Robot 6

Are spoilers spoiling comics? Or holding them to a higher standard?

Spoiler alert

DC and Marvel have complained for years about how difficult it is to continue surprising readers when everyone has access to solicitation information two months before a story comes out. To combat that, they’ve offered a steady increase in the number of redacted solicits and “classified” covers; a solution that’s not just unhelpful to retailers trying to decide how many comic to order, but creates a situation in which retailers have to rely on publishers saying, “We can’t tell you anything about it, but trust us, you’re going to want lots of this one.” If I’m a retailer, that sounds like an untenable situation to be in. But what if it’s a whole lot of noise about something that doesn’t have to be a problem?

Last month, a study revealed that – contrary to conventional wisdom – spoilers can actually increase enjoyment of a story. According to UC San Diego psychology researchers Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt, “subjects significantly preferred the spoiled versions of ironic-twist stories” and knowing the ending ahead of time “not only didn’t hurt enjoyment of the story but actually improved it.” Click the link for a fuller run-down of how the study was conducted, but the research is relatively unimportant. It just scientifically demonstrates something everyone already knew was true.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve come out of a movie that I enjoyed for its thrilling pace, but realized how many plot holes there were as soon as I started discussing it with my friends. Or the number of comics I’ve read where I was caught up in the “event” only to be disappointed by the end that there was no real story there. In the words of Christenfeld and Leavitt, “plot is overrated.”

What can Game of Thrones teach us about spoilers?

It’s not unimportant, but it’s only one part of great writing, which includes many, many more things like character and theme and voice. That sounds like only three things until you realize that each of those breaks down further too. “Character,” for example, isn’t just having a good character, but includes having something to say about that character. I’m ashamed at how many comics I’ve bought for the appearance of a character I love only to find out that she was completely disposable to the story. Great writing needs all of its elements, but Marvel and DC readers have been trained to focus almost exclusively on plot and character-appearances. Mostly plot. And that’s done a couple of things to the fandom, one negative and one potentially positive.

The negative thing is that it’s put a huge emphasis on spoilers. We want the story before the story comes out. You can’t read an interview with a DC or Marvel writer without the interviewer trying to coax details of future stories. I’m not judging here; I’m as guilty of doing it as an interviewer as I am of wanting it as a reader, so I understand that there’s a good reason for why it happens. I’m just pointing out that it does happen and that it’s a problem. It’s frustrating to the writers and ultimately unsatisfying to readers.

The potentially positive aspect is that knowing the plot ahead of time drives readers’ attention to the writing itself. This is the point of Christenfeld and Leavitt’s survey. The AV Club’s Noel Murray wrote an article a couple of months ago about how spoiling HBO’s Game of Thrones for himself enabled him to enjoy the intrigue, character interactions, and themes because he wasn’t busy trying to decipher clues and unravel complicated connections. I’d argue that this is why we watch or read good stories a second time. The first time through is to decipher the plot; the next one is to appreciate the art. I prefer that to reading a Wikipedia summary, but Murray’s way is valid too. So is reading spoilers in solicits and interviews.

A double-edged sword

But knowing the plot ahead of time is a double-edged sword. It allows the reader to better appreciate the craft of a story the first time through, but what if the craft isn’t very good? That’s the negative side of the sword. Most mainstream superhero comics are so plot-focused that they don’t think they have to be very good as long as the plot is exciting. Or sometimes not even exciting so long as it’s “important.” The positive side of knowing the plot ahead of time is that readers can see bad writing for what it is. If I was a conspiracy-theorist I’d suggest that this is why DC and Marvel are so protective of their upcoming stories, but I don’t believe it’s that Machiavellian.

I think the need to churn out comics on a regular schedule has forced them into plot-driven stories without a lot of time for great writing. Certainly there are exceptions and a big part of what excites me about DC’s New 52, for example, is the amount of focus they’ve been giving in interviews to a renewed interest in craft. But when you look at the wide landscape of Big Two superhero comics over the last several years and the amount of complaining that readers do about the most plot-driven of them, the events, it’s clear that there’s something to this. The question is: do writers and readers continue to let plots and surprises control storytelling or do we demand great writing?

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38 Comments

i love buying diamod previews catalog , because it tells me a head of time if it’s worth buying abook . spoilers are a good thing , they help you save money an time!

I know it’s not very intellectually illuminating, but I had a nice hardy chuckle at the Stephanie Brown-pun going on at the top of the page.

