You wake up, check your Twitter feed and there it is: a headline that just spoiled a major surprise in your favorite comic book series–before you even have a chance to purchase it and make the discovery yourself. You expect it from comic book and entertainment websites, maybe, but The New York Times and The Associated Press?
It’s the new normal. And it sucks.
But how did we get to this point? And will we ever get past this era of strategic spoilers we find ourselves in? To help make sense of this very frustrating trend, I reached out to John Siuntres, host of the comic book podcast Word Balloon, who’s known for his lengthy–and honest–conversations with some of the biggest names in comics.
Thinking beyond the Wednesday Warriors
On Sept. 12, 2012, The Associated Press spoiled the conclusion of Avengers Vs. X-Men with its article titled “50 years after forming the X-Men, Professor X dead.” On June 6, 2017, USA Today ruined the conclusion of Batman #24 with its headline “Exclusive: Batman asks Catwoman to marry him in new comic.” And most recently, on Aug. 28, 2017, The New York Times published an article titled “Captain America: Fighting Evil Again.” Spoiler alert: It revealed Secret Empire’s ending.
It’s frustrating. But with all those great comic book film adaptations we’re finally seeing comes the realization that characters self-professed Wednesday Warriors have known and loved their entire lives suddenly belong to a lot more people. And again, this is all thanks to those big screen blockbusters starring the likes of Captain America, Spider-Man and Wolverine.
Thinking about publishing reminded Siuntres of his favorite quote from comic writer Jonathan Hickman, that books are on the shelves for different readers.
“We as comic readers have to accept the fact that what was the dog wagging the tail has now become the tail,” Siuntres said. “Comic books are just part of the massive media corporations’ exploitation of an intellectual property and it’s the last rung on the ladder. That’s just the way it is, so they need to excite the TV viewers, the animation viewers, the moviegoers. ‘Hey, you like the Avengers? You won’t believe what’s happening in the Avengers comic–pick it up today.'”
Going deeper, Siuntres implied that Wednesday Warriors don’t even make up the entirety of the online comic news audience. Occasionally, Siuntres will ask comic shop patrons if they listen to comic podcasts, like Word Balloon, or read comic websites, only to hear, “No, not really.” These are the Wednesday Warriors who don’t care about advance previews and simply show up once a week to pick up their books.
“The actual active internet readers of comics, it’s not even 50 percent of the stores’ customer base,” Siuntres added.
Embracing a necessary evil
When I see publishers allowing major news outlets to reveal plot twists, and then every prominent comic website running its own version of the news, I try to put myself in the shoes of creators like Tom King and Nick Spencer. Obviously, such revelations are designed to get people into comic shops and, at the very least, get fans talking. But on a purely creative level, how happy can these creators be when their devoted readers lose the chance to discover it naturally with the turn of a page?
Speaking about no particular creator, Siuntres said they would prefer it not happen, but it’s a necessary evil. These types of spoilers aren’t going away, he explained. And while it’s frustrating, for sure, he’s come to understand why they exist.
“Honestly, doing the podcast has lessened my anger,” Siuntres said. “A lot of time, anger comes from not understanding why something happens. Having done the podcast for 12 years, I ask these questions as a fan and ask, ‘why does this happen?'”
I find myself asking that very question when I see Marvel Comics heavily promoting a miniseries like Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey. And before the first issue even hits the stands, we know that Jean will be leading her own mutant squad in X-Men Red, which won’t be released until February. As a reader, doesn’t that undercut any suspense or cliffhangers Phoenix writer Matthew Rosenberg throws readers’ way?
Siuntres doesn’t see it that way.
“A lot of times they reveal the end of the story,” Siuntres said. “But it’s not the end that makes the story, it’s the journey. In Green Lantern Rebirth, we knew Hal was coming back, but it’s the journey and it’s interesting to see how they plot it out.”
Spoiling the news landscape
Of course, major newspapers like The New York Times aren’t solely responsible for ruining fans’ enjoyment of stories. Many of the comic book and entertainment websites that target fans are just as guilty. This is especially apparent in the lead-up and aftermath of major cultural events like, let’s say, the release of a new Star Wars film.
The editors and writers at some sites may believe they’re being subtle or respectful, but everything from a title to a thumbnail could spoil. All for website views and those oh-so addictive clicks.
With 16 years of sports journalism experience under his belt, I was curious to learn how Siuntres views the current state of comics journalism.
“It is very disappointing and frustrating that there are so many ‘comic book journalists’ that don’t know the basics and don’t follow the rules because they don’t know them–I don’t think it’s done with any malice,” Siuntres said. “They all think they’re Clark Kent or Lois Lane or Woodward and Bernstein and that they’re blowing the lid off of some controversy, when all they’re doing is being jerks in the case of spoiling, if they’re doing it on their own and not doing it with the publisher’s wishes. They think they just broke Watergate and the reality is this is so meaningless.”
