Monday, December 08, 2008

Neverending Stories

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.]


Jason said...

Peter David also did a good "possible future" ending with Hulk 467, clearly signaling that the Peter David fans could stop. (He then went on to do a comics adaptation of a prose story set in the future, called "Hulk: The End," but I think issue 467 of the comic was far more satisfying.)

Alan Moore has always given great endings, even to serialized stuff meant to continue beyond him. The final Swamp Thing issue is perfection, and there isn't a single loose end left at the end of his Miracleman. (The same would've been true of Supreme, I'm sure, had the publisher not gone under.)

Maybe things have changed for superhero comics (I don't touch these crossovers now, only read about them on blogs like this), but it seems like if one follows specific authors rather than specific characters (or -- God help you -- specific universes), one will be much more satisfied in this regard...

Luke said...

I have to agree with Jason - more and more I just tend to follow writers. Despite loving the hell out of it, I stopped following Iron Fist as soon as Fraction left. Somehow, I just knew it wouldn't (and couldn't) be the same.

James said...

"The best way to handle this... 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."

I really admire this - it must be one hell of a balancing act. Morrison's New X-End is especially great because even the acknowledgment that his ending won't be acknowledged works as part of the story. And an incredibly good-natured one at that, given how he'd obviously soured on the whole enterprise.

For all their problems, I think the endings of Civil War and Secret Invasion also pull off this dual-purpose quite well. They set up the new marketing for the universe (The Initiative/Dark Reign) while simultaneously functioning as a proper full-stop for the miniseries. On the other hand you have stuff like World War Hulk, whose ending was a complete mess of advertising for new titles, without any resolution for the preceding story.

Shlomo said...

Jason - I loved that issue of the hulk (which i bought on a whim in a train station).

I have been thinking about "neverending/cyclical stories" recently but in a slightly different context. Recently, I read on NEWSARAMA how DC is putting out another 12 issue miniseries retelling the origin of Superman. This got me thinking about a somewhat different cycle of stories that gets retold every year:

In the Jewish synagogue a portion of the five books of moses is read every week. It is roughly divided into 52 sections.(sound familiar?) but every year instead of moving along to joshua, the next book of the bible, deuteronomy finishes and the next week returns to genesis.

However, some scholars maintain that, before this schedule was put into place, the five books were originally six, and included Joshua in their commentaries and interpretation. this makes some sense because Deuteronomy ends on a very anticlimactic (and downbeat) note: Moses is prohibited from entering the promised land, and instead gives his final instructions to the israelites. Joshua on the other hand ends on a positive note. The israelites have taken over the land, and a symbolic act of closure: joshua buries the bones of Joseph who made this final request at the end of genesis. It is Judges, the next book in the series, that then stamps out the elements of closure by introducing new elements of strife.

I love epic story-telling and I find myself returning to all forms of it, even when i truly believe that I have exhausted all interest: I took a long break from comics, and an even longer one from the bible. But ive returned to appreciate scholarship discussing both. However, I would love to read a year-long Grant Morrison maxi-series retelling the story of the bible. for that matter I wouldnt mind reading a Morrison retelling of the x-men each year for the next five. anyway, its an interesting comparison.

Anonymous said...

This is a really interesting problem, and a tension particularly clear in Marvel's oeuvre. Marvel's reputation in the 70s and 80s was built in large part on the fact that their fantastic universe was inhabited by characters who were realistic, three dimensional human beings who grew and aged. The X-Men graduate in X-Men #7; Peter Parker graduates high school in ASM #28. The books were young at this time, and creators were free to age their characters in some approximation of real-time. It probably never occurred to anyone that they would need or want to remain relevant to teen audiences in the 90s. (If anything is hilarious about Marvel's attempts to keep their 60s properties current, it's having characters named Hank, Jean, Bobby and Scott running around in Millar's super-current Bush-era Ultimate X-Men. Those names belong to fiftysomethings, not teenagers.)

The fact that these characters are able to age and grow is critical to the success of the long-format serial narrative, and the strength of this conceit can be witnessed at its height in long running artist-owned works (mainly a handful of newspaper comics), like Allison Bechdel's "Dykes to Watch Out For", Lynn Johnston's "For Better or For Worse" and BIll Holbrook's "Safe Havens". The low-key, down to earth nature of these works is pretty important, inasmuch as their relationships are comprehensible and their characters easy to relate to. You can read a Dykes to Watch Out For strip from the 2008 without really needing to know the history of the characters back to 1983, but the attention to continuity is rewarding for the readers who've invested a lot of time in following the soap opera.