Here’s a thought—why don’t they switch to a schedule that leaves them plenty of time (like a release-schedule where each book comes out every third week), and in response we, the comic fan community, redevelop our sense of PATIENCE.

>the amount of complaining that readers do about the most plot-driven of them, the events, it’s clear that there’s >something to this

Yeahhhh, I’m sure the reason readers complain about events is because they’re so plot driven. It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that they completely derail the ongoing storylines. Heck, by the time Herc is done with issue 10, six of the issues will have been event tie-ins. I’m not sure you could even say that there is an ongoing storyline.

It’s possible your theory has merit but you can’t draw those conclusions from your “evidence”.

I HATE spoilers and go out of my way to avoid them. I never read reviews of a book I’m really looking forward to, just in case.

How many people actually want to enjoy the craft of a television show or comic book? Actually, how many people even know what it means to enjoy something’s craft, without thinking a microwave and spoon are involved?

Spoilers are called spoilers for a reason. Debate over.

In fact I’d like to point out I’ve done everything I can to avoid spoilers for Schism and I have to say I haven’t enjoyed an event this much in ever.

I am really sick of spoilers. Cannot stand them. Over them. Hate seeing them used in the media as publicity, it’s ridiculous. Especially when they the end or main focus of a story.

If you knew the end to a movie would you still pay to go see it? I got told the ending to Source Code a few hours before seeing it and I didn’t bother seeing it. What is the point? Why waste the money? Movies and TV shows manage to sell themselves without ruining the ending, why do comics have such a big problem with it? Perhaps have a page or two done before hand. Maybe covers that actually represent what happens in the comic. Using spoilers to sell comics is lazy and shows a lack of faith in the material. Paying $3.99 should entitle you to more than 20 pages of story and ads, you deserve a surprise for seeing it through month to month.

Ongoing superhero comics have an element of inbuilt spoilers because we know that hero is going to ok at the end of it.
Even when they’re not. (see the death of Johnny Storm, even though hes not back yet everyone seems to view it as an inevitability).

Spoilers don’t spoil anything, IMO. I want to know what I’m buying before I pays me money. After being burned many times, I look through each comic before I buy it to make sure it isn’t total crap.

Most super-hero stories simply maintain the status quo (even if a hero “quits” or dies, he eventually comes back). So my enjoyment is not so much for “what happens” but rather, how well it is executed.

People that are afraid of spoilers should avoid reading reviews beforehand. Their problem is solved that easily.

Perhaps the most meaningful information in the linked article was this excerpt from the UCSD press release:

It’s also possible that it’s “easier” to read a spoiled story. Other psychological studies have shown that people have an aesthetic preference for objects that are perceptually easy to process.

Consider that with respect to reading formula fiction, where a reader often knows everything that’s going to happen ahead of time; to readers’ varying levels of intelligence; and to the desire to relax.

SRS

Let’s not forget, spoilers were the reason DC’s 1991 Armageddon 2001 event got derailed, and we ended up having to go through Hawk as Monarch and then Extant. Just think, what would have happened if they just kept Captain Atom as Monarch and went with it, regardless of the leak?

I’d kill to go back to the times before the Internet, when you could actually, be surprised when something happened in a comic book.

After I first read about that psychology study I hoped it would die a death and everyone would forget about it, but it seems to keep getting dragged up. Which is a shame, because it seems to me that it’s poppycock. The easiest explanation is in the article:

“this is why we watch or read good stories a second time. The first time through is to decipher the plot; the next one is to appreciate the art.”

The study didn’t assess whether it was better to read/watch something once or twice, it only assessed whether it was better to read/watch it, or read a summary and then read/watch it. I’d wager most readers/viewers (or, at least, most intelligent readers/viewers) would consider it better to experience it in full twice. Plot may just be one element in properly great storytelling, but it’s still an important one; one the creator(s) can carefully pace and reveal throughout their work, something a short summary completely undoes in its need to concisely relate events.

That’s why that study is rubbish, in my view, and I hope people forget about it — and stop using it as evidence — soon.

The obvious fair solution for retailers is to only use redacted solicitations when they’re paired with a returnability offer on the affected titles. If retailers can’t know what they’re buying, they sure as hell shouldn’t be expected to take all the risk. This would ensure that publishers only redact when it’s truly necessary to avoid game-changing spoilers and just not willy-nilly.

