Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Importance of Dying

Not the Beginning of the End, just the End.

If you are over the age of 30, you probably remember reading comic books fondly. They were inescapable in the final days before Cultural Ground Zero. The reason for this, as we learned, is that they had reached a commercial peak and were on the downhill slide. By the 2000s, comic books as we knew them were dead.

But if you are of a certain age you don't tend to remember that part of the story. We all tend to remember things at their best as opposed to their worst, because we are hopeful beings. We think that maybe one day they can reclaim their lost glory. When they inevitably don't, we take to going back to the past instead and immersing ourselves in the better times.

Nostalgia aside, there is another reason to fondly remember better times.

You were the last generation able to buy comic books from marketplaces and corner stores before they were corralled into tiny comic book stores where they would slowly fade into irrelevance. The age of buying a bag of chips and a coke at the 7-11 while throwing your spare change at a comic on the way out ended sometime in the '90s. It ended around Marvel's 1996 bankruptcy and DC's admission that death doesn't matter with an event they would never top again. This was all over by mid-90s, and it would never reach those heights again.

Of course you still hear the charge that "You just grew up! Comics aren't for you anymore!" which is designed to quickly disarm you from the fact that were that true then you would still have a duty to expect better for kids and younger audiences. It's an argument consumer bugmen use to justify every decision their corporate overlords make. This defense also doesn't explain why the industry has shrunken to embarrassing levels where their highest selling book in 2021 can't even reach the sales of a low seller from 1987. What this proves is that the industry has no idea what it's doing and is dying. This is doubly pathetic in an age where both Japanese manga and superhero films are breaking sales records every other day. There isn't any reason comics shouldn't be selling well, and yet they aren't, at all. In fact, they only sell worse and worse.

But at the same time there are things that superhero films and manga offer their audience that most comics don't. What is it? Continuity and finality. Comic books have consistently failed to offer anything close to this for decades. Movies and manga are filled with stories that rise, peak, have a release, and conclude. The customers then move on to new stories, possibly even by the same creators. You might question if that is true about superhero movies, but for countless people, Endgame was the End (because it was) and are finished with the franchise. As they should be, because all stories must end. This is because they exist to do just that.

When you create a story, you are making a promise to the audience. These characters matter and you should follow them through events that also matter. What these characters do is important, so you should pay attention to what they do. What happens in this story matters, because it could potentially change their world forever. This, paired with escalating conflict and periods of release, naturally means it must build to a grand conclusion where everything comes to a head. You owe the audience, after all the buildup, all the excitement, and all those promises, to deliver and fulfill all their expectations. You owe them a happy ending, or at least one that is thematically coherent and satisfying.

Comics actually can have endings.

Why do all stories require an ending? Because life has endings. All our lives we work towards things and we hope to see our ambitions fulfilled. Sometimes it doesn't happen, but when we read fiction and get invested, we trust that the writer will reward us for spending time in their world. Everything builds up to an ending, where all that effort is paid off, and the main character we've been following finally gets the reward they so desired and they deserve. And then the good guys lived happily ever after, as far as we know.

This is the sticking point for so many modern comic fans who continue to read long after the wheels have fallen off the industry. Why do things need to end? Can't we just get a new story with the same characters we've had for decades? Can't we just keep building history and continuity forever and grow giant, complex worlds? Why isn't the status quo good enough?

There are two answers to these questions.

The first answer is that you are looking for episodic storytelling, which is such a lost art so far down in the grave that it's a burning to atoms in the Earth's core. Episodic storytelling is comprised of standalone adventures where each story is it's own thing, occasionally having a reference from a past event or character, but mostly new adventures that each have defined beginnings, middle, and endings.. Think of it like the character's performing a job. Day in, day out. Old pulp heroes like The Shadow and Doc Savage operated this way, which is how they were able to sustain hundreds of popular adventures in their original runs. They still relied on having beginnings, middles, and endings.

Should you want stories that last forever, this is the only satisfying way to do it because this is what said form was designed for. The battle against evil never ends, but our intrepid heroes will fight on against every new threat, and they will win. Ironically, when comics did this, they sold at their highest, by far. Now they never do it, and they sell like snow cones in the arctic. Perhaps throwing out successful formulas isn't the best idea.

The other answer is that linear storytelling is meant to naturally climax and have an ending. It needs to have a release for the audience that they can keep and can never be taken away from them. This is like a long episodic story--it still requires a pay off, but a bigger one because it is a bigger story. The audience still expects a satisfying conclusion that will lift them up and satisfy. This one aspect of storytelling never changes.

