Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
What makes an ending in superhero comics satisfying to you?
My gut instinct is to simply say that it’s the same things that make any ending to a story satisfying. That answer could be narrowed down to a few general things (e.g. clear character arcs, thematic resolution, a dramatic climax), all of which would feature notable exceptions. Endings, like any major component of writing, has lots of loose rules surrounding it which can be broken when done well.
Giving you that response wouldn’t just require me to write a textbook on writing, one that I’m not entirely qualified to compose, but it also wouldn’t really answer your question. You’re a writer both of and about comics, and a pretty ravenous reader. You know what makes a good ending in general and what a big answer that is. You provided a big qualifier to the “ending” portion of this question, you asked about endings in “superhero comics”.
Obviously what makes a good ending in other stories can also make a good ending in superhero comics. Take a look at recent series like Secret Avengers (vol. 3) and Batman Inc. (vol. 2) that both concluded brilliantly. These are exceptions to the rule though. Both were formed from the start with an ending in mind and even if that ending evolved through the process of production, like in Secret Avengers, they were still meant to end. In this regard they are much comparable to other stories than many superhero comics.
This unstated miniseries style design for creating comics at superhero publishers like Marvel and DC Comics is becoming increasingly popular, but it also isn’t the norm for superhero comics. What we talk about when we talk about superhero comics are narratives designed to never end. Spider-Man was created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, but his story has not ended in the more than five decades since they told his first story in Amazing Fantasy #15, and it has been more than 40 years since either man had much impact on that story.
Superhero comics aren’t just a serialized format of storytelling, they’re one designed to never end and not rely on the people who created them. In this regard they’re almost entirely unique. Television depends on maintaining some semblance of a cast and core group of writers, where major shifts can be devastating. Eventually even The Simpsons will end because James L. Brooks will decide it’s time to close up shop or a key member of their voice cast will pass. It may not end at that exact moment, but it won’t last forever.
The same cannot be said of Spider-Man. Marvel Comics will continue publishing the stories of Peter Parker as long as they exist. There may be a brief hiatus during an event like Secret Wars (vol. 2) or a change in lead like in Superior Spider-Man, but ultimately we’ll have the same boy bitten by a radioactive spider back in his tights continuing the story began so many years ago. Superhero stories are based in a strong first act, a compelling origin story, followed by a second act that goes on as long as it’s financially sustainable.
The concept of a never-ending second act is not a great formula for endings. It’s opposed to their very existence. So focused on that aspect of superhero comics, how do we get any ending much less a good one?
I think the key to this is taking your endings where you can find them. We both know what can make a good ending elsewhere, and that doesn’t stop us from identifying them in superhero comics, even if there is another issue right after that ending. Robert Kirkman pitched The Walking Dead as a Romero movie that never ends. Even though those movies had conclusions, they could have kept going because there were still a lot of characters and world to explore. We can argue about the results of this particular experiment, but it does show how endings don’t have to be immutable stopping points. In the same way that Kirkman looked at what came next, we can look for how a great conclusion even if there’s more to follow.
Let’s look for a specific example. I don’t want to get artsy or obvious with this either. It would be easy to point out how “Batman: Year One” has a great conclusion even though it’s embedded into Batman #404 – 407. That comic essentially functions as a mini-series. It would be easy to talk about how those miniseries style series like Secret Avengers and Batman Inc. from earlier do the same. Again, those comics don’t function like superhero comics in the way we’ve been discussing them. For this example, let’s tackle one of the longest running series of all time and narrative “endings” that build on the extended second act, rather than starting from a place of planning the complete story. Let’s talk about some stories in Amazing Spider-Man.
First up: Amazing Spider-Man #31-33, “If This Be My Destiny”. This is one of my favorite superhero comics of all time and it’s the pinnacle of Ditko’s time on the series, even though he wouldn’t actually leave until #38. I won’t recap the entire thing, but the plot of the story itself doesn’t suggest itself as an ending. It’s another battle with Doctor Octopus and another time when Peter has to save Aunt May. These are not new plot elements to the series even at only 31 issues, and there’s no major death or status quo shift at the end to mark it as a conclusion. Aunt May is fine, Doctor Octopus is beaten, Spider-Man lives to fight another day.
