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 Cliff hangers

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Chris W



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PostSubject: Cliff hangers   Fri May 03, 2013 1:57 am

Thinking - without having read the books in ages - about the Essential Fantastic Four volumes, it occurs to me that one thing missing from comic books, and pop culture in general, is the cliff-hanger. That part in a serial medium where everything depends on what happens next, but dammit, you have to wait until the next installment comes out.

In the modern era, I'm going through this with "Fables", where I know there's a new issue out and I have to weigh whether I want to go to the bother of finding it or waiting for the collection, or at least waiting a month or two and buying multiple issues at one time.

The third "Essential FF" volume - whichever one had the Thing/Hulk fight - showed me what a genuine cliff-hanger could do. I'd read multi-part stories, I'd seen superheroes fight, but when Ben Grimm pulled himself off the sidewalk and charged back into battle, I thought it was one of the coolest things I'd ever read. And then there was the caption in the lower right box, saying (roughly) 'Be here next month... When Titans Clash!' And even though all I had to do was turn the page to see what happened next, the steam was rising from my ears. "You're going to leave me hanging??? Oh you $#%&! tease!!!" I can't imagine how hard it must have been for regular readers to reach the end of that comic book and get left hanging that way.

The "X-Men" were also good at this, in their prime. "Sandman" had its moments, as did "Preacher." My personal favorite is in "Strangers In Paradise," at the end of "I Dream Of You" (the second book!!!) where Francine is on the phone with Katchoo who tells her David isn't everything he seems to be, and tells her to get off the phone and escape, just as David gives a warning and starts moving menacingly towards her. In hindsight, it's almost silly, but that final panel of Francine, looking through the window curtains, with David reaching her, and Katchoo on the phone screaming "Run! Francine! Run!" Then you turn the page and see the cover of the following issue and realize that if you'd been following the story in installments, you'd have killed everyone and everything who approached you until finding out what happens next. It was *that* well done.

Comics have lost this. Partially it's the nature of submitting books to Diamond who release the blurbs a few months in advance, and partially it's the fact of the superhero genre being so dominant, where the only thing that can happen is that they die or get unmasked or get married, and sooner or later it'll be reversed. One thing I noticed in later volumes of "Essential FF" was that they did a great job of ending every issue with a cliff-hanger - say a villain lying in wait right outside the Baxter Building, ready to jump on the FF as soon as they emerged - and then resolved the cliff-hanger in a couple of pages. Then the FF went on to develop their regular plotlines, another villain appeared, and there was another cliff-hanger.

Even the Galactus Trilogy started with ten pages of the FF being kicked out of Attilan [sp? the Inhumans mountain headquarters] and deciding there was nothing they could do about it, so they went home and eventually ran into the Silver Surfer. Galactus left halfway through the third issue of the 'trilogy' and the rest was devoted to Ben feeling alienated, Johnny starting college and Reed beginning investigations of the Negative Zone, which was followed by "This Man, This Monster."

If there's a way to resurrect the comic book as a popular medium, it's not from catering to speculators. It's also not from big events which go nowhere. The later issues of "Bone" have almost nothing to do with earlier issues of "Bone", but for anyone invested in the story and/or characters, they were must-reads. What comics need are stories which make you want to know 'what happens next'. Arguably the Marvel Movies are serving this purpose with the post-credits sequences, which give us a twist on whatever movie we've just watched, which ties into the larger narrative we saw so gloriously in "The Avengers."

I won't say it isn't difficult to do, but it's also not as complicated as a monthly 20+page comic book story. The reader wants to know if Charlie Brown will strike out the next batter. The storyline will continue for the rest of the week and we've spent two days waiting for him to make the first pitch. What Happens Next???
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Peter Urkowitz

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PostSubject: Re: Cliff hangers   Sat May 04, 2013 11:49 pm

I dunno, I am deeply conflicted over whether cliffhangers are a good thing or not.

On the one hand, that feeling of needing to know what happens next can be great. Looking forward to the next issue is a great motivator, like you say.

On the other hand, after decades of being let down by poorly-done resolutions, or by hyped up cliffhangers that were just another kind of marketing tease for yet another endless crossover miniseries, I've gotten jaded. Even worse, many of my favorite series simply got cancelled in the middle, and we never got to see how they would have ended.

So how do you live with never knowing how the story ends?

Not to get needlessly grandiose, but isn't that a metaphor for life and mortality itself? Somehow, we have to learn to enjoy what we have, and accept that we may not be around to see how it all ends. Even if we are left hanging, take a deep breath, exhale, and enjoy the ride.
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Joe Lee
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PostSubject: Re: Cliff hangers   Sun May 05, 2013 1:01 pm

Peter Urkowitz wrote:
So how do you live with never knowing how the story ends?
The Big Bang Theory did a whole show on this, with Sheldon pissed at SyFy cancelling Alphas, which had ended what would now be it's last episode with a big cliffhanger. He spends the show trying to get closure.

