As January 24th rolled into January 25th, EDT, a news story of questionable importance hit the AP wire: Marvel Comics had killed off Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, charter member of the Fantastic Four and one of the oldest characters in the company’s stable.
It wasn’t the first time a comic book character’s death had been announced by mainstream (rather than specialized or pop culture-centric) news sources. When DC Comics killed off Superman in 1992, the issue, which was vacuum-sealed in an opaque plastic bag for secrecy (and collectability), made waves in the news media. Likewise, when Marvel killed off Captain America in 2007, the news spread across the internet like wildfire the morning the comic was published. And deaths aren’t the only comic book events that receive media coverage. In the past few years alone, headlines have sprung up in mainstream news venues about Archie marrying Veronica, Captain America carrying a gun, and Wonder Woman wearing pants. In each example, the news hit the wire before the issue in question was available for purchase – in the case of Johnny’s death, more than 24 hours before comics’ usual Wednesday release date, and hours before any stores would open for the early, unofficial Tuesday release of Fantastic Four #587.
The comic book industry is a small one with a tiny core audience, and it’s not shocking that companies like Marvel, DC, and Archie would harness the power of the mainstream press to try to get new bodies into the specialty shops where comics are near-exclusively sold. Fantastic Four #587, like the Death of Superman, was placed in a vacuum-sealed “polybag,” a practice reserved in the past for so-called “collectible” issues that largely went out of favor after the burst of the speculation bubble in the 1990s. The companies assume (correctly) that non-readers will hear the news and buy the issue out of an (erroneous) assumption that its “special event” quality will make it valuable years down the line, thus briefly spiking the company’s profits. And if even a handful of those potential collectors spots something on the comic book shelf that makes them come back the next week and the week after that, the corporate logic goes, so much the better.
What is more surprising, though, is the mainstream media’s treatment of these stories as legitimate, reportable news events, rather than as spoilers for serial narratives. I can’t imagine a scenario in which the Associated Press would report spoilers for a death on LOST before the episode aired, or the death of a Harry Potter character before the release of the sixth or seventh book. While rumors, advance reviews, and other easily-accessible sites for spoilers on the internet are commonplace, the mainstream news generally avoids directly reporting such information, at least until the general public has gotten the opportunity to consume the piece of media in question. But news organizations possess no such qualms about spoiling comic books.
This raises questions about the strange place that comic books occupy in the cultural landscape. The most popular comic book superheroes are some of the oldest, most iconic fictional characters in modern America, cultural strongholds from the 1930s through the present. Yet circulation of comic books themselves in the 21st century is pitifully low – a comic that sells 100,000 copies in 2011 is a blockbuster, and the average American is more familiar with the heroes through movies, cartoons, and merchandise. As a result, the news reports play to the lowest common denominator, revealing the key events in the comics without providing any context and sending the curious to comic shops to pick up an issue that will make absolutely no sense to anyone who has not been following the serialized story. A non-reader would never know that Archie’s marriage to Veronica was simply a fantasy of one possible future, that the gun-slinging Captain America was not Steve Rogers but his sidekick, former brainwashed assassin Bucky Barnes, or that Johnny Storm died at the culmination of a long storyline involving alien invaders from another dimension. The only people who wouldn’t be confused by these things are the regular comic book readers – the very people who find the pervasiveness of the spoilery news stories so frustrating.
But for the news media, confusion about the narrative is not a concern, because the news media does not treat comics as narrative. Comics are periodicals, both in form (floppy, stapled pages of content and ads) and release structure (monthly or weekly), and the treatment of comic books by the media can be compared much more readily to its treatment of magazine periodicals than its treatment of television shows or book sequels. In the current digital climate, news of a celebrity having a baby or coming out of the closet hits the wire long before the physical issue of People hits the stands, no matter how allegedly exclusive the content. Comics, as conceptualized by the media, are no different – they are merely magazines reporting news from another universe, a universe full of players as beloved and well-known as Gwyneth Paltrow or Lance Bass. One needn’t be a diehard *NSync fan to be curious about Lance Bass’s sexuality, and, likewise, one needn’t be a comic book reader to care about what happens to the Human Torch.
The difference, however, is that despite the iconic status of their characters, the periodical status of their form, and the small size of their audience, comics are narratives, narratives lovingly constructed by hard-working writers and artists. In a spoilery media culture that ignores story for the sake of shallow reporting on the status of fictional people, that’s the fact that threatens to gets lost in the shuffle. Superhero comic books have long struggled for cultural legitimacy, fighting the derisive “Wham! Biff! Pow!” headlines, and as long as the American media landscape (not to mention corporate marketing departments) treats them as news delivery mechanisms rather than stories, that struggle will continue.