When you don't do this, when you don't offer release, you run the risk of destroying those victories that your protagonist fought so hard for and utterly annihilating the audience's trust in the world and your storytelling abilities. You run the risk of plowing into narrative nihilism. The last thing you should ever do is gleefully inform your audience that the events they sat through, the ones they were supposed to be invested in, not only don't matter, but can be undone at the writer's whim. In other words, you're telling them they can't be invested in anything, because you aren't.

This is the opposite of what storytelling is supposed to be.

Someone actually thought this was a good idea.

So without further ado, I can gleefully tell you that every single thing I read in comics back when I was a kid has been undone, spat on, and them leveled, repeatedly. In other words, everything I was invested in I was told didn't matter. Why would I keep reading? I don't, and I'm nowhere near close to the only one.

Puts those cratering sales in perspective, doesn't it?

How many stupid tricks has the industry done to pull the wool over their readers' eyes and fool them into believing what they are reading actually matters? How many confused reboots have they indulged in? How many alternate timelines and worlds were made to avoid creating new things? How many #1s that have since been rendered meaningless have swarmed the shelves? Better question: Why do comic readers trust people who have not proven trustworthy?

This is a long way to get to the newest comic book stupidity. Once again the industry has figured out a way to add more narrative nihilism, disguised as fixing said problem. What have they done? They've come up with another big brain idea to explain continuity errors and inconsistencies that will satisfy everyone, until the next one. DC has introduced the Linearverse!

For a short discussion on the topic, I recommend Comic Perch's video. He manages to explain in 15 minutes what most will not be able to do in full articles, because this might be the most convoluted and ridiculous thing the industry has ever done to explain bad storytelling.

And that's saying something.

This idea is as dumb as it sounds.

The above article attempts to make hash of this entire mess. All they do, and I don't think they do this intentionally, is prove how stupid the industry has gotten, and how little they think of their readers. Because if you can't explain the crux of an idea in a sentence, then it's not a good idea.

Case in point:

"So what is the DC Linearverse? First, you have to understand what the DC Omniverse is."

And you've already lost 95% of the audience.

"To understand our product, you need a crash course on this other thing" is a horrible pitch. It isn't that the article can help it, because they are merely stating the truth. As it was, the Omniverse concept was already lazy storytelling, as all alternate universe storytelling is, and now you have to explain it to even make sense of this newest bad idea. It's just a cycle of pointless convolution because you can't end stories and move onto new ones, or just bite the bullet and create episodic adventures again. It's just another way to keep a status quo that objectively doesn't work.

But we're not done.

"Because DC comic book history began in 1938 with the debut of Superman in Action Comics #1, official DC Universe canonical history - what comic book readers refer to as continuity - has been officially rewritten over and over again to explain how superheroes like Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman that have published adventures dated to real-world events like World War II can still be active in new adventures that take place in the here and now.

"That has resulted in a series of retcons (retroactive continuity) and reboots (introducing a new version from scratch) that attempt to explain how a character like Batman can still be somewhere between 30 and 40 years old in 2021, despite chronologically being no less than over 100 if you assume he was in his 20s during his 1939 debut.

I shouldn't have to explain why this is dumb, should I?

Let me tell you how wonder works. It's actually quite simple.

In episodic storytelling, where continuity only matters so much as the characters' names, appearances, and motivations, so too does the timeline not matter. You can have an episode with the characters that take place in the old west, in Soviet Russia, or in modern New York, and people will not care as long as the characters are going on adventures and being who they are. They will fill in those gaps for themselves.

How do I know this? Because Japan does this all the time. Do you know what Lupin the 3rd is? How about City Hunter, Golgo 13, or Detective Conan? They can tell stories in different time periods from when they started and the audience not only doesn't care, they get excited for buying the newest magazine issue or volume. Why? Because it's episodic storytelling. Overarching continuity doesn't matter. They just want a new adventure, and these are all highly popular series.

This is the cake that DC wants to eat, but refuses to bake. Instead, you get endless soap operas that never have a satisfying payoff because they were designed not to, by necessity. They can't keep you coming back if you think you can walk away. Then they might have to rely on new things to survive, and that's a taboo concept for the west in 2021. So they found a way to abandon both episodic storytelling and the linear way, all for an approach that has the worst aspects of both.

This is what chased away so much of their audience. The readers will never get the closure they desire, by design. So why stick around?

The article goes on:

"This led to the creation of the Multiverse concept in the '60s, specifically in 1961's 'The Flash of Two Worlds,' which explains how two versions of the speedster character the Flash - one created 1940 (Jay Garrick) and one created in 1956 (Barry Allen) can co-exist.

"The popularity of superhero comic books waned in the post-World War II years and characters like the Flash, Green Lantern, and Hawkman disappeared while Superman and Batman endured.

