Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Death Of The No-Prize!

In mid-1982, Marvel increased its stable of book editors to six by adding Mark Gruenwald to its editorial staff and assigning him to oversee half a dozen titles, beginning a long tenure at the post that would last six years (at which time he would be promoted to Executive Editor). By most accounts, Gruenwald's run as Editor was a distinguished one, having his share of controversial decisions during a tumultuous period in Marvel's growth. I'm not sure of how many book editors Marvel ended up with during this time; six books per Editor seems like a reasonable load for any given person, but six editors sounds like too many decision-makers for a company that was still making the attempt to blend all of its books and characters under the Marvel banner and give the appearance of a unified direction and vision. The day-to-day, week-to-week process of getting all of these editors on the same page, as it were, must have been a fascinating one, particularly in cases where sweeping changes are made by any one editor that must take the titles of the other editors into account.

The ground we're about to cover is no doubt little more than a hiccup in terms of policy, but serves as a good example of what one editor can put in motion that might have a rippling effect on Marvel's entire line--or more to the point, Marvel's unique relationship with its readership that had been carefully cultivated for over two decades. Four years after assuming his new duties, Gruenwald began a series of essays in monthly letters pages entitled "Mark's Remarks," which covered a number of interesting behind-the-scenes subjects in an effort to engage with his books' readers and make the letters pages a more robust forum.* In one such column that, in its entirety, would end up taking a full page, Gruenwald took to task the long-standing practice of awarding the "no-prize"--the nonexistent virtual reward that was given to a reader as a sort of gold star for their effort or observation made in a letter to the editor. As Gruenwald explains, over time the no-prize, despite not being an actual prize at all, nevertheless took on a life of its own.

*The irony is that the length of these "remarks" edged out the number of letters that might have normally appeared in an issue, with Gruenwald's installments reaching an average of a full column of text--placed on a three-column letters page that was already being used for hype boxes, leaving very little room for readers' missives. (By this time it was a rare day when you'd see the two-page letters pages that were prevalent in the Silver Age.)

Of all the things for an editor to take issue with, it's hard to imagine focusing on a concept that has no real meaning or substance, one that basically boils down to a simple acknowledgment that singles out a reader to congratulate. Though in all fairness to Gruenwald, it's astonishing to think that the concept of a non-prize (to more clearly categorize it) could escalate to the point where it's causing headaches for letters handlers and rubbing editors the wrong way.

Gruenwald covers the matter well, making a number of valid points... but his solution is perhaps overkill, sacrificing what had become a clever device for engaging the company's customer base and relegating it to a blurb on (appropriately) a letters page--a few final words that essentially let readers know, however eloquently, that Marvel was through being pestered by this holdover from the days of Stan Lee, and that the "no-prize" had been abolished for good.

Yet it's a "have your cake and eat it too" moment for Gruenwald, for two reasons: first, of course, he's abolished nothing, since there was really no system of doling out actual prizes to discontinue. But secondly, the no-prize had now been rendered automatic, and arbitrary--anyone, at any time, could be no-prized, whenever they felt so deserving, or even when then didn't. But in making the desire for a no-prize meaningless, Marvel had severed a time-honored lifeline to good relations with its customer base, one of the few practices left from Marvel's many changes over the years (along with the letters pages themselves) that sustained our nostalgia for the company. However frivolous the practice might have been, it was a fun by-product of the connection readers made with Marvel's writers and editors, and vice versa.

As for the Letter of the Month policy that was substituted in its place, it might have been a rare occasion when a recipient of that honor saw the light of day. In fact, the only one I recall was a tongue-in-cheek award given to a reader whose letter raised a few questions with Gruenwald, including one that asked why no Letter Of The Month was being mentioned on any letters pages since Gruenwald's announcement. Rather than a substantive answer, the response punted to readers: "We've been awarding them, pal--but we've been remiss in printing the names of recipients. How about it, readers--you want us to print our L.O.M. winners every month without fail?" I only glanced through about 18 issues' worth of letters pages from that point--but either readers were mum on the subject, or the Letter Of The Month concept was something never put into practice, instead meant only to generate interest in more thoughtful letters. Otherwise, consider the cost, time, and material that would be involved for Marvel every month: One prize per letters page every month of the year, following a decision-making process that selects one letter from each title's stack of mail. Assuming Gruenwald's edict is across the board for Marvel's full line of titles, that would result in roughly 40 mailings of plastic printer's cover proofs every month of every year--presumably sent in flat envelopes that had to be purchased and stocked, and Marvel eats the shipping cost as well.

In other words, will all of you award winners raise your hand?


Oh for the days when this showed up in your mailbox!


Alan W. Wright said...

Although I never actually received anything in the mail, I, along with several thousand other readers of Marvel Age (the in-house news magazine published monthly in the 80s), pointed out an error in one issue. I don't remember exactly, but it had something to do with an excerpt from an X-Men Annual incorrectly identified with the wrong issue number. A few months later, the editor of Marvel Age addressed this in the letter column and stated that the several thousand readers who wrote in to point out the error were to be officially "no-prized."

I suppose somebody in Marvel's accounting dept. would complain about the amount of postage needed to mail out all those envelopes.

Comicsfan said...

Alan, you indirectly raise a curious point: Was the number of mailed envelopes and No-Prize "winners" always tallied diligently without fail, or was it all handled more informally--say, whenever time permitted? If the recipients for a given month turned out to be excessive, maybe only a certain quota of envelopes were mailed that month in order to save time and effort, with randomly chosen recipients set aside. After all, it wasn't like Marvel was ever going to be audited on this practice, eh?

As for postage... since there was no weight involved to speak of, perhaps Marvel scored a postal rate that brought the cost per envelope down to that of a post card?

johnlindwall said...

Back in the day I wanted a no-prize so bad! I know that I sent at least a couple of letters in trying to earn a no-prize - I don't remember what I had found or proposed to deserve it. None of my letters were ever printed in comics as far as I know, much to my disappointment.

I never really knew if it was just a joke and there as no actual award, but hoped that it was some kind of certificate or something. I'm happy to know that for a time they actually sent that empty envelope -- that would have made my day!

Anonymous said...

They...they discontinued the No-Prize?!
But...I never got one. And now I never will!
I NEVER GOT ONE!!! I thought I had more time!!


Comicsfan said...

Au contraire, M.P., now you have all the time in the world--you're automatically awarded one, at any time. And heck, you can't even say it wasn't given to you--just that now you'll have nothing to show for it. Of course, since the prize was nothing to begin with... er, um...

I'm starting to feel light-headed, for no-reason.

Anonymous said...

People tend to feel light-headed when I'm talking to them, C.F.
It usually goes away in an hour or so. ;)


Anonymous said...

After reading through all of the Cap, Iron Man, and Avengers issues from that era, it's hard not to think Gru was a pompous ass who got off on seeing his own words in print and couldn't handle criticism. It's hard to reconcile the way he came across on those letters pages with the warm memories everyone who knew him seem to have of him