There is a scene at the very end of the show, well, lets just say his comment was beautiful!
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Chris W



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PostSubject: Re: Cliff hangers   Tue May 07, 2013 12:22 am

Peter, I would say that has less to do with cliff-hangers than with the way they can be so misused.

I've seen very few soap operas in my life, but as near as I can tell, they have the method down pat. You advance the A story, the B story and the C story. Angelina finds another clue to her true parentage while Mick has almost proven Julie's infidelity when Doctor Spiros walks in with the proof about Emmanuelle's cancer. To Be Continued. That will keep the audience on the edge of their seats, eagerly awaiting the next installment. Maybe that dashing Rock Banther will show up next time.

It's been done in comic book form. Chris Claremont was definitely a master of it. Or look at the early Lee/Kirby/Ditko Marvels. The FF have just given up on figuring out the Inhumans, so they go home and run into the Silver Surfer. They fight him, and SS proves himself an interesting character. Then he sends out a signal, and the final panel is Galactus showing up and promising to destroy the Earth. Or Spidey, having finally found the Master Planner, but now he's trapped under a giant hunk of machinery while the place is ready to get flooded, the Master Planner's men are hovering around outside the door and the serum that can save Aunt May is only a few feet away, but he's out of web-fluid. These are the sort of cliff-hangers which built comics as we know them.

We can do it again. It just takes writers who know how to structure stories that make it happen. You don't need to live with stories that never end so much as you desire stories that make you want to know what happens next. If the characters have finished their big goal [defeating Moriarty, solving the Anti-Life Equation, marrying their one true love] then they can find another goal.
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edquinby001

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PostSubject: Re: Cliff hangers   Tue May 07, 2013 3:37 pm

Cliffhangers definitely have a natural place in periodic literature. In the last few years though I've gotten to where I actively avoid watching new tv series, usually sci-fi genre, that have a single overarching storyline. If those series were guaranteed a 3-5 year run, a suitable ending could be addressed, but ratings can't be guaranteed, so after a 1 to 2 season investment you're very likely to be left hanging. I really like the idea of a limited series with a central story running 2,3 or 4 seasons to an ending that was in the works from the onset. If they can't get myself and others to sign on in the beginning though, they'll never make it to season two, quite the conundrum.
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Chris W



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PostSubject: Re: Cliff hangers   Wed May 08, 2013 9:51 pm

I would suggest comics writers treat cliff-hangers as an on-going obligation until the series gets cancelled. [TV writers too.] If it gets cancelled, as is likely, at least you've built up your ability to structure a story. If not, then you've found an audience to keep hooking. It's where music and comics (and serialized stories) meet, where the latest single is the most awesome thing ever, so the fans are on tenterhooks for the next release which will also be the most awesome thing ever. Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, etc, built their fanbases by convincing a lot of people that this release was great and you're eager to know how great their next release is.

It's not without its downside. Lee/Kirby/Marvel did the same thing. Image did the same thing. Movie and TV history are filled with people who left successful properties with the notion that whatever they did next would work just as well. Dave Sim filled up a dozen graphic novels by enticing people to think that *this time* we'll finally understand what happened. Turned out that filling up the graphic novels was what was happening. The Legion of Superheroes could take some lessons from "Cerebus."
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Peter Urkowitz

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PostSubject: Re: Cliff hangers   Sat May 11, 2013 2:19 pm

Art Spiegelman, author of MAUS, talked about this on a page-by-page basis. He noted that most comics pages are structured so that the last panel is an "up-beat," a moment that pulls the reader along to turn the page and find out what happens next. Spiegelman purposefully structured his pages so that the last panel was usually a "down-beat," a moment for the reader to stop and catch their breath. He was working against the traditions he had been raised in, demonstrating that there were other ways to tell a story in comics.

Later on in my comics reading life, I noticed certain issues of comic books where, when I got to the end of the issue, I had that same feeling of, "Whew, that was a good story, and now it's over, I can catch my breath." I was incredibly grateful to those creators, who did not seem to be manipulating my emotions to say "I MUST read more! WHAT happens NEXT?" It wasn't that every plotline was wrapped up at the end of every issue, it was more the sense that the comic in my hand was a satisfying read all by itself.

I like the music analogy you used, Chris. The feeling of "That song was really great, I wonder how great the next song will be?" is a very different feeling from "This series of chord changes was never properly resolved in this song, I hope they will finally resolve them in the next song."
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kurt wilcken

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PostSubject: Re: Cliff hangers   Sat May 11, 2013 4:41 pm

Back in college when I first started drawing a hand-made comic called "BRISBANE THE BARBARIAN", I was constantly dealing with the problem of page-turning. My previous amateur attempts at cartooning had all been comic strips, mostly using a four-panel format, (I learned pacing from my Dad's collection of POGO books). I originally concieved BRISBANE as a narrative comic strip, so my story was broken down into four panel units, with each strip either advancing the plot a step or containing a gag or, (ideally) both.

