it is also transcribed below (click to enlarge):


Dear Editor:

Not until I read this Letters Page in #69 did I realize why the CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN is so special to me. I , too, am living on borrowed time, so to speak. Until now, I never considered my experience important, but in the light of the Challengers' brush with death. I look back on it with awe.


It occurred about 11 years ago when I was four years old. I was playing near our house with some kittens, when for no reason at all I suddenly rose and strolled over to my mother, who was sitting on the porch. I'd only taken a few steps when there was a great crashing of brush, and a full-grown bear ran right over the spot where I had been playing, and continued over the hill until he disappeared. If some force hadn't made me move, I 'd surely have been crushed. What a harrowing experience! Never shall I forget that bear pounding over the spot where I had been a few seconds earlier.

Tommie Katers, Iron Gate, Va.

After the moment of joy, horror washed over me. They didn't print my address. The address was the key part. I wrote on the front of the envelope – PLEASE PRINT ADDRESS. Why leave such tantalizing loose ends like the fate of those kittens if people couldn't contact me to find out more? I had developed a whole back story for the kittens. A meteorite had destroyed our family barn and inside this space rock was a set of precocious kittens. I hadn't really worked anything else beyond that, but it was a solid start. The bear? The bear was going to have a huge back story as well. The unknown force that moved me was going to be my "bear sense". The falling meteorite irradiated me with space vibrations. The vibrations activated the bear portion of the brain that all humans have. The bear would be a constant in my life and in my investigation into the space kittens.


I realized that perhaps I had been too coy in my letter. Maybe I had left too much to the imagination. A mention of the "bear sense" or of the kittens being from space might have been enough to get the editor to print my address, or even contact me directly. The plan had been foiled. There would be no breakthrough into the comics industry for me. For years the story laid in the back of my mind. I went to college, became a staple engineer, and lived the life of a Virginia gentleman. That is where I thought the dream would end. An flicker in a gentleman's mind, until fate intervened.

Fate would be a chance meeting with a young Tom Katers from Wisconsin at a comics convention. His interest in staples matched my interest in comics. A plan was hatched and we switched identities. He already had the body of a man in his mid fifties, and the staple fumes had preserved my Adonis-like body. I took Tom's place in the newly formed Around Comics podcast. I even read my letter in a podcast, hoping that someone would demand a follow up. There were no demands. I guess mysterious kittens just aren't enough these days. My body is starting to give out and I decided to lay all my cards out on the table. If you are interested in drawing a one shot story about the bear, please contact me. I am also looking to option the film rights on the Fisticuffs Five
 
 

Tom Katers apologizes to the actual author of the above letter. If you are Lonnie Thompson of Iron Gate, VA, get in touch with me. I have a lot of questions.

Comments

  1. That is amazing.

  2. I re-listened to this episode of AC just a couple weeks ago.  Pure comedy gold.  Well done again, Mr Katers.

  3. Very meta

  4. I think we all have a lot of questions… 

  5. This is SHENANIGANS! My grandpappy Woodrow mined coal with Lil’ Tommie Katers for years. YOU SIR, are not Lil Tommie Katers.

  6. Fisticuffs Five sounds awesome!

  7. I like to pronounce "Thomas" with the "h".

    So…"Tomash".

  8. That whole scenario sounds like a Grant Morrison pitch.  I’d totally read Fisticuffs Five.

  9. You’re a madman, Tom. I love that you wrote this column based upon a letter-writer whose name you changed. But what a letter! That may be the best one I’ve ever read. The image of a bear bursting out of a family’s front yard bushes and then sprinting into the distance is a great one.

    Man, I miss letter columns.

  10. Well.  Don’t leave us hanging.  What happened to the kittens?

  11. What episode is it?

  12. Am I the only person who immediately went and looked up Iron Gate’s location on a map?  Granted, I live in VA, but I’m still a little troubled at my immediate response to the article.  Brilliant article, though.

  13. i want fisticuffs five.

  14. I dare say Jimski has some direct competition with this level of Awesome. In a future story arc, of the young Tommie Katers and his Ursine companion could it be revealed that in truth "This is all stuff we have known before!!!"?

  15. How about a Space Kittens vs. Fisticuffs Five crossover? Make it happen.

  16. I am Lonnie Thompson, and the kittens were eaten by the bear. A few hours later, the bear came back, and he, my mom, and I all sat down and had pie.

  17. I once wrote a letter to The Flash title when Mark Waid was writing. I wanted to know how the Flash is able to see when he runs faster than light – i received no response.

  18. Hilarious!

    Double points this week for no Vietnam jokes.

  19. this cracked me up.  I googled Iron Gate too.  Facinating wikipedia page.

  20. I would totally buy Fisticuffs Five

  21. AH! what episode of AC?!

  22. Yeah, Fisticuffs Five actually sounds pretty incredible.

  23. So after Tom vs the Flash….can we get Tom vs the Challengers of the Unknown??  Pretty please?