Serialized Storytelling And The Moral Conversation
I am mostly out of the comics-reading world these days, but a fair bit of my Twitter feed remains comics folks specifically or pop culture folk more generally. Lately, I’ve been watching the resurgent controversy that is Nick Spencer’s ongoing Secret Empire story for Marvel about Captain America’s true nature as a fascist.
For background, Kieran Shiach just this week helpfully explained “the history of Marvel’s most controversial and unintentionally topical plotline in years” and reviewed its most recent installment. If you want to get up to speed on the specifics of Secret Empire, these are good primers. Here, I’m going to take a step backward to the early days of 2013 to discuss a another problematic Marvel storyline and the equally problematic way in which its writers and editors dealt with reaction. We’ll come back to Spencer at the end.
In the early part of this decade, there were increasing rumblings about “fan entitlement”, which either itself had become more prevalent or had become more noticeable because of the rise of the web. Creators, and some fans, had begun to rankle at what they saw as fans not quite knowing their place when it came to the proper degree in which to care about a book, character, movie, or show. Parallel to this, however, I’d noticed a sort of countervailing trend: a certain tone-deaf (and, yes, entitled) petulance on the part of creators, one highlighted for me upon the release of Amazing Spider-Man #700.
That issue, edited by Stephen Wacker, raised the specter of one character having sex with another while mistakenly believing he is the man she loves. This prompted reader questions as to whether or not that, should it happen (it hadn’t, although the characters kissed), would be considered rape. Even if not yet settled as a question one way or the other at the time the issue dropped, the “will they or won’t they” dynamic of the impostor storyline clearly was intended—witness the series’ own assistant editor having addressed the kiss frantically by proclaiming, “This is not okay, Mary Jane!” In response to these questions, Wacker proceeded on Twitter mainly to focus on those he could portray as having claimed the story already had depicted rape (taking care to reduce criticism to a single, over-simplified argument), and to suggest that since such false identity sexual shenanigans are a mainstay of soap operatic storytelling, in essence, everyone should just relax. That last is important if paradoxical because if he felt the situation is like the soap opera trope he cites, this was an admission that of course it was meant to be provocative.
(Wacker even went so far as to compare the situation to the basic premise of the television show Remington Steele, ignoring the fact that Laura Holt, while she didn’t know who Remington Steele actually was, knew that he wasn’t, in fact, Remington Steele, since she invented that persona to begin with. Not in the least comparable to the circumstance in the comic, and so serving only to dismiss and diminish audience response to the comic he edits.)
The problem for Wacker—and every other creator who does this sort of thing—was that you simply don’t get to publish or air a provocative installment of a serialized story, and then act as if it’s an unwarranted annoyance when the audience responds as if they’ve been provoked. You own the story and how you tell it, but you do not own audience reaction. If you’re going to write—also, in the case of comics, edit; in that of television, showrun—serialized stories, then you have to accept that audience reaction and discussion also exists in a serialized format. Telling them to wait and see how it plays out isn’t a serious option for you as a storyteller.
I’m not talking here about reader or viewer response which outright presumes a specific idea of what’s going to happen next in the story and reacts to that. Or, for that matter, about reactions that simply get depicted events wrong. I do, however, include speculation about and discussion of the possible directions for the provocation to push the story. It’s one thing to preemptively (over?)react to potential storylines, but it’s something else merely to discuss the implications of those potential storylines. Deliberate provocation necessarily is about sparking such anticipation in the audience. Running from it immediately afterward is, to put it exceedingly kindly, odd.
It’s not okay for creators to engage in behavior that amounts to proclaiming, “I’m going to poke you in the eye, but don’t you dare react critically to having been poked in the eye!” And you’ll notice that creators rarely chide anyone for offering praise or cheerleading before the story is fully told. If you tell a provocative story—or a provocative moment in an ongoing story—and your audience reacts with anxiety, publicly deeming that reaction as unfounded makes you a jackass, not a passionate storyteller.
No one except the powers that be at Marvel knew for sure how the Doctor-Octopus-as-Spider-Man story would play itself out, whether as it regards Mary Jane Watson or anything else. And there certainly was room for the questions being raised by the audience then to be, in fact, the very questions the story intended later to confront. But part of telling a story over time is the discussion and debate in the intervals between issues, or episodes. Recognition of this is all the more crucial when we’re dealing with sensitive plot points, in this case those involving sex, women, and consent. Unfortunately for Wacker, he not only didn’t recognize the reality of serialized reaction, he flatly and dismissively denied that a story involving sex, women, and consent deserves to be discussed in those terms at all.
Let’s be clear that a story in which Mary Jane begins to jump a Peter Parker who isn’t really Peter Parker, and in which that self-same impostor later instigates a kiss, is a story that involves sex, women, and consent. It thus raised, whether or not it reached, the issue of rape.
As much as Wacker argued that critics were diminishing the serious issue of rape in the real world, he himself diminished it, arguably more so, by dismissing not only legitimate reader squeamishness over his comic’s deliberate use of those issues of sex, women, and consent in order to provoke, but by dismissing that the comic even raised those issues. That degree of denial is problematic and troubling. It’s also profoundly weird, given that Wacker’s own assistant on the title herself flailingly proclaimed on video that there’s obviously a problem inherent just in the kiss.
If you can’t accept that serialized storytelling comes with serialized response, then stick to making movies or graphic novels. Or don’t tell provocative stories. Or don’t make anything at all. Otherwise, stop dismissing—and demeaning—the audience you deliberately provoked in the first place.
