By Stefan Delatovic [I make a brief comment at the end.]
As a monthly serial, comics never really end.
While storylines within, say, the Uncanny X-Men title may wind up, the central story following the characters' lives will continue forever. Even when a storyline finishes, the open-ended nature of the narrative can see it be drawn on indefinitely. The reader can never really be sure that they have seen the last word on any given plot, subject or character. (Batman is a bit of a different story. Even DC seems happy to have Miller's take on the character's last hurrah be the definitive version.)
Robbed of an ending, comics spend far too much time monkeying around with the beginning. Origin stories - the best of which are simple enough to be relayed in a single sentence - undergo unnecessary revision and expansion every few years. Wolverine, once remarkable for his mysterious lack of an origin tale, ended up with a mess of convoluted rubbish so dense that adamantium claws could not cut him free.
Even as their roots grow dense characters are never allowed to stray too far, lest they become inaccessible. When Marvel felt Spiderman had swung too far from his beginnings, they enlisted the devil himself to bring him back into line. Superman may momentarily be made of electricity and Aquaman may grow a beard, but eventually they snap back to their established norm.
(Can you imagine tending an unruly beard while living in water with a hand made of water? No wonder he became such a 90s downer.)
Publishers are aware of these constraints. They chafe against such storytelling paralysis by accentuating any change, no matter how illusionary or brief, as being of such import as to 'break the internet in half'. Morrison's Batman RIP storyline would have no doubt been less disappointing to someone not exposed to DC's publicity machine, which promised the closing chapter would make us all burn our previous works of fiction in reverence to its superiority and importance. It is a testament to this publicity that I'm unable to find someone who was not exposed to these claims. But it is audience expectations that feed the system. Whether we are hoping for relevance in the art we consume, burned by past disappointments or simply jonesing for a good story, we repeatedly look past the medium's constraints and believe the hype. Batman will not die, and we all know this, but we wanted to believe it anyway.
Given that these stories are cyclical and unending - as, ironically, is this article - how far is too far? Can we not expect any closure at all?
I have been enjoying Marvel and DC's slate of unending events as it rolls along, with each feeding into the next. It's a good model, with big things happening all the time to distract from the lack of change we all know lurks under the surface. Secret Invasion has come to a close and birthed Dark Reign. But whereas Civil War gave us an (arguably anticlimactic) ending that sprang into The Initiative storyline - more a state of play than a crossover event - the current transition was not so smooth.
Secret Invasion, like finally settling in to watch The Matrix Reloaded, was a stale event preceded by excellent build-up. The central story was rushed, dull and overshadowed by tie-in stories such as The Incredible Hercules. The ending was particularly disappointing. The final issue, charged with ending a story that had revealed little up until that point, was hamstrung by setting up the next story. There was no closure and no pay-off. Events that could be exciting were rushed through in an effort to get Dark Reign up and running. It was disappointing. I view this as a new low, but am I alone? Given all I've outlined above, is this a storytelling failure or more of the same?
[The best way to handle this, if you cannot get a prestige book like All Star Superman, is to do something that signals to the reader that what you have is an "end" even though it will be continued next month and ignored. New X-Men had a smart ending: it jumped into an "possible" future which was then destroyed -- we saw and ending and we saw Morrison himself overwrite it. Then the next guy came on. But Morrison people knew that that was it. Morrison, of course, was commenting on the neverending nature of mainstream comics. What he was doing in Batman RIP I have no idea. The title signals a KIND of end -- obviously he is not going to kill Batman for real -- and so I really expected something more than Batman punching a helicopter, before just heading into the next unrelated story 7 days later. I understand Batman goes on and on but it needed a symbolic ending, a symbolic death more important than Batman punching his was out of a coffin taken from Kill Bill.]