Priorities of Fans and Writers

White Tiger on the cover of Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man #52

Some fans have a different priority from the professionals–especially the writers and editors–when it comes to the understanding of to what degree writers should deal with the consequences of earlier storylines, either their own work, or that of others. The most vocal fans seem to prefer that writers deal with that material. Meanwhile, the new writers generally seem to prefer to tell their own stories, even if dealing with the consequences of someone else’s tale almost seems like a no-brainer.

There are a few examples in somewhat recent Spider-Man comics. Hector Ayala (AKA the White Tiger) was friends with Peter Parker in college/ grad school, and even a member of the supporting cast during Bill Mantlo and Roger Stern’s runs on Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man. Yet when he was killed off in Daredevil, we never saw Spider-Man’s reaction. Mattie Franklin (AKA the third Spider-Woman) was killed off at the end of the Gauntlet mega-arc, and there’s no indication that anyone will explore the consequences of J Jonah Jameson’s niece being murdered by Spider-Man’s enemies.

Peter David was surprised to learn that no one else was writing a big confrontation between Peter Parker and J Jonah Jameson in the “Back in Black” era, so this became the focus of his final issue of Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. He was only able to do this because his run was extended by an issue due to delays on One More Day. At some point between One More Day and the beginning of Brand New Day, Peter Parker lost his organic webshooters and the abilities he had gained since “The Other.” And this is something that hasn’t been explored until Chris Yost’s run of Scarlet Spider several years later.

On the one hand, writers have a finite amount of space to tell Spider-Man’s story, so I could understand a reluctance to waste this real estate–which usually requires weeks of work from talented artists, colorists and inkers–for material that is likely to be continuity-heavy, and largely reactionary, while also interrupting the momentum of the stories they want to tell. Dealing with all this material could easily become overwhelming. Readers who are especially invested in this particular scene would imagine how it would go, so writers would have to compete with their vision of that. These scenes would tend to be predictable and often derivative, considering how much time has been spent in previous comic books and stories dealing with the consequences of traumas, discoveries and the like.

Amazing Spider-Man #206 cover by John Byrne

On the other hand, many readers expect payoff to developments they care about, and expect characters to care about. Ignoring stuff that seems to be a big deal to the characters can come across as rather careless. And a good answer to a question that concerns the readers can be quite satisfying.

It’s a fine line, as a writer can easily go overboard exploring the ramifications of other writers, or even his/ her own work, without introducing anything new. This is complicated by the constant stream of new readers who aren’t emotionally invested in previous stories and are therefore less interested in the wrapping up of loose ends. As more stories are published, new material comes with new developments that may be worth exploring.

It can be difficult for writers to incorporate this material into their stories. A brief scene where Peter visits White Tiger’s gravesite still has to fit whatever narrative the writer is trying to tell. It still skips over Peter’s initial reaction the tragedy. And then there’s the issue of how you handle the scene for the readers who don’t know of Spider-Man’s connection to the White Tiger.

This has been going on in comics for a long time. There were dropped threads during the Silver Age, before fans had the luxury of blaming the transition from one writer to another. If message boards existed when Stan Lee & Steve Ditko were on the title, you’d have readers asking if the Tinkerer mystery is ever going to be resolved, and where Liz Allen went off to after Amazing Spider-Man #29. It’s hardly exclusive to comics. In other media, especially television, stories are dropped all the time and plot threads go unaddressed. Three of my favorite shows: West Wing, Lost and 24 come to mind, with some rather prominent examples of suddenly missing supporting characters.

Sometimes there are logistical problems. One thing that bothered me about a stretch of Doctor Who episodes was that a major trauma for the characters (a missing child) was essentially ignored, when I would really have liked to see this get mentioned more. One problem was that a subsequent episode was initially supposed to be released prior to the traumatic event, but got shuffled around, so that the behavior of the characters seems off for reasons outside of that particular script. This type of stuff happens in comics. You can’t deal with the consequences of an event that occurs in a comic published in May 2016 if your story was supposed to be published in February 2016, and was delayed a bit.

Spider-Man: Dead Man's Hand cover

One solution has been to explore this material in peripheral projects like one-shots, mini-series or annuals. The insignificance of this project becomes somewhat obvious, which affects the sales, as well as interest in the book from readers. Creative teams are also less likely to want to work on these kinds of books, with the possible exception of Roger Stern. It has an effect on branding. If mini-series and annuals are an afterthought, it makes readers less likely to pick those up. I think it’s better for the mini, 1 shot or ancillary title to be something that can standalone. Something that exists mainly to resolve previous plot threads for readers who are still interested in that material doesn’t quite fit the bill. Of course, such as a project doesn’t have to sell as well as regular issues of Amazing Spider-Man to justify publication.

