The [spoiler] of [spoiler] [spoiler] from Fantastic Four

Everyone is talking about how [spoiler] [spoiler] from the Fantastic Four [spoiler]ed. Click through for the de-[spoiler]ing info and my thoughts. SPOILERS coming…

Yes, so the Human Torch is dead at the end of Fantastic Four #587 by writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Steve Epting. The issue went on sale at select stores Tuesday. Publisher Marvel Comics had teased that one of the Four would die but didn’t say who until an Associated Press story posted late Monday night. And of course, the story was picked up, and by Tuesday morning it was pretty much everywhere online a potential comics reader might look.

Some news sources showed restraint, warning of potential story spoilers. But more often than not headlines trumpeted the victim’s identity, like in the LA Times Hero Complex story titled “Fantastic Four: Human Torch snuffed out — but for how long?”. People complained in the comments and the Times’ Geoff Boucher was classy enough to admit the faux pas, stating, “I have to apologize to everyone for the story’s headline. You’re absolutely right. We should have put a vaguer headline on this. I’m crazed this morning with Oscars stuff and this Metallica story I wrote and I was just moving too fast. I’ve changed headline on home page.” But it was far from an isolated incident.

Fans are bemoaning the spoiled surprise by the mainstream press, which tends to show more respect with surprise endings in movies and TV. From The Crying Game to Lost, most news outlets seem to understand that part of the value of these properties is the impact of the story. Are the story contents of comics not valued enough? There’s certainly enough precedent to support that theory. (For starters, people’s perception of comics was significantly harmed in the 1950s, as previously detailed.)

In an interview with Laura Hudson of Comics Alliance, Hickman somewhat addresses how he feels about the surprise being revealed early.

It is my belief that if you want something to be a surprise you have to tell no one. And you have to get them on the first day. Other than that, it’s only a true surprise — the ending of a movie is only a true surprise if you tell someone, don’t market it, and see it on opening night. Otherwise, the chances of it being ruined for you grow exponentially every day. We just have to accept that this is the world that we live in, and stop writing stories that are only about reveals, and make them more about stories that unfold. Which is why I’m OK with people knowing that a character dies. And I’m OK with them knowing who it is now, because we’re not done. It’s part of the journey and the greater story. I’d like to think that I’m embracing the way you have to tell stories nowadays rather than trying to desperately hold on to what I consider to be an outdated mode of storytelling.

Shifting away from a reveal mode of storytelling is interesting to consider, and I think there’s definitely something to that. But there hasn’t been much in the press and the marketing about this that seems to be telling people “read the story”. In their survey of comics retailers on how the issue’s release has gone for their business, Comic Book Resources quotes Aaron Haaland of A Comic Shop in Winterland, FL as stating, “We have had a lot of first timers in here today and some people we haven’t seen since Death of Captain America. The overwhelming majority of these people don’t want the earlier issues of the storyline, they just want multiple copies of this issue. I imagine this is really eating into a lot of these peoples’ lottery money this week!”

The mention of the death of Captain America is appropriate because that too was spoiled by mainstream media. And the lottery comparison is perfect. It brings me right back to the speculator days of the 1990s, where people were buying comic books not for entertainment but as an investment. Eventually they realized that the value of collectibles is determined by its scarcity, and these comic books had large print runs where everyone else was preserving them in mind condition too. Hence you have the boom and bust of the comics market in the ’90s.

Patrick Brower of Challenger’s Comics in Chicago echoed this: “[T]hese people are getting the last part of a multi-part story, so it’s not going to make any sense. But it doesn’t matter because they’re not going to read it. They just buy it because it’s the thing the paper told them to get. I guarantee you that 70% of the people aren’t even going to open the bag. They don’t care what’s in it. They just want the thing that they were told was collectible.”

The bag he refers to is the black sealed polybag with nothing but a blue 3 on it, a modified version of the Fantastic Four logo. The so called “death bag” was supposedly put on to prevent readers from flipping to the ending while browsing in comic stores. The Death of Superman in Superman #75 came wrapped in a similar sealed bag in 1992.

It’s a shame a lot of these new customers won’t read Fantastic Four #587 because apparently Jonathan Hickman has been building a pretty compelling super-hero book during his tenure, which started with Fantastic Four #570. CBR’s Benjamin Birdie gives it four and a half stars out of five, saying it’s a “story worthy of the attention it’s getting”. And IGN’s Jesse Schedeen rates it a 9.0 out of 10, calling it “amazing”. There are other less favorable reviews of the book out there to be sure, and I’m sure this isn’t the apex of creative achievement, but I think it’s worth reading if you’re going to spend the $3.99. (Yes, some comics really cost that much.)

But the good news is that it did get people talking and it is getting people into comic shops (assuming they happen to live near one). Most stores have reported an increase in foot traffic. And people have been reminded that yes, Fantastic Four comic books are still being made.

Now if we could just get them to actually read the darn things.

(Oh and yes, we all know the Human Torch will be back. I find it pretty amusing that Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada couldn’t even pretend he wouldn’t come back in the AP story: “While I will never discount that a character can come back from the dead because it is one of the staples of comic book story telling, I’m not going to tell you if he will, or when he will and if he does, how he will, but I can assure you that it’s going to be very, very interesting and not what anyone expects.”)

(Personally, I was hoping the name of the storyline “Three” referred to how many Fantastic Four members would be killed, not how many would be left. So instead of the Human Torch dying, everyone but the Human Torch dies. Or everyone but the Invisible Woman. Or just The Thing survives. You get the idea. That would’ve been a pretty bold move.)

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