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Spoiler etiquette - John C. Kirk

Mar. 9th, 2007

10:27 pm - Spoiler etiquette

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From:totherme
Date:March 10th, 2007 10:25 am (UTC)
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Yes, it's of general interest, because it's political symbolism. The BBC article in question mentions things like Cap first appearing on the cover of a comic "punching Hitler". The idea of him being assassinated at a time when Bush is losing his power and US generals are saying things like Hey, maybe we should actually try talking to folk before killing them is significant.

If you take the naive view, and assume that the death of Cap is synonymous with the end of that comic book (even for a little while, before they get around to doing a resurrection story in a few years), then the message is "patriotism doesn't sell right now". If it's the precursor to a 90's superman style "Cap's big shoes" type story, then the message is "patriotism needs re-examining in the modern world".

So, the news story isn't targeted at comics fans at all. It's actually targeted the politically aware (and there is of course an intersection between these two groups). Now look at what I said in my last comment - if the authors are competent, then they'll be able to manage this sort of thing for best effect. Remembering that "best effect" for them is related to "best end user experience", but not quite equivalent to it. "Best effect" for a publisher or a commercial writer is measured in sales. Notice the quote in the news story:
Co-creator Joe Simon told the New York Daily News: "It's a hell of a time for him to go, We really need him now."

Publisher Marvel Entertainment has confirmed it is developing a film based on the character.

So, first of all, we can tell that we're not looking at the end of the Cap - we're looking at a new beginning. A re-analysis of the kind of patriotism that America needs in these uncertain times, where the hi-tech industrial war style of WW2 doesn't work, and low tech, hearts and minds guirilla war is where it's at. A re-branding of the old symbol of patriotism to fit in the new world.

Secondly, we know that this story wasn't written by a journo out looking to report something interesting. It's a blatant copy of a press release, written by Marvel, designed to encourage sceptical, politically aware comics fans who've long since given up on Cap as "cheesy" to take a new look at the series. Why would Marvel wait for a week or two to announce something like that? It would be a damp squib - old news. The news feeds wouldn't carry it, and even if they did, it wouldn't have the marketing effect they want.

I'm guessing that there's actually close to zero meaningful spoiler here too. I'd be very surprised if the picture that comes with the press release weren't also the cover of the issue in question - and it does give everything away.

So when you say:
I'm willing to chalk them both up to incompetence rather than malice, and I accept that people make mistakes. However, I still think it's worth recognising that these were mistakes, in the hope that they can be avoided in the future.

I disagree with your unstated assumption that it has to be either incompetence or malice. I think what you're seeing is an example of competence on the part of all involved.
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From:johnckirk
Date:March 10th, 2007 12:30 pm (UTC)
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(Part 1 of 2)

I'm guessing that there's actually close to zero meaningful spoiler here too. I'd be very surprised if the picture that comes with the press release weren't also the cover of the issue in question - and it does give everything away.

Prepare to be shocked :) This is the cover of the relevant issue (Captain America #25) - it shows a newspaper with splatters of blood, and a red gloved hand in hand-cuffs, so there are hints towards the event but it's not that blatant.

More generally, comic covers tend to be a bit misleading (I have a longer post planned about this). For instance, last month's issue of "Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man" (#17) shows the Sandman attacking Spidey from behind (while he's in the black costume) and forcing enough sand through for it to come blasting out of various holes. This scene does not appear anywhere in the issue; the only time Peter and Sandman, he's in plain clothes, they're facing each other, and Sandman is actually trying to restrain him. So, in that context I don't think people would see the Captain America cover and immediately know what was going to happen inside.

If you take the naive view, and assume that the death of Cap is synonymous with the end of that comic book (even for a little while, before they get around to doing a resurrection story in a few years), then the message is "patriotism doesn't sell right now". If it's the precursor to a 90's superman style "Cap's big shoes" type story, then the message is "patriotism needs re-examining in the modern world".

I can see why people would come to that conclusion, but I'm not sure whether that's really what's going on. The article doesn't mention the reason that Cap was on the steps of the courthouse (or wearing handcuffs), and this is closely related to the recent "Civil War" storyline (which I'm also going to post about!). Without giving away too much, the basic premise of that storyline was a superhuman registration act - should people be able to run around anonymously in masks, or should they all have to be registered with the government? Captain America led the "anti-registration" movement, while Iron Man led the "pro-registration" group. While there are political parallels to that (e.g. the USA Patriot Act, national ID cards), I'd say that they're really about internal affairs rather than foreign policy.

"Best effect" for a publisher or a commercial writer is measured in sales.

For the publisher, yes. For the writer, I'm not so sure; I'd like to think that they're concerned with telling the best story they can, and I know of a few cases where writers have left a particular title because they disagree with what's been imposed on them. E.g. Bill Watterson stopped Calvin & Hobbes because he didn't like the commercial pressures for merchandising, and Peter David left The Incredible Hulk after a 12 year run because he was told to make the character stupid again.