But one thing I discovered was that when I put a really funny gag in the strip, it kind of killed the forward momentum of the plot. Which wouldn't be a problem for the reader of a daily or a weekly comic strip, but did make it harder for me to come up with the next bit.

How I eventually dealt with the problem was by creating a new formula for myself:

Panel 1: Establishes the situation
Panel 2: Sets up the gag
Panel 3: Delivers the punchline
Panel 4: Cliffhanger or Character says Something Dramatic to lead into the next strip

Mind you, I didn't use this formula all the time, (athough I probably in retrospect over-used it) but it did help me plow through those annoying spells of writer's block where you're so busy admiring something clever you just did that you have trouble thinking of the next bit.
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Chris W



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PostSubject: Re: Cliff hangers   Sat May 11, 2013 9:37 pm

I think ending a comic book page with a mini-cliff hanger is a good idea, just because you want the reader to turn the page. It definitely shouldn't be a hard-and-fast rule, because hopefully the story is already sufficiently interesting. That's one of those gimmicks that only works in printed comics because of the space limitations. A book can break up paragraphs and sentences, and it's not even an option for music or movies, which play out over time rather than across physical space (a comics page.)
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Chris W



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PostSubject: Re: Cliff hangers   Sun May 12, 2013 1:22 am

Another thing that I think would help, which is only somewhat related to "cliff-hangers" is that each installment should have plenty of story in the first place, which is roughly what Peter just said. This is where "decompression" becomes detrimental to the comic book medium.

I'm all for 'writing for the trade', but only because the trade is a more-profitable way of producing comics, benefiting writers, artists and everybody else in the long run. That said, if you're doing a 22-page on-going comic, actually put 22 pages of story into the damned thing. That's one of the things I forgot to mention about the Lee/Kirby cliff-hangers in "Fantastic Four." It's not that they ended so many issues with our heroes ready to be attacked by a villain who would be easily dispatched in the first pages of the following issue, it's that they imbued each issue with enough story that the reader got his "fix" of the characters and their on-going plotlines.

The first issue of the Galactus trilogy starts with the cliff-hanger of Black Bolt's mad brother Maximus turning on some device which exiles the FF from Attilan, in the "Inhuman" storyline which had been going on for close to ten issues by that point, starting with the three-parter where the Frightful Four were trying to kill Medusa. The FF (the good ones) ponder what to do. They can't think of anything, so they go home, and (I don't have the comics at hand but IIRC) Johnny Storm mopes about Crystal. Ten pages into the comic, they run into the Silver Surfer.

Galactus vanishes ten pages into the final issue of the 'trilogy' leaving Ben to mope about losing Alicia's affection, Reed to consider future experiments (to help the Inhumans and defend against Galactus-level threats) while Johnny goes off to college and meets Wyatt Wingfoot. The following issue "This Man, This Monster" was entirely self-contained and is deservedly considered a classic. No cliff-hangers needed.

I've recently reread some of the comics I've produced, at least my two graphic novels, some short stories and an issue of "Dazzler" I considered submitting for Bill Jemas' proposed "Epic" line. My art and lettering is garbage, but back when my biggest goal was to be a comic book writer - it's still possible, but probably not likely - I had determined I wouldn't ask an artist to draw something I wouldn't draw myself. Drawing it myself also helped me think of layouts and sequences I wouldn't have thought of if I were just dealing in words to an artist. At the risk of tooting my own horn, the "Dazzler" comic was *CRAMMED* full of story. We hardly met any characters except for Alison. The first half was almost a solo character study of Ali's wants, needs, goals, actions, fears, tribulations. The second half was all one scene which built to the resolution, while the last panel implied 'what happens next???

If I had submitted the story and by some miracle Marvel wanted me to write "Dazzler", I definitely would have 'written for the trade.' *BUT* it would have been a collection of a dozen issues, each as separate and radically-different as possible. I wasn't worried about extended plotlines; they'd show up naturally. Cliff-hangers would be nice, but not essential. The point is to give each individual issue as much story as possible, whether it resolves at the end or not.

My first exposure to "Preacher" and "Hate" came from individual comics out of a quarter bin, and in both cases, when I finished those issues - both of which came towards the *END* of their respective series; a couple of issues from "Alamo" and the death of Stinky - it was like accomplishing a task (reading a comic book) that's so fun, engaging and enlightening that you look back to the person you were twenty minutes ago, and pity the poor bastard who had never found the opportunity to read this one chapter of a long graphic novel. Please sir, may I have more stories about Buddy and Lisa?


Last edited by ChrisW on Sun May 12, 2013 1:25 am; edited 1 time in total (Reason for editing : What will I write next? Stay tuned, true believer!!!)
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