So if contemporary plot driven stories are “bad” whats the alternative? The slow burn? All one-shots? It seems that part of the problem is the 20 page comic book format. You need to have the formula in each issue….it can’t just be talking heads, or all action..it needs that cliffhanger on page 20 or else its not part of the larger story. Writing for the trade is no longer desirable either. So whats the solution?

I hate spoilers. Its the #1 reason why i don’t read solicits or do pre-orders. I miss out on stuff this way, but i still get surprised by my comics and i like that.

I think the events lately have been really very well written. Fear Itself, Matt Fraction is hitting it out of the park again (which he usually does, not always, but usually). Darkest Night and Brightest Day? Awesome! That War of the Green Lanterns thing afterwards was kind of sad, sure, but Flashpoint is fantastic. And Death of Spider-Man? Gold! And I’m not talking about surprises or whatever, those have been good too, but the writing has been awesome too. Not always the case of course. Like, Countdown and Final Crisis a while back were really bad. Though 52 before that was awesome, and after, Trinity, well, that one really surprised me how great it turned out. And back with the Ultimates, sure, if you wanted to point to something and say, shocks and surprises but bad story telling, you could easily point to Ultimates 3 and Ultimatum, those were rife with it. Though the Ultimates/Supreme Power thing before that was good, and the picking up the peaces after Ultimatum has all been good stuff too. So, I’d say, yes, there’s some bad apples in the events pile, story quality wise, but mostly they’ve been pretty great.

Is it fair to make a distinction between spoilers and solicits? I generally don’t read solicits because I stick to a small number of ongoing books and am already familiar with the general direction of the books I’m reading, but when I’m looking at something I’ve never read before, solicits (and reviews) help me decide if I want to even pick it up. Most solicits, it seems to me, don’t give away EVERYTHING about the upcoming story, only the general direction a plot is going.

That said, it does irk me to no end when publishers and fan websites (esp. Marvel) spoil a story by releasing the outcome in the media before I’ve even had a chance to read it. And for this reason I sometimes stay away completely from fan websites and podcasts, etc. before I’ve had a chance to read a story.

I wonder, too, how much of this is generational. In education, we’re often reminded that today’s learners are far more visual than older generations (which are characterized as having been more textual). Is it possible that plot really is less important for those whose experience of media emphasizes the visual aspects of media over the text?

Surprise is such an important part of the comics medium. You only get these tiny installments each issue. I think it’s a crying shame that CBR persists with encouraging spoiler mentality, it really does ruin them. (If knowing in advance really “improves” the experience then just read the damn thing twice, gives you far better value for money…)

Oh and that study was bullshit by the way. If you look at the detail the participants were only given some information about the ending – they didn’t have every beat of the story spelled out to them (as I’ve seen some do with comics on message boards)

Spoilers are but another tool in the big toolbox that is Advertising and Marketting. I do believe that the demand for great stories and story telling is still very much alive amongst the readership. The sad thing is that writers’ and editors’ creative processes seem to be infected by sales figure, whether consciously or otherwise. The plot driven tie-in events are very much a sales-number induced fugue that has taken over the industry. Not a big surprise given the nature of the blatant commercialism practised by Warner Bros and Disney. The only way to reverse that insidious trend is by not buying those event driven drivels.

I live in France, where not everything Marvel & DC do is published, but most of it is. Knowing six months or a year before, thanks to the web, what’s going to happen in our translated comics appears not to restrain sales : for example, magazines in which blockbusters like “New Avengers” or “Uncanny X-Force” are shown can sell 30,000 issues monthly or more, whereas France has five times less inhabitants than USA !

Dylan asked, “If you knew the end to a movie would you still pay to go see it?”.

If movies were only expected to be seen once, there wouldn’t be a DVD industry. And if knowing who did it ruins a mystery story, no one would ever read one twice.

If spoilers ruin comics, that says more about the writers than the readers.

I like the odd plot summery but seeing teasers for “the next big event” which give away what i’m actually reading at the moment it annoying.

I find the same with modern movie trailers which seem to just be a 3 minute edit of the whole film.

I quite like not knowing what is going to happen and finding out for myself, it certainly adds to my enjoyment of the stories.

I review several comics online and I give a lot of spoilers. However, I have never done so prior to the comic being released. I actually buy 99.9% of the comics I review so they are after the release. The other 0.01 percent are given to me and I’m asked to review them. Anyway, I like spoilers. Heck, being the newbie I truly am, it is critical that I read others spoilers to actually understand some of the references I run into while reading.