The reason that this story acts as a really spectacular ending to the Ditko/Lee run on Amazing Spider-Man is how it addresses the themes of the series so far and how its lead character has changed. We all know the heart of Spider-Man is the heart of basically all teen superhero comics to one degree or another. It’s a story about growing into adulthood and accepting responsibility no matter what life throws your way. In Amazing Fantasy #15, Peter Parker is a selfish adolescent out to get his and ignore any potential costs. It’s an immature and completely understandable outlook given he’s all of 15. That first issue ends with him learning there are consequences for his actions; it’s functionally a horror story with his father-figure dead and him left to decide what to do now.
What he does is become Spider-Man. From there on out he confronts evil where he finds it, strives to support himself and Aunt May, and to do well in school and by his friends. He still has lapses and failures, but it quickly transitions into superhero genre elements. When we arrive at “If This Be My Destiny” we get a battle with very high stakes against an iconic nemesis. Never has it been clearer that the life of Peter Parker’s remaining parent relies on him and Ditko makes that pressure and responsibility a visual element of the story at the end. As Peter is trapped under tons of steel and water, he must work harder than he ever has before to overcome and live up to his responsibility. He might have failed Uncle Ben, but now he can stand up for Aunt May. We are told that it is impossible, but Spider-Man lifts the beams anyway in one of the most groundbreaking sequences of the time. It’s something to behold and represents the transition of Peter Parker from adolescence to adulthood.
There’s still a lot of life to be lived and adventures to be had after this victory, but the coming of age story that Ditko and Lee began a few years earlier finds its climax at this moment. Spider-Man will learn more lessons, but he’ll learn them as a grown ass man. If you’re interested in reading a teen superhero comic, you can pick up Amazing Spider-Man #1-33 (plus Annual #1 and #2, if you feel like it) and have a complete story with a great conclusion. There’s more to be had, but it’s far from necessary.
Way down the road in Amazing Spider-Man #700 a very different team of creators, including writer Dan Slott and penciler Humberto Ramos, provided Peter with a much more definitive ending. They killed him.
Obviously, this is superhero comics and Spider-Man will return. That’s one of our assumptions walking into these examples, but that doesn’t make death any less of a stopping point. It’s a significant change and when utilized well can still mean something even with the assumption of resurrection in place. You can go as far back as “The Dark Phoenix Saga” and be reminded of great stories that utilize death to create catharsis and meaning in superhero comics. Amazing Spider-Man #700 isn’t a good example because Slott and Ramos kill Peter though, it’s because they make it mean something.
Slott had spent the several years before this issue walking Spider-Man to being a fully functioning adult. By the time this issue rolled around he was successful at work, in relationships, with his family, and as a superhero. Peter Parker had become the Fully-Realized Spider-Man. This showed that the lessons begun in Amazing Fantasy #15 had been well-learned and put to good use. Uncle Ben and Aunt May had raised a good young man who became an amazing adult. So with everything going right and all of his radioactive ducks in a row, Peter found that Doctor Octopus had swapped bodies with him.
It’s a tragic ending, one that mirrors the beginning of this very long story. Just like Uncle Ben who passed along one key lesson before he died, Peter does the same. This time it doesn’t go from parent to child though, but from hero to villain. Peter forces Doctor Octopus to effectively live his life, experiencing all of his memories, and coming to understand the meaning of great power and great responsibility. Even as he is finally conquered by his arch-nemesis, Peter manages to leave the world a better place and take care of those he loves in his final moments. It’s a good ending to both Slott’s work with the character Spider-Man and a solid cap to 700 issues of Amazing Spider-Man.
Ultimately, the quality of their conclusion, temporary as it may be, meant that readers could step into the next chapter of Superior Spider-Man featuring Dr. Otto Octavius satisfied with the ending they had been given. That’s why this follow-up series was able to exist on its own for as long as it did. Peter had an ending for a while and it’s still a fine ending now that he has returned.
As readers of superhero comics we get new iterations of Spider-Man and different minds filling the same body; we don’t get the closure of knowing there will be an ending to our favorite stories. That’s part of this publishing model and it definitely turns some people off. I don’t think it means that there aren’t really endings though, simply that endings are never definitive or absolute. That’s okay.
We can get an ending to a particular run, or a specific character’s arc, or even a long-running plot thread. We may also receive temporary endings to the whole thing, like the two examples from Amazing Spider-Man I gave. None of these will last forever, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feature the key elements of an ending or disallow us from discussing them as such. It’s on us as readers to find these endings and discuss them as what they are. It doesn’t matter that so many creators continued to handle Spider-Man after Ditko left the series behind because Ditko provided a conclusion to his work with the character. That’s enough for me, at least.