Taking this further, I don't think that a company like Marvel is really a monolithic entity. Instead, there are various people who work there, who have different goals. One relevant example is the feud between John Byrne (writer/artist) and Peter David (now a writer, formerly in the sales department), as described here. Basically, Byrne was annoyed because he thought that PAD had publicised the ending of a particular issue (where a character died), thus spoiling the story for the readers.

Edited at 2013-06-12 06:01 pm (UTC)
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From:johnckirk
Date:March 10th, 2007 12:31 pm (UTC)
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(Part 2 of 2)

we know that this story wasn't written by a journo out looking to report something interesting. It's a blatant copy of a press release

That sounds plausible, but I don't like it. Even if we assume that it's in Marvel's best interest to increase sales on the book, surely that shouldn't be the BBC's goal? This ties into my recent thoughts about "Be the best X that you can be" (for the relevant value of X). As a journalist, someone should have the professionalism to write an article themselves, rather than just photocopying a press release and saying "Right, I'm done, off to the pub". In the same way, the editor should read what they're submitted (whether by a journalist or another company), and decide whether it's newsworthy before they print it in their newspaper/website/whatever. (In the case of Dr Who, it's a bit more blurry about what the BBC should do, but I still think that there should be a separation between the news reporting and the publicity department.)

By way of contrast, look at The R2 project (news about region 2 DVD releases). All of their announcements are flagged at the top as "Official Announcements from the PR companies", so you can distinguish between them and the reviews on the site, and apply the appropriate amount of scepticism to claims like "the funniest comedy of the year".

Are you really saying that you think this is the right way for the BBC to act? I can forgive lazy reporting, but this sounds as if you're saying that they should be praised for acting as a corporate mouthpiece without giving any thought to what they're repeating.
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From:elvum
Date:March 10th, 2007 05:06 pm (UTC)
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Literally hundreds of media organisations worldwide have reported the news in question, which I think is pretty strong evidence that it's considered generally newsworthy. And I'd agree with totherme that that's probably because of the symbolism involved.

Even if we assume that it's in Marvel's best interest to increase sales on the book, surely that shouldn't be the BBC's goal?

What else should the BBC and the rest of the media have reported, given that their judgement was that there would be significant interest in the story by the general public? If Marvel have done their job right (and it looks like they did), there is probably nothing worth reporting that isn't in the press release. They've turned it into a win-win situation: the media gets a story with no effort required, and they get the publicity. Being an occasional corporate mouthpiece doesn't preclude simultaneously being a responsible news source.
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From:johnckirk
Date:March 10th, 2007 06:28 pm (UTC)
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Literally hundreds of media organisations worldwide have reported the news in question

Out of the first 20 results, item 7 (as of the time of writing) is an article about "Dodge's new super hero: The Avenger", i.e. a new car, and nothing to do with the recent death. Similarly, item 11 is a story about an exhibition of African men's dress and costume, attended by a guy who wrote the Captain America comic for a while. Item 18 is from a comics website, which is where I'd expect to read about the week's comics (i.e. I'd avoid it until I'd read those comics myself), and it's really talking about the reaction to the event from the big news organisations rather than actually reporting that news directly itself; in a similar way, I'd guess that lots of the local news sites are just repeating what they've heard on CNN. I haven't checked the full list of links, but I would be hesitant to say that there are actually hundreds of reports on this.

What else should the BBC and the rest of the media have reported, given that their judgement was that there would be significant interest in the story by the general public?

I don't really mind them reporting it, although if this was just a copy of a press release then I think they should state that clearly on the webpage. However, I do think that they should have waited for a while, to give people the opportunity to read the story "unspoilt" first. totherme wrote earlier: This may not be the "right" choice, but it's unlikely to even have occurred to the writer as a choice at all. That's what bothers me - the idea that the BBC would publish something without actually thinking about it.

However, to answer your question more directly, one useful piece of information would have been the issue number (Captain America #25) rather than just referring to "the latest edition". It's interesting that the article says "The latest edition will show the superhero dying" (my emphasis). That implies that they didn't realise the comic was actually available in shops yet, so they hadn't even given a 4 hour window for people to read it; they thought that they were announcing the news before it was possible for anyone to read the comic. Speaking of which, there's another idea - maybe the BBC should have tried to get hold of a copy themselves, so that they could read it before writing about it? Call me wacky, but that's the kind of basic research that I'd expect from a 9 year old writing a book report in English class, let alone a professional news organisation. If they'd sent someone along to the local comic shop, maybe it would then have occurred to them that the other customers would like to read the story without having the ending blurted out in advance.

I think the real problem here is the perception that news reporting is a race: you have to report things quickly, otherwise you'll get "scooped" by the competition. If you were hearing about this for the first time (as a non-comics reader), would there be really be that much difference between "Marvel is going to kill off Captain America next week" and "Marvel killed off Captain America last week"? I'd prefer to see respectable news organisations take their time, unless it's a life-threatening emergency situation.
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