I haven’t read anything by Brian K. Vaughn, though I’ve been tempted by Last Man a time or two. Anyway, he’s got a long interview in Comics Journal 295 which I was flipping through. One passage caught my eye, in which the interviewer (Sean T. Collins) noted that Vaughn often writes long serials with endings, and wondered why that was, since most ongoing comics don’t have a set completion point. Vaughn responds:
I would say it’s interesting tht it’s only people who love comics who ask me that, whereas it’s a bizarre question to ask someone “Why do your stories have endings?” Because it’s a story. Isn’t that how they work? But because I think we’re all weaned on Spider-Man and Batman and these things that have the illusion of a third act that never completes, that seems strange. But I guess it always felt natural to me. Both Sandman and Preacher were so influential, and I love that they ended and they were better because they did end and the endings gave meaning to everything that came before it. Yeah, it felt right to tell your story and leave and that’s always been appealing to me. I’ve always loved writing endings more than I loved writing beginnings.
Obviously Vaughn isn’t the first one to point this out, but he does put it well — particularly in the way he emphasizes how unusual comic are in this regard. Super-hero comic-books really are unique in the way that the iconic characters not only keep going and going and going, but do so in the context of what is supposed to be a single never-ending story. Mickey Mouse or Beetle Bailey or Tarzan or the Long Ranger or King Arthur or Sherlock Holmes — they all dodder on forever, but it’s all in the context of episodic or separable adventures that don’t presume continuity. While, on the other hand, there are long-running dramas that do have continuity — but even the hoariest of those hasn’t been up for anything like 40 years, I don’t think, and even if they are, characters have to shuffle in and out along the way if just because actors age.
All of which means that the super-hero world is really about the only place you’ll find narratives that, almost literally, never end. And, as Vaughn says, this is bad in a lot of ways. In the first place, endings are fun. Endings are good. Not always, of course — Hollywood endings are often trite and stupid, and sometimes endings can be a dumb pratfall or an over-obvious attempt at bombast or…well, lots of things can go wrong. But still…in a lot of cases, endings are really the best parts. The end of Don Quixote for example, where he briefly regains his sanity, is one of that novels high points; the apocalyptic ending of the Narnia series absolutely kicks ass; the end of James Joyce’s story “The Dead,” one of the great paragraphs in all of literature; the end of Middlemarch, where, after some 1000 pages, we learn that Dorothea never does become the great woman she wanted to be, and why that’s okay; the end of Paradise Kiss for that matter, with its bittersweet anticlimax…I mean, yes, I could have done without the stupid miracle cure ending to Bleak House, obviously –but that doesn’t mean I want to read about Esther Summerson for the rest of my natural life, either.
Ultimately, I think this is why non-comics iterations of super-hero characters are almost always better. I’m not a huge, huge Dark Knight fan or anything, but it has a beginning and a middle and even an end (and yes, there will be a sequel — but not an infinite number of sequels.) Or the animated super-hero cartoons for kids; they’re episodic rather than continuity based, so there isn’t one long wearisome narrative you have to keep up with. Or, for that matter, something like Dark Knight Returns got a lot of its power from the fact that it was out of continuity, so it finished. (And this is also what really distinguishes regular fan fiction from the corporate super-hero kind. Fan fiction stories don’t all link up; one person writes them and they start and they’re (more or less) coherent and then they end.)
This is why, back in th early 90s, I really and truly thought that mini-series would be the salvation of comics aesthetically. Self-contained stories with ends; that had to be good, right? Eh, shows what I know; instead mini-series have turned into a way to advance the mega-Plot, with crossover continuity up the wazoo, bleeding one into the other (infinite secret crisis on multiple identity wars 5) with never a stop.
It’s interesting in this context; Vaughn also talks about working on Swamp Thing, and how Alan Moore was such a hard act to follow on that title. I was reading Swamp Thing every month at the time when Moore left the title, and I remember reading for a few more months (I think Rick Veitch was working on it) but it was really a let down and deeply stupid and…they should have just ended it when Moore left, is the point. His last issue was really a beautiful conclusion, I thought, with Swamp Thing basically retiring, and it was an end, and that’s enough. If somebody else wants to take a crack at this character and this world from a different perspective or in a different medium in ten years…that’s fine. If fans want to do there own thing with this world (Swampy/Constantine slash!), okay. But don’t tack more numbers onto the series and pretend you’re still telling the same story, because that story is done.