Grotesque Anatomy
Monday, November 24, 2003
  Topics That Will Not Die: #3 - Series That Will Not Die
Reflecting more on David Fiore's post, I realized that I neglected his points about the interactive nature of monthly comics.  Before getting into his thoughts on the "open-endedness" of perpetually serialized comics, David wrote that "serially published super-hero comic books (those which feature letters pages as integral parts of the text, anyway), beginning with Marvel in the early 60's, offered a wonderful paradox to the world: synchronic, interactive narrative!"  David elaborated more on why this aspect of comic books interests him over in the comments section of Rick Geerling's 11/19 rant:
[S]peaking as a person who wants to write a dissertation about the aspect of the medium that you deplore--namely that it's the only artform in which the creator/public boundary is somewhat effaced by the texts themselves (thanks to the letters pages--which I hear are disappearing...)--I think you're underestimating how wonderful and unique these "neverending stories" are!

It's easy for me to say, since I write prose fiction, not comics, and I don't have to deal with people interfering with my most cherished ideas, but as a critic I find the creator/readership of monthly comic books absolutely fascinating...

One thing I will say is that I don't believe in endings anyway, never saw one in any medium that didn't feel like a con, so "seriality" has never been a problem for me.
I don't quite understand how David sees all these elements as intersecting.  For one thing, as David himself notes, most monthly mainstream comics are closing down their letters pages.  But even back in their heyday, did fan letters really have much of an impact?  I doubt they influenced many creators to change their stories (except perhaps when the letters called for more gorillas).  Perhaps the sphere of influence was somewhat different:  Fans may not have had much impact on pros, but fans could influence each other ("Oh, I see--I didn't understand why Lois rebuffed Clark like that, but reader K.B.'s detailed analysis brings it all into sharp focus now!").

Obligatory Manga Boosterism:  If David feels that fan interaction is a vital part of the appeal of sequential art, then he should really like manga.  Not only are manga anthologies such as Shonen Jump, Raijin Comics, and Super Manga Blast some of the last comics around to publish letters from readers, but Shonen Jump even publishes fan art each month!  And Raijin Comics, adopting the practice of Japanese manga publishers, solicits fan feedback to see which serials will continue to see print!  Just think if Marvel and DC operated this way:  Publish thick anthologies with new material, and fans get to vote on which series would survive month to month.  Why isn't anyone doing this here?  It would combine America's love for crappy reality TV with big, cheap comics!  It's a natural!!  It can't miss!!!  (Disclaimer:  I am not an industry insider, either, so my enthusiastic armchair opinions should not be mistaken for sound business advice:  It could very well miss.)

As for David's point about not believing in endings, I'm somewhat sympathetic to this view.  Often a story's resolution feels forced and tacked-on, and some authors try to make an ending "mean" too much, when in reality things wouldn't be so tidy.  But at the same time, I've never really had an across-the-board problem with endings, mainly because I think of them more as "stopping points."  Although there are times when I'm so engrossed in a story that I don't want it to stop, for the most part I realize that, practically, stories can't simply go on forever.  For one thing, even if a story were truly endless, I would still reach an endpoint, so the result would be much the same.  And even if a work were only ridiculously long (rather than truly endless), this would still cause problems as it ate into the time I had available to devote to other stories.  I also worry that long-lived works would wear out their welcome:  Eventually a story reaches a point of diminishing returns as an author (or series of authors) dilutes a concept in order to keep it running.  I'd rather see a story end in its prime instead of becoming a weak, watered-down shell of its former self.

Further, I think in many cases a story's finiteness actually contributes to its open-endedness.  I certainly felt that The Matrix was more open when it stopped with Neo flying up, up, and away out of that phone booth.  At that point, the story was still interesting in my mind:  Sure, Neo looked like a badass Man of Steel, but there was still so much work for the resistance to do--so many minds to free from the matrix.  Just think of all the possible stories...  So it was a little disappointing when Reloaded came along and closed off certain storytelling possibilities.  Instead of conjuring up our own visions of Zion, for example, we were now locked into a lame rave-happy version.  I hear fanboys experienced similar disappointment when a bit of Wolverine's mystery was chipped away with Origin.

I know it's a natural impulse when a story reaches its stopping point to wonder:  What happened next?  But do we really need someone else to show us?  Isn't it better in some cases to leave it up to our own imaginations?  (And just to close off certain avenues of response right away:  This isn't a call for bad fan-fiction.)  I do think that the stretched-out seriality of corporate comics can lead to some interesting effects (retcons, revamps, reinterpretations, etc.), but I don't know if extended seriality strikes me as an intrinsically good thing, especially when it comes at the cost of creative ownership and control.
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Iron Fist

by John Jakala

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