"A superhero revival in the '60s caused DC to bring back the Flash, Green Lantern, and Hawkman, and others but in new, updated versions unrelated to the previous ones.

"But 'The Flash of Two Worlds' established the premise the previous versions of the characters existed on a second Earth, Earth-Two.

Again, this was a lazy way to have your cake and eat it too. If you're telling standalone episodic adventures, no one is going to care about this sort of thing. 

Take a gander at the old Batman: the Brave & the Bold animated TV series. Every episode is a new adventure with a guest hero or two and no one questions why they are there or what their purpose is: they just are. Because it's an adventure, and the audience only wants to know about the adventure before them. Modern comics could never abide by this simple concept because they don't want to tell adventure stories: they want to tell soap operas.

It should also be mentioned that this above multiple universe approach didn't fix anything. Things only got more and more convoluted as the years went on, leading to what would eventually put the final nail in the coffin for the comic book industry. That would be the tacit admission that none of this matters, with the event entitled Crisis on Infinite Earths.

"Years of stories taking place in different eras and the expansion of Multiverse to include more Earths including worlds DC acquired from other comic book publishers like Fawcett's Captain Marvel (who you know as Shazam) resulted in DC's first attempt to try to juxtapose all their stories into a single, cohesive timeline.

"1985's iconic and very meta Crisis on Infinite Earths (recently loosely adapted to a DC superhero CW crossover) attempted to do away with the Multiverse, but the gravity of trying to turn what was then 50 years of stories into a 10-year timeline resulted in DC having to publish recurring maintenance storylines (most with the word 'Crisis' in the title ) to try to fix the logical inconsistencies Crisis introduced, but to no avail.

Again, you didn't have to explain any of this with "multiple verses" or any dumb convolution like that in the first place. You simply don't address it except to say that Captain Marvel is a different series to Superman, that is why they don't crossover, or that Superman is busy with other things. Whatever you do, audiences will fill in the gaps themselves. They aren't stupid.

But because they didn't trust their audience and kept feeling that had to dumb it down, they created the utterly stupid Crisis on Infinite Earths in order to fix something that never should have been broken to begin with. Put everything in one world and make it easier for the writers to keep track of:. how can it lose? Well, it did lose, because it broke continuity in half and told all the readers that storylines they were invested in simply don't matter anymore. This is because they never did: they were never going to have a payoff or a conclusion

This is the entire point and reason why audiences began drifting from comic books in the 1980s before they were almost all gone by the end of the '90s. You told your readers that nothing mattered, and there's nothing you can do to fix it except to prove them wrong.

And you can't do that.

"Apparently recognizing the folly of trying to defeat the passing of time, DC's new approach is to stop trying to make it all make sense and to simply acknowledge it ALL happened. All timelines and multiverses and alternate realities and futures exist in an Omniverse.

"While the current iterations of the classic DC heroes like Batman and Superman exist in an approximation of real/current-time, they're also meta-aware of the Omniverse's existence and somewhat aware that their own lives, memories, and history are part of an intricate tapestry and patchwork of time and reality.

"And because it's still so new, we don't know yet how much DC will try to explain how it fits together narratively, or if they'll even try at all.

Hey, it didn't work the first three times, maybe it'll work the fourth. Here's the hint: they can't explain it in a way that makes sense because it doesn't make sense on a fundamental level. The concept is busted from the start, unless you fix the pipes you're going to have water all over the floor--patching it with flex-tape is not going to work forever, especially as the floor rots from all the water spraying out everywhere.

There is no solution to this problem, because the solution requires erasing broken concepts that they do not want to let go of. It requires revamping your entire way of storytelling.

And now you're about to see the level of insanity they're willing to go to in order to keep this charade going even longer. 

Here is the Linearverse:

"This brings us to the newest wrinkle (and thanks for bearing with us), the Linearverse.

"A separate reality within the brand-new Omniverse, this way of looking at DC's history takes a much simpler approach DC never tried in earnest ... until now.

"In the Linearverse, characters simply live longer lives than people who don't live in the Linearverse, and this is true for aliens from other worlds like Superman, mythological characters like Wonder Woman, and normal human beings like Batman.

"So the same Bruce Wayne whose parents were killed in Crime Alley in the late '20s or early '30s and first took to the streets of Gotham City as a vigilante in 1939 is the same guy still fighting crime in 2021.

"Technology advanced, fashion changed, world events like wars and presidential terms passed normally in realtime, but the characters only aged a few years and lived through it and experienced and remember it all."

This isn't a prank. This is a real thing. 