Superhero comics, on the other hand, involve bizarre, fantastic things happening to characters every month. "Dykes" most complicated character at the end of the strip's 25-year run is probably Clarice, and you can still sum her up in a sentence (Had a thing for Ginger back in the day, then married Tony, had Raffi with her, and divorced). By the time Jean Grey had accumulated 17 years of backstory under Chris Claremont, she'd died, resurrected, been bonded to a cosmic force, committed suicide, cloned, resurrected, absorbed her clone's memories, and adopted her clone's child. When she decline's Scott's marriage proposal in X-Factor 40something, a thirteen year old buying his first comic would have been utterly baffled, while a veteran Claremont fan would be infuriated if the backstory were glossed over. Eventually, the weight of continuity becomes an impossible burden to bear.

Under ideal circumstances, in a continuity heavy shared universe like Marvel, writers are given a long enough run to do their own thing and contribute something meaningfully to the character, and they also respect their predecessor's work enough to build on it. Eventually, however, a horrible writer comes along and introduces a boondoggle of a plot better off forgotten, kills off a vital and interesting character for shock value, resurrects a character whose death was at one point meaningful and effective, or otherwise shits all over the series for the successor. The Amazing Spider-Man is basically readable as one continuous work through DeFalco's first run, at which point history starts to fold back in on itself. The Clone Saga happens in the late '90s. Straczynski ignores it and rewrites Spider-Man's origin in the 2000s. Brand New Day ignores Straczynski, and in another few years, nobody will remember Brand New Day either.

So, Spider-Man is broken as an ongoing narrative. Since the late 80s, Spider-Man's various creative teams have given up on the conceit of long format shared universe, and are engaged in nothing more than officially sanctioned fan fiction. McFarlane, DeMatteis/DeFalco, Mackie, Straczynski and the BND creative team have certainly paid as little attention to one another as fanfiction has to them, and the quality of their output has been about on par.

The problem is even worse for the X-Men. Claremont's 17-year run on Uncanny is insurmountable, an impossible act to follow, the the abysmal quality of the 90s stories is enough to discourage anyone from bothering to try. Under the circumstances, Morrison's anti-continuity approach is forgivable - "Jean is Phoenix, Phoenix is Jean" - but as good as this decade has been for the X-Men, it's consisted of nothing more than rehashes of previous work - Morrison is a tribute to the Byrne run, Whedon is redoing Paul Smith, Brubaker wasted 12 issues on a do-over of Uncanny 107-108. "Messiah compleX" is a send-up of Cable's ridiculous origin story. The current plotline is "X-Infernus", a rehash of the Ilyana Rasputin plotline from New Mutants. Really? Someone thought this was fertile storytelling ground? In a way, though, I should be grateful - at least it's a rehash of late Claremont; it seems that hardly anyone gets past Dark Phoenix when doing background research for a new run.

At least the X-Men, as a team concept can keep growing up as young characters are created to replace the graduating classes. Poor Peter Parker is never going to be allowed to age past 28.

So, I think Marvel's experiment has reached its logical conclusion, with some reproducible results across several titles (and I haven't even brought up Iron Man or Daredevil yet). Basically, long format shared universe fiction is not sustainable past about 300 issues worth of content, due to both the accumulation of bad-move story cruft and the sheer impossibility of researching twenty years of backstory.

There are a few alternative approaches that spring to mind:

(1) Creator owned work which can be killed off gracefully and with advanced planning (e.g. Vaughan's "Y" and "Ex Machina", Mignola's "Hellboy") Although a popular enough work will eventually be exhumed and strip-mined (c.f. the late 80s "Pogo" revival, endless parades of Hollywood remakes), at least the original author can tie things in a bow and commit their work to posterity with some dignity.

(2) D.C.'s periodic deck-clearing "crisis" exercises chop up the sprawling shared universe into digestible subunits consistent unto themselves - this is essentially what Marvel is trying with Brand New Day.

(3) Prestige-format distillations of popular titles, like Millar's Ultimates. Of course, you can only do this to the same characters at most every decade or so before the well runs dry.

(4) Fully embracing the "fanfic" approach, as Morrison is currently doing with his "personal continuity" D.C. Universe stories - as irritating as it is to have Final Crisis bumping up against "Countdown" and "Death of the New Gods", his approach will ultimately be justified when D.C. starts putting out their "Grant Morrison Omnibus" door-stoppers in 2035 or whatever. By then, the crap that's currently being put out in and around Morrison's more worthy contributions will be safely forgotten, and his decision to ignore it justified.

speedreeder said...

Hey Guys, I read a very interesting review of Batman 682, a review that ONLY serious comic geeks could come up with.
It put the whole issue and the whole RIP story line in a new light. You might want to check it out.

speedreeder said...

I just want to add something Jason said about Alan Moore writing great endings: His final Issue of Tom Strong was a masterpiece, for a second I forgot I was reading a silly superhero comic, I actually got choked up, and he sent his heroes happily ever after-off into the sunset. A great ending to a good, if spotty, series!