With all that said, Siuntres was quick to clarify that, in his opinion, much of comic book journalism is often journalism with a soft “J.” A podcast like Word Balloon is entertainment journalism, and with this form of journalism, it’s more promotion than actual reportage.
While Siuntres prefers not to see the practice of one writer rewriting another’s article and trying to make it their own, in the case of spoilers and covering what’s hot, it goes back to the necessary evil argument. Comic sites that don’t cover the shocking spoiler of the moment risk appearing out of the loop. Fortunately, with his long-form conversation show, Siuntres doesn’t have to worry about this problem.
“I’m not wired to be clickbait guy,” Siuntres said. “I’m just like, ‘Hey, let’s just have a good conversation.’ I don’t need to be first, I just want to have a good talk.”
Of course, Siuntres is just one voice on the press side of the comic book industry. I wanted another take on today’s spoiler culture–the opinion of someone who interacts with comic-buying customers on a daily basis. So I reached out to Mike Welch, the store manager at Newbury Comics in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts.
Welch, too, was critical of the breed of “comic journalist” who recklessly spoils in their articles and reviews, based on his personal opinion, as well as that of his customers.
“Spoilers in the press aren’t good for anything, in my opinion, including my business,” Welch said. “I feel that reviewers who have to give away major events in their articles suffer from a general sense of inadequacy in their lives and ruining a fresh experience for someone else is how they gain a sense of power. They are also poor writers, because any reviewer worth that moniker would be able to artfully give their opinion and guide a reader one way or another without spilling plot secrets. Never have I had a customer come in and ask for a comic because they already knew what happened, but I’ve had plenty of fans come in complaining about reading the wrong article about a major new release.”
Accepting the new normal
When I set out to write this article, I was fed up with this spoiler culture in which I’m forced to live. I felt, something had to change, which is partly what prompted me to write this article. But after talking to Siuntres, I have a better understanding that this is just the state of the industry.
This is the new normal. It’s a fact of life Welch has resigned himself to as well.
“Spoilers are the new way of business, unfortunately,” Welch said. “Money rules all, and if a company can get your dollars by giving you just a little too much information but also deliver it in an enticing way with cool art, they will not hesitate.”
Depressing as it may be to those like me, who are tired of getting excited about something only to have it spoiled, there’s really only room for us to change… for our thinking to change. We’re trying to hold onto something that, sadly, just isn’t that important to the larger comic-consuming audience. The world has changed, and we need to realize we comic book fans, who wish to live a spoiler-free life, aren’t as important in the great and geeky machine.
“Both DC and Marvel are so corporate-minded about literally making profit each quarter that they will do everything they can to drive new readers into the stores,” Siuntres said. “I think comics is enough of a Johnny Appleseed business that each reader really does count. It’s that stupid chain from publisher to store that’s their real customer.”
Sales-wise, the die-hard comic book reader isn’t enough. Catering to this small demographic doesn’t warrant keeping stories under wraps. If you look at a movie like Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Disney could afford to keep its main plot twists a secret, because it knew enough people would flock to theaters in droves. Marvel doesn’t have that same luxury with X-Men Red. They need to boost those advance orders, and shops need to make sure readers will be ready to pick up all the books they’ve ordered.
“There’s a much bigger pond out there of people and they want them to cross over and jump into the small pond with us,” Siuntres said. “So I don’t see that ending.”
And at the same time, that small and devoted pool of readers remain the publishers’ personal punching bags. A fan’s loyalty is bait, said Welch, who has many customers who talk about dropping titles from their pull list but never do because they’ve been collecting them for so long and just can’t throw in the towel.
“That gives the companies the power to market aggressively and invasively, ruining what the customer hasn’t bought yet because they know they will buy the title no matter what,” Welch added. “Spoiler-heavy marketing also pushes the speculator market, which is still thriving as far as what I see each week, and accounts for a much larger amount of sales than actual comic fans because the speculators buy multiple copies.”
Like I said, it’s depressing.
Resisting the new normal
On the other hand, why be depressed about it? We could always resist. There’s so much about the culture of strategic spoilers Siuntres dislikes and Welch abhors and, me–don’t forget about my disgust! That’s three people in what’s apparently a small pond of comic book readers in this “Johnny Appleseed business.” We can’t be alone. In fact, Welch did tell me he believes this marketing strategy is beginning to receive the cold shoulder from readers.
So rather than be depressed about the endless onslaught of unexpected spoilers, I’m going to do my best to dodge them and hold out hope that the “new normal” doesn’t stay normal for long. Trends come and go. Before we know it, this obsession with spoiling could become the “old normal.”
And right now, there are readers out there who want to know when exactly we’ll get past this spoiler-heavy era. Well, that would be a spoiler, wouldn’t it?