Pop culture does not exist in a vacuum. In a sense, that was the undercurrent of the way the book’s editor handled audience reaction. Real events have a way of catching up to such discussions, touching upon them, and making them worth revisiting.
(I should note that the following context isn’t original to me; the court case in question came to my attention at the time from a tweet by Laura Hudson which since has been deleted.)
The week after the release of Amazing Spider-Man #700, news dropped that a California appeals court had overturned a rape conviction. So confounding were the circumstances of this decision, the court itself said it came to its decision only “reluctantly”. Specifically, it turned out that the man was convicted during a trial in which the prosecutor made use of a law from the 1800s drafted to punish men who commit sexual assault by pretending to be a woman’s husband. In the case whose verdict was overturned, the woman in question was victimized not by someone pretending to be her husband (she didn’t have one), but pretending to be her boyfriend. Thus, the court ruled, the law was inapplicable and since it’s unclear to what degree the jury relied upon that law in its conviction—as opposed to other laws—there must be a retrial.
Here’s the thing. While we have our moral discussions not with pop culture but with each other, amongst family and friends, the texts which inform these discussions increasingly are pop cultural ones. We don’t only talk about the Bible or the Koran, we talk about Battlestar Galactica or The Vampire Diaries (or whatever). Not as sources of divine moral law, but as explorations of human—even if filtered through the genre lens of Cylons and vampires—morality.
Wacker’s intransigence in the face of just such a public moral discussion as prompted by a book he edits—and which clearly was intended to be provocative and which clearly raised moral and ethical issues of sexual consent—was baffling. Developments in that court case in California just one week after that comic dropped perhaps helps explain just why so many people were that baffled by it. The book raised issues of rape (even, as I said before, if it hadn’t yet reached them) and did so in a country that only just had exited a political campaign season which featured a number of brain-dead statements from men about rape, and did so in a society in which lawmakers don’t update laws from the 1800s, prosecutors make use of them anyway, and courts reluctantly have to overturn a rape conviction because of it.
Yet, in a flagrant disregard for pop culture’s place in our ongoing moral conversation (his citation of soap opera being the functional equivalent of saying “it’s just a comic”), when readers openly discussed the potential implications of what was depicted in Amazing Spider-Man #700, Wacker ridiculed and dismissed that discussion. As we, unfortunately, saw over the week leading from the comic to the court case, that’s staggeringly irresponsible.
There are two phrases which creators of serialized stories should never utter except mockingly: “it’s just a [comic|TV show]” and “wait and see”, and not merely because they are weirdly self-disrespecting things for any teller of stories to say about their own stories. It shouldn’t be lost on anyone (and, certainly, no one needs an old white guy like me to remind them) that in these cases we frequently are discussing white men who demand the privilege of being able to tell provocative stories but be insulated from the response of the provoked.
Nick Spencer’s Secret Empire is but the most recent stinging example of this sort of privilege on the part of pop culture creators. Dan Slott, the writer of Amazing Spider-Man #700, himself chimed in, griping that when he’s in the past told critical fans just to “wait and see” rather than serially react to a serialized story while it is being told, it just made things worse. Well, yes, it does.
Wacker, to his mind, was along with Slott to be granted the room to tell a story touching upon how a woman might sleep with someone she believes to be the man she loves when in fact he is that man’s sworn enemy, free from any criticism over the issues raised of consent and sexual assault. Readers were meant simply to “wait and see”, and if they suggested there was a problem here it was they, the readers, who were diminishing the issue of rape.
Spencer, to his mind, today is to be granted the room to tell a long, sprawling, serialized story about how the product of Jewish comics creators, a character whose first-ever appearance was punching Hitler in the face at a time when the United States was not opposed to the events in Nazi Germany, in fact originally was, and always has been, a fascist. Not only granted the room to tell that story but the room not to be criticized or judged, let alone condemned—despite the current climate around the world and here at home in which authoritarian, racist, and even fascistic impulses are on the rise and growing in the actual halls of power—because, alternately, “it’s just a comic” or “wait and see”.
This last aspect, regarding the current political climate, is especially cogent right now as Marvel has begun releasing specifics for its previously-announced plans to have the comics industry actually LARP as Nazis as a promotional stunt.
Just as for Wacker it was the readers who were diminishing the issue of rape, for Spencer it is he who is being victimized when he provocatively ridicules social justice or makes Captain America a Nazi and people respond as if they’ve been provoked.
Creators this fragile perhaps would do well altogether to avoid telling stories in any serialized format.
Stories told in this manner are how we struggle to make sense of the world around us. We still read novels and go to the movies, but discussions surrounding these, comparatively, are fleeting. In the age of social media, reaction to serialized stories is all. Comics and TV are the conversations we have regularly, weekly, monthly. Continuously, really. As our lives are lived serially, the stories we read and watch serially are intertwined with how we confront those lives and the lives of those around us. The stories we tell, how we tell them, and how we talk about them: all these things matter.
It can’t in any way be considered “just comics”. As a moral imperative, it can’t be a matter of “wait and see”.
And so serial storytellers are in a privileged position after all. Certainly a unique one. All of the Wackers, Slotts, and Spencers of the world should revisit the first appearance of the Marvel character that started it all for many people, which ends with a mature realization perhaps they themselves have not yet reached.