A couple of days ago, I read this article by Peter Damien on the importance of endings in fiction. I agree with a lot of what he says there. In many ways, a story can be defined by its ending – a well-planned ending can shape the entire whole that precedes it, or provide context that makes the whole more than it was (the book I just finished, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, accomplishes the latter).
In a stand alone novel, an ending is something you can be well-assured of, but less so for a novel series, a television show, or, especially, comics. Keeping with some of the examples Damien used: you can have series’ where fans are eager for resolution, the creators say “we know where it all goes, trust us”, but in fact things are changed on the fly and/or never resolved (Lost). You have ones where a creator says they have the whole story planned across x installments, who then keep expanding that “x” until it seems interminable (The Wheel of Time). And then there are the stories that have no ending, the ongoing serials.
It’s that last group that I have issues with – specifically, with comic serials. I have no problem starting an unfinished book series, because usually there’s an expectation of an eventual ending. But in comics, there’s a whole big section of the market where that’s not the case.
I started out reading comics that were most like books: stand alone graphic novels, in single volumes. It made the most sense to me – and still does. I like a complete story, a rounded whole. The ongoing comics – the ones you’re most likely to have heard of: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, countless more – felt inaccessible, because they had no end, their beginnings were in the distant past, and there was this huge amount of complicated, interconnected story surrounding them.
So I stuck with graphic novels, for years, and only started to move away from that recently. I got a hold of the Sandman series – a safe choice, as it was already finished. There, again, I found that as the story approached its definite end, it began to draw together everything that had come before into something bigger than what was. The final four volumes are masterful storytelling.
The Sandman series is one made up of several smaller stories, rather than a single ongoing story split into parts. That’s what opened me up to other comics than the completed, fully self-contained ones. It’s a compromise: the collected volumes of self-contained storylines, comics that cohere into something of a whole while still being part of the bigger series. Despite the missing context of the comic’s history, there’s something that makes these volumes work: the story arc has an ending.
Finally, I have recently begun reading a few comics that are part of ongoing series. New ones, mostly, so I don’t have a lot of catching up, but ones with an undefined ending. I’m not quite sure how I feel about it, yet.
I think I’ll always continue to favour the ones I know have a limited lifespan. I enjoy the comfort of knowing that something has an end in sight.
Finally, I have to say that Damien is right about one more thing: Locke & Key is a brilliant series, and I very much look forward to its own ending.
[On another subject entirely, my Book-A-Week posts will resume soon. I’ve spent much of the past couple of weeks re-reading Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, and haven’t cared to say much on them – they’re deserving classics: read them.]