Another solution was to have fill-in issues of the main title in which someone else ties up the loose ends. This happened in Amazing Spider-Man #206, when Roger Stern and John Byrne tied up a subplot about J Jonah Jameson’s nervous breakdown as well as featuring the defeat of a mad scientist who had been haunting the books on and off for about a hundred issues. It also occurred in #289, when Peter David provided the answer to the Hobgoblin’s identity. Granted, the latter story pops up often enough on lists of the worst Spider-Man stories.

It is worth noting that during Spider-Man’s engagement, the writers plowed through what could have been an interesting period in Peter Parker’s life. In their rush to get to the destination, Marvel didn’t quite let that idea play out. The issue after Mary Jane accepts Peter’s proposal, they’re already married and it’s Part 2 of a crossover. The wedding occurred in the same annual in which Peter & MJ told their aunts that they were getting married. Amazing Spider-Man #289, the issue before Peter proposed to MJ, had him romantically involved with the Black Cat. They broke up in issues of Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man, released during the same months as the proposal. In that story, the Black Cat sleeping with the Foreigner, while manipulating him and Spider-Man, as Peter learned in the final pages of Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man #128.
The final (last) page of Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man #128

So right before Peter Parker proposed to Mary Jane, another girl betrayed him in a nasty way. And this was never brought up in the proposal issues. Or the wedding. I think it could have fit organically into the page where Mary Jane gave her reasons for saying no. It’s something you’d expect to come up with these characters in this particular context: a guy proposing to his ex shortly after his heart was broken by someone else. All you’d need is for Mary Jane to ask if the proposal has anything to do with Felicia, Peter to say it doesn’t and an editor to make a note guiding the reader to Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man #128-129, while Mary Jane starts mentioning the other reasons she’s saying no to Peter. Granted, I could see why Marvel didn’t want to reference events in another title during a jump-on point for new readers.

There’s a related tension that I’ve noticed. While writers may spend less time than many readers prefer dealing with the ramifications of a story, they may spend significant real estate setting up major plot beats that readers know are coming. One More Day would be an example. The first two and a half issues of that storyline, which was the culmination of a 60+ issue run, were spent getting Peter Parker to the place where he would consider a deal that would bring his marriage to an end. Due to various promotional images, pretty much every reader who picked up the book knew that particular beat was coming. So they were more likely to be disappointed with the issues that were setting up that beat. What was expected to be the focus of the story was instead the final act.

Writers might suggest that these types of complaints are a result of the undue impatience of the readers. Readers could suggest that it’s the result of writers having the wrong priorities and marketers revealing too much. Peter David avoided this problem in “The Death of Jean Dewolff” by having the title event occur in the first four pages. The gold standard is probably The Death of Captain America. The event was the payoff to years of subplots, but it was also the first issue of a new storyline. The big story dealt with the things that interested readers: the cast of the title reacting to something that was a big deal. And since most people picking up the title knew what the big moment was going to be, Brubaker added a major twist to it (the identity of Cap’s shooter) that wasn’t advertised in the media write-ups. But I’m not sure it’s appropriate to expect every writer to use this particular structure for highly promoted storylines. Even if it’s likely to satisfy more of the readers.

Green Goblin VS Hobgoblin by Todd Mcfarlane

Amazing Spider-Man #312, an Inferno tie-in, had an interesting structure. It’s quite accessible as a standalone comic book featuring one of the best Spider-Man artists drawing something really cool: the Hobgoblin VS the Green Goblin. But if you were following the other Spider-Man books, it was the middle of a longer storyline. So Marvel kept the big commercial moments in the main book, and moved the set-up and aftermath to the satellite books. The biggest problem with this approach is that it turns the satellite books into stuff that wasn’t important enough for the main title.

Some writers do like exploring the ramifications of earlier stories. Roger Stern used the Hobgoblin Lives mini-series to retcon the previous revelation of the Hobgoblin’s identity, providing a new ending to an arc he had been begun in the early 1980s. This wasn’t an editorial mandate, but a story he wanted to tell. He had also written ASM 206 and Dead Man’s Hand, which tied up loose ends with the obscure villain Carrion. One of the things so satisfying about Jonathan Hickman’s run of the Fantastic Four was his willingness to deal with the aftermath of a big storyline he had been spent the majority of his run building up to. I wouldn’t say this kind of stuff should be editorially mandated, but it should be encouraged.

The Infinite Spider-Man is a series of mini-essays regarding Marvel’s options for the future of the best character in comics.

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About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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