No one could ever make up nonsense of this level. This is literally denying reality to make your nonsense work. And it also proves what I said earlier: the comic book industry does not fundamentally understand the importance of endings, of death, of having a conclusion.

All you needed to do was keep it episodic and no one would have cared. Or if you want continuity you have characters die (and STAY dead), pass on to the next generation, and tell new stories with new characters. It has to be one or the other. You cannot have the benefits of both in one story: they are separate storytelling approaches for a reason. And this entire mess is proof that it just doesn't work.

I don't even have to go into the logistics of how you can't have a world where no one dies and have it progress as our society has over the past century, do I? People die and generations take on from their ancestors, adding their own stamp to the tradition they are carrying on. If you replace that with one generation, then you would get, not only an overpopulated planet, but a world much different from the one we are living in now. This isn't how the world works.

The only reason any of this exists is for billion dollar corporations to milk the same set of characters indefinitely and not have to risk creating anything new. This is why you have been sold nonsense such as "heroes never kill" or "multiple interpretations" of the same ancient character, or silliness like "Modern Greek Myths" to cover their behinds, not because any of those things are true, because none of them are, but because they want to sell you on lifestyle brands that will have you hooked on their product for life. They aren't in the storytelling business, and we know this from the fact that they can't write endings.

Do you want to know the real reason the comic industry is flailing while every surrounding industry is thriving? This is the real reason. This is a cancer set at the heart of the industry that has never been excised, so it will continue to be a problem until the patient dies. That's just the way it is.

Whatever industry comes next in its place will do well to remember the utter failure of this one to tell stories. The current crop of independent comics are nice and all, but if they're just planning to repeat the same storytelling mistakes then nothing will ever actually change, and no audience will come back or grow. Unless you're willing to let your story have its death, its end, then the audience will never fully trust you. You are only agitating the cancer in the system and making it worse.

The solution is simple. You let your stories end, have a conclusion. You move on to new frontiers, create new worlds. When you do so you inspire others to do so, as well. They can always take those old stories with them and they will always have the memories.

But everything dies, and they need to be allowed to die. That is the nature of everything. To deny it is to defy reality and the way things are, and that never ends well for anyone.

So the next time you read an issue of X-Men, remember the good times, and how great it was when Scott Summers and Jean Grey finally got to marry and have the happy ending they deserved. Whatever comes after that is purely a figment of your imagination, someone trying to wring orange juice out of spent peels. There is nothing more to tell. It's over.

Everything ends, and that's fine. We just have to remember to carry on afterwards. That is what we are here to do, so lets do it. There is no time like the present.

Read my own heroic stories of noir, powers, magic, redemption, hope, and heroism, in the dark city . . .


  1. This explains the reason why I don't like comic books is because of the concept of "marvel time" and stories seem to reboot itself with a new writer to the point the stories you grew up with don't matter in the long run due to publishers are afraid of change and also want to keep their brands running as long as they can. As a result they became stale and hard to follow for newcomers unlike japanese manga, anime, and even tokusatsu shows like kamen rider and super sentai reboot themselves every year with new characters and themes to keep the formula fresh.

    1. Even the original Power Rangers series had to construct an ending eventually. It's an inevitability when you create a story.

      Only mainstream comic books appear to dislike this format, and it has actively harmed them over the years.

  2. One of the biggest reasons One Piece has managed to remain good, even improve, after all this time is that there has been a clear end goal and progress made towards that end goal from chapter 1 to 1000.

    1. Yes, the reason many have stuck with it for so long is because they know the series is leading towards something, and that Oda won't pull the rug out from under them.

      It's a wonderful thing trust can do for storytellers.

  3. This post ties nicely into Marvel's ditching of real time storytelling for Marvel Time.

    Reed Richards served in WW II. Then Korea. Then Vietnam.
    Tony Stark was wounded in Vietnam, then Iraq. Then Afghanistan, etc.

    It's impossible to have continuity that matters under that regime.

    1. You can't have your cake and eat it too. Either bite the bullet and go full episodic or go full traditional and end. You can't have both, but the industry thinks it can.

  4. OMG, it hurts my heart when you call Batman: The Brave and the Bold "old." Why not go with Batman: The Animated Series? It's older, it proves the same point, and it doesn't hurt my old-man feelings.

    1. Well, mostly because TB&TB is built on team ups where every episode starts in a brand new location, but I get what you mean. lol

  5. The James Bond movies are a good example of the episodic thing working. No one thinks too hard about a guy who fought in WW2 and is still chasing bad guys in 2020. It couldn't really be the same guy, but we accept him as the same character and just enjoy the show. The creators of the film series don't bother trying to explain it and the audience never asks them to.