Also, in the short time I’ve been reading there have been countles problems getting the next chapter of a series I’m reading. I read the spoilers so I can keep up with the story. I still pull enjoy the comic when and if I ever do get a copy…

Comicbooknewbie
Sent from my droid while dress shopping for my daughter’s homecoming dance…. lol

I try to avoid spoilers whenever I can. As far as the study goes, from a scientific point of view, it proves little. One study means nothing by itself, it needs to be replicated to prove its accuracy and the more often it is replicated the better.

Maybe publishers should just spoil a few pages of just the pencils, or select a few cool panels to highlight an upcoming story. I think of an old preview for DCs Zero Hour crossover event. It used pencil art, a few key panels and Hal Jordan’s name was blanked out. I remember being super excited about that storyline.
On a side note, it’s kind of sad, because I hated what happened to the Legion of Superheroes after that story. I liked the 5 Years later storyline.

Googam Son of Goom

September 18, 2011 at 4:57 pm

“I think the need to churn out comics on a regular schedule has forced them into plot-driven stories without a lot of time for great writing.” :BINGO!

Googam Son of Goom

September 18, 2011 at 5:10 pm

Substantial literature can survive the pre-knowledge of how events unfold. Shakespeare’s still kicking along with a multitude of authours whose stories we all know. Tolkein being one authour from the fantasy genre that succeeds on the quality of the writing. Comics want to be adult, but really they largely cater to juvenile expectations of plot twists and surprises. That’s fine, but you can’t be grown-up if you don’t do the things grown ups do. Which is delve into character’s and their motivations. Comment on and explore the human condition. Bring a new way of seeing to the reader. A good story will be told over and over. It’s in the telling not the “Boo!” at the end. Too many comics are about the “Boo!” and not the telling, but I still love them.

Of course spoilers spoil. You can’t possibly compare movies with comics, becasue the paradigm between the two mediums is in no way similiar. For starters when people spoil a movie with spoilers, its usually a single plot point, usually some sort of twist ending… When people spoil comes with spoilers, its usually by hitting every single darn plot point. Take Ultimate Spiderman for instance… Imagine how big of a reveal the spiderman is black thing would have been if you read it properly… You’d be rooting for this new character, wondering who he really was & BANG: He’s black… Totally didn’t see that coming. Instead we knew he was black before most of us even read an issue with him in it.

As for how we (i’m using the “royal” we on this one) should be writing comics, i suggest DC & Marvel both take a look at some of the quality supers stuff coming out of some of the indis; Invicible & Dynamo 5 in specific. No crossovers, no annual events, just quality writing thats both plot driven & character driven. Individual stories & story arcs, but with over arching plot development. continuity that doesn’t take away from the story, but is there if you want it.

Anyone capable of stepping outside of what they want & look at the subject objectively can see this.

I personally LOVE spoilers and knowing ahead of time doesn’t ruin anything for me. If anything, it increases the probability that I will buy a book.

I did not know that Captain America was going to die in Cap #25; reading that w/o knowing the ending made that one of the most memorable times I’ve spent reading a comic…

I also had no idea what Moon was about before I saw it; I’ve seen it since, and I still enjoy it… but that first time w/o knowing what was going on make Moon stick out to me as one of the best times I’ve had watching a movie. The same goes for The Village… not that great of a movie, but it’s much worse when I know the twist.

Not to say that I don’t like looking for and reading spoilers… spoilers on the internet are one huge reason that I buy many fewer comics than I used to. At least the episodic stuff from Marvel and DC. I have no need to buy work-for-hire typically throw-away stories when I already know what’s going to happen. Or when I can find out online a few days later.

As an aside… Shakespeare keeps getting tossed around, but I’ve yet to see anyone really mention the fact that he spoiled most of his own stories right at the beginning anyway. The prologue to Romeo and Juliet is a pretty obvious example… it does make it easier to get more from the rest of the story, but I think it also makes it more difficult to feel like a part of the story if you already know where it’s going.

I’m of two minds about plot. On the one hand, I think it’s actually the most ancillary part of writing. David Foster Wallace could famously make any subject compelling, because he was that masterful of a writer. You have to have a plot, sort of, to write fiction, but it should always serve the other, more important elements of storytelling such as theme and craft and artistry (and, I suppose, character.) The bottom line is that fiction should have a purpose. There should be a reason we needed this comic, this novel, this short story, this film, this play, this television series. I can watch Die Hard and say, “We needed this movie, because it’s one of the best action films of all time.” And I can watch There Will Be Blood and say, “We needed this movie because it explores the human condition, the American character, the vagaries of capitalism, and about a dozen other things in a way that is fresh and relevant and timeless.” And I can read Final Crisis and say, “We needed this comic book because it plays with narrative, character, and theme in a way that has literally never been done before with company-owned characters in a shared universe.”

