Spoiler Alert – Fans, Foraging and the Superior Spider-Man

On December 26, Peter Parker’s story as The Amazing Spider-Man comes to its conclusion in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #700, the final chapter in the “Dying Wish” storyline, which saw – SPOILER for ASM 698-99 – the dying Doc Ock swap minds with Peter Parker leading to the epic conclusion of the AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and the upcoming replacement of that series with the new SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN title as part of the Marvel NOW initiative.

The identity of the Superior Spider-Man is still a mystery – kind of. The concluding pages of Slott’s 56-page final chapter were leaked last week much to the consternation of writer Dan Slott and Marvel Editor-In-Chief Axel Alonso. I won’t provide those pages here, but they’re findable anywhere.

In CONVERGENCE CULTURE, Henry Jenkins defines “Spoiling” (in relation to television) and the evolution of spoiling as:

Initially this term referred to any revelation of material about a television series that might not be known to all of the participants of an Internet discussion list. Increasingly spoiling has come to refer to the active process of tracking down information that has not yet been aired on television.

For someone to spoil a storyline, they must first be emotionally invested in its outcome (for good or ill). How does THE DARK KNIGHT RISES end? Spoilers were up a few weeks before the official release date. Who is the Superior Spider-Man? (Incomplete) Spoilers were up a few weeks before the release date. Who is the next Batman? The act of “spoiling” comes from an emotional urge to scratch the itch of “What happens next?” while simultaneously demonstrating their expertise and ability to forage for information. But let’s make something crystal clear: just because the “what” is answered, the “How” is almost never answered via the act of spoilage. It is the X-factor. The “How” works only within the context of the experience of reading and absorbing the work as it was originally intended. The How is a display of craft and character, the What is a display of craft and plot.

Why is Marvel annoyed with the leaking of ASM 700?

First, I will operate on the assumption that this outrage on the part of Marvel is genuine and not “manufactured outrage” designed as part of a marketing campaign. The latter is a very real possibility and would show a deft understanding of fandom, much more than for which I give them credit  in the next paragraphs, thus making them crafty little bastards whom I applaud (and I wouldn’t put it past Slott and Wacker; Slott, did after all plant a (likely) fake tweet that Miguel O’Hara, the fan-favorite Spider-Man of 2099, would be the Superior Spider-Man in October). That said, the 700th – and “final” – issue of one of the defining comics of any generation will sell like hotcakes no matter what. If it were the 53rd issue of their lowest selling, I might be more open to the assumption of a marketing ploy.

Going forward with the assumption that the outrage is real…

In the eyes of large publishers, the act of spoiling is tantamount to the peeking of Christmas presents in the closet before they are wrapped and capable of being unwrapped and assembled, as is the ritual of Christmas gift-giving. It is the answer to “what happens next” with the experience controlled by fandom (fans can seek out answers if they choose), not by the creators, thus crafting a different experience than originally intended. Publishers are the parents, shaking their heads and saying “I’m not angry, I’m disappointed.” The experience that they sought to control was usurped by the very parties whose experience they wanted to control.

Marvel’s response to the leak has been extreme. Dan Slott has been quoted – even before the leak of 700 – as banning people from his social media network should they leak the outcome of issue 698. The site Comic Book Resources, is now banning anyone who discusses the spoilers for two weeks— even if the spoilers are not included in the post — and forbidding all discussion until 10AM on December 26th.  CBR is also the site that ran Marvel EIC Axel Alonso’s response to the leak and hosts weekly discussions with Alonso, and a site where both Slott and Spider-Man editor Steve Wacker frequently engage fans in debate and discussion.

While this is not an investigative piece, there are two likely reasons for this outrage and banning: One, that CBR has a great relationship with Marvel and doesn’t want to lose the clout, or two, that CBR and Marvel are playing games in an attempt to drive up sales and retain the mutually beneficial relationship between the two organizations. This isn’t without precedent, nor is it particularly troublesome, except that by banning all discussion about ASM 700 spoilers until the day of release CBR is alienating their forum users by denying them the place to discuss and disseminate a story in which they are emotionally invested.

Will this or the leak of ASM 700 affect sales negatively? Not in the slightest. While fans may bitch about the answer to “what happens next” for weeks on a message board, they’re still going to buy the issue and the subsequent issues out of their emotional investment in “what happens next – and how?”.  But remember, no story answer given by the creators will be as good as the answers and theories generated by intense fan debate (look at the disappointment surrounding the endings to LOST and The Sopranos).

The outrage over spoilers is not a one-way street. Fans gets up in arms when stories are spoiled by the companies in major press releases the day of their release (the Death of Captain America, or the Death of Professor Xavier, for example) to major outlets like the New York Daily News, USA Today, MTV Geek, or other pop culture havens. Why do fans get pissed off? Simple. By sharing the answer to “what happens next” with large media companies, the publishers have negated the ability of the fanbase to show their expertise and foraging skills (Henry Jenkins and I discuss the urge of fans to demonstrate expertise in our interview for COMICS FOR FILM, GAMES AND ANIMATION); for fans to accept spoilers, the spoilers must come from their own abilities and expertise.

The two way street of spoiling: Companies are pissed when fans spoil and leak stories before they are released because it wasn’t the way they intended the experience to be doled out. Fans are pissed when companies give interviews the day of release that spoil the big story of the day because it takes away their ability to show off their expertise and foraging skills.  Is there a happy medium? No. But there can be acceptance on the part of both parties.

Large companies with a huge product to sell will naturally be angry when a beta version of their big launch product is released before they are ready. But, comics companies and other publishers of content must understand that spoiling does not come from a need to diminish their work. It comes from an emotional investment in “what happens next” and an urge on the part of fans to share their skills, connections, and expertise. It does not – in any way – detract from the experience of seeing how a creator spins that particular web. The reading of a comic book will always be a personal experience – the sharing of that experience, and the expertise that comes from it, will always be a communal one. To restrict that right by silencing voices creating a new comics experience is not the way forward, it is a step backwards toward irrelevance.

UPDATE 12/18/2012

While I centered most of the thrust of this piece on the behavior of Marvel in regards to this leak and plotline, I can’t ignore the absolutely ridiculous reaction of the most mentally ill and extreme fans: threatening the life of Dan Slott, the writer of AMAZING SPIDER-MANand the upcoming SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN. This is disgusting behavior and takes something that should be fun and entertaining into the realm of the sick and twisted. I’m all for emotional investment in a storyline, but come on people, get a fucking grip.