Op/Ed: Super Serial - Monthly Storytelling Gets the Shaft

It was the kiss heard round the world.

 

Doctor Octopus, who had recently taken over Spider-Man's body, kissed Mary Jane Watson (unaware of the switch) passionately in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man #700, telling her he intended to renew their relationship. Before the kiss itself, he expressed how he was plotting to be with her, and she at one point tore open his shirt (revealing the Spider-Man costume). The villain pretending to be a hero looked at her lasciviously and clearly desired to have a romantic relationship with her…

And that, coupled with Superior Spider-Man #2's cover of the pair kissing again (or more accurately, Ock/Spidey stealing a kiss from the redhead), set off an internet firestorm, led by many respected commentators who one would assume know comics. People who have contributed to the industry through reports, criticism, and intelligent discussion started a fierce argument based, in the end, seemingly entirely on assumption and speculation.

MILD SPOILERS FOR SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN #2 AHEAD

And now, with Superior Spider-Man #2 out and on the shelves, it all ends with Otto (again, somewhat gross and lasciviously) accessing Peter's memories about his time with MJ. With great memories come great feelings, and now legitimately caring for her, decides to break things off entirely. Aside from that first big kiss in ASM #700 that set off the internet, all Otto wound up getting was a few pecks on the cheek.

 

Now, the conversation about rape and how it's portrayed/the subject is handled in comics and indeed all media is an extremely important (and sensitive) one, but not the subject of this article. We won't be covering that today, and indeed, Steve Wacker didn't discuss it at the time because it doesn't actually happen in either of these comics. As Wacker said himself on Twitter when this first came up, "It's an important topic, but I think it's diminished by this kind of craziness." Indeed, the only problem with how people approached the issues raised by ASM #700 and the subsequent covers is that they went after writer Dan Slott and editor Stephen Wacker simply because of potential. It seems to imply an ignorance of the serial nature of comic book storytelling, or at least a refusal to acknowledge it.

In two days of Twitter conversation about the subject, Wacker consistently tried to roll with any questions, and merely argued that readers should continue reading. His only direct comments about the issue itself were that the scene in ASM did not depict sex (true), and that people needed to read the first few issues of Superior to know how the story would play out. In other words, he did his exact job as editor of a serialized story — he told people to read it serially, as it came out, and didn't spoil what his writer had, at that point, already written.

The ASM kiss

What this really speaks to is the nature of serialization in the internet age. With feedback and conversation truly instantaneous via Twitter and other social networks, solicitations showing covers and teasing at storylines three months ahead of time, and a constant need for immediate gratification, it seems that comic book readers may be losing the ability to simply enjoy serial fiction. Rather than thinking about what actually happens in the pages of a just-read book, readers have been trained — partially by themselves and peers in the internet indignation machine, partially by the culture of previews and interviews (of which we acknowledge our role in) — to always be thinking several months ahead in the future.

But covers have traditionally been misleading. Quick moments and cliffhangers and provocative covers — these are not only intended but necessary parts of a serial. Covers have nearly always had misleading elements, from announcing the death or retirement of a character to a misleading moment of passion between an unlikely pair. The whole point is to have a reader say "wait - what?" and have an intense desire to see what happens next. About a year and a half ago, another Marvel Comics cover showed a surprising kiss. Was Cyclops cheating on Emma Frost (who he had cheated with — mentally — on Jean Grey, of course)? Why would Storm be in his embrace and not with, you know, her husband at the time? Of course, it wound up being a misleading cover, showing an alternate reality. Indeed, scenes of romance and death are a traditional method of teasing readers to try to bring more eyes to the next issue. Again, it's merely the definition of serialization.

 

What people were angry about at first was the mere suggested possibility of more than a kiss, then the anger turned more towards Wacker and Slott's unwillingness to accept their argument, or, in their own defense to tell readers how the story would play out a month in advance of the issues where the resolution took place. And that's just not how serial storytelling is supposed to go.

So what's the solution? Should solicitations not go out over the internet? That seems impossible at this stage, and fans have clear and easy access to the monthly Previews catalogue, anyway. Should creators and editors stay off of social networks and not interact with fans? Again, both impossible and frankly a bit silly. The positive examples of interaction are often overshadowed by the extreme fringe negatives with attacks and death threats, but the positeves tend to actually be more frequent and outweigh the negatives, with fans getting a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the media they so enjoy.

No, the only real solution is for fans themselves to take a step back into the days when serial adventures were taken one at a time. Just because there can be an instant reaction doesn't mean there has to be one.

At the very least, the tone of the far-too frequent internet indignation machine should be measured against both what we know and what we just think we know.

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