So that, to me, is the real problem with the plot-driven nature of most superhero comics, and the obsession with plot that most comic book readers have. The gripe that “nothing happened” in Final Crisis actually drove me out of comics fandom for awhile, so frustrated was I to be a part of the group that so massively missed the point. Comics fans seem to think that all that is required of good writing is that they get their next dose of journalism about a fictional world. They’re not alone, of course; we’ve somehow gotten to the point at which great television, in the wake of shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, has somehow become defined as shows with really dense plots, like Friday Night Lights and Game of Thrones. The Sopranos and The Wire weren’t great because of their dense plots; their dense plots served far more important artistic and creative ends.

So that’s my other thought on plot: it can be a wonderful, fantastic, effective tool for a storyteller. A dense plot is not a substitute for real creativity, but it can be a great element of it. So I guess, while I don’t really care about spoilers for plot-driven fiction, and in fact hope that spoilers eventually destroy plot-driven fiction to a great degree, I do think that spoilers for something like The Wire, or anything written by Grant Morrison or Alan Moore, are inappropriate, because they do deprive the viewer/reader of an important part of the experience. That decoding and deciphering of what a great writer is doing, that’s part of what it is to be a consumer of good art. Great art makes the viewer/reader/listener work. We don’t need art to be easier. We need it to be harder.

Ah. Knew I was forgetting something. I also don’t think it’s true that what has created the plot obsession in superhero comics is the need to churn out so many comics on a monthly schedule. There are great writers out there. Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, Jeff Lemire, Scott Snyder, Jeph Loeb, Frank Miller, Mark Waid, Kurt Busiek, Peter Tomasi, Paul Cornell, Ed Brubaker, James Robinson, Greg Rucka, Keith Giffen, Gail Simone, Judd Winick, Peter David, Jo Duffy, Robert Kirkman, DnA, Gray/Palmiotti, Erik Larsen, Brian K. Vaughan, Jason Aaron, Peter Milligan, Garth Ennis, Howard Chaykin, Fabian Nicieza, Kevin Smith, Brian Michael Bendis, Geoff Johns, Joe Kelly, Joe Casey, Kyle Baker, John Arcudi, Mike Mignola, Jim Starlin, Joss Whedon, J. Michael Strazcynski, Brian Clevinger, Bill Willingham, Tom Veitch, Rick Veitch, Jamie Delano. Not all of those folks still do Big Two comics, but if they don’t it’s because they were driven out by the behavior of the Big Two, and I firmly believe they could be brought back, even Alan Moore and the strident young curmudgeon that Robert Kirkman has become.

Throw in a few guys like Mike Allred and Paul Pope, guys who never really did that much with the Big Two but who you know would have plenty to say if given the chance to do so, and you have enough great writers to build a better Big Two, a Big Two which almost never publishes a crappy issue. A Big Two that lets its creators control the storytelling, and only uses editors to preserve the integrity and continuity of the shared universe.

Amen. I have given up on both Marvel and DC in recent years. All they do is plan events and surprises and character deaths and character rebirths and ZOMG new costumes. Who gives two craps if there’s no story supporting these big overblown events. Character deaths themselves have become a joke instead of a massive impact on the story. (Hell, maybe the one book I may stick with is Batwoman because.. dear heavens is that finely crafted comic storytelling. ) In general I can’t be bothered playing these silly hollow games anymore at either of the big two.

I hear all this hype around secrets and classified info, but reading the actual book feels hollow. Never mind you’re done with the issue quite quickly due to all the damn two page spreads and sparse paneling. There’s no damn story in this book that actually makes it important. Just a variant cover and a solicit that tells you, for maybe the third time this year, “Nothing will ever be the same again! You need to read this issue!”

I wish spoilers were hidden a little better. I hate when I click on a site that shows spoilers without any kind of warning. Like the big one from the latest Buffy series. Just glancing at the article you see the cover revealing the story.

Spoilers do affect my comic book purchases. If the story sounds lame I won’t buy it. The problem is that there aren’t good stories.

I do enjoy a comic more if I know something about it ahead of time. I like the previews at CBR.

If I want to be surprised, I don’t read spoilers and I’m careful what threads on the message boards I read.

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