You all know the feeling: you’ve just found a new comic, gotten completely hooked, and eagerly gobbled up every issue and update until you’re caught up to the most recent installment. And it’s only then, with your heroes dangling from a cliff and a thousand questions left unanswered, that you realize this most recent update is over a year old. There’s nothing more. The comic’s been abandoned by its creators, for reasons beyond your knowledge or control, and this story you’ve fallen head over heels for has ended without an ending.
I can’t count the number of times this has happened to me. It happened again just last week (I stumbled upon and eagerly sped through the webcomic The Fox Sister, only to discover it’s been completely abandoned for well over a year now). There’s a powerful feeling of betrayal that comes with this kind of discovery. It feels as though the creator has broken some kind of unspoken contract. They tell the story, I read it, that’s how it’s supposed to go until the story ends. If I’m here to read, and the story’s not over, then why isn’t the creator holding up their end of the agreement?
It’s easy to forget, of course, especially with creators who we particularly adore and revere, that creators are only human. I should know this; I’m a creator too, much of the time. Yet that doesn’t seem to lessen my frustration when creators’ lives interfere with their creating. It’s all part of the continual power struggle between creators and their audiences — the fraught questions of who controls the story, who is reliant on who, and who a story really belongs to. There’s arguments to be made for both sides, but I tend to find myself sympathizing more with my creator brethren than with my audience brethren. However much we fans may hate it, creators aren’t obligated to finish a story, any more than they’re obligated to give us a reason. Yes, we’d love to know why a story will never be finished almost as much as we’d love to find out what happens in the story (because if we can’t have one story, we have to have another). We forget, in our frustration, that creators are human, that life happens, that shit happens, people change, projects come and go, and sometimes we don’t get the ending we want, or even an ending at all.
But knowing all this, and sympathizing with creators, doesn’t change the fact that I’m going to be upset by unfinished comics — and for better or worse, this knowledge also informs the way I choose new comics to read. Obviously, it’s the art and the story and the characters that get me invested in a comic, and keep me returning again and again. But with each new abandoned project that I encounter, I find myself growing a little more cautious, hardening my heart against future emotional commitment. Perhaps unfairly, I’m especially wary when it comes to webcomics (largely self-published endeavors) or series that I’ve never heard of before, whereas I’m much more carefree about committing to comics with known publishers behind them, or which update online with a consistent, reliable schedule. One day, I want to have an ending, and I’m going to give preference to the comics that seem most likely to be able to give me that.
But — is it actually an ending that we all want so badly? We all love serials because even when an installment ends, we know the adventure will continue in the next issue — often for years or even decades. When a project dies incomplete, we wail that we’ll never know how it ends. But with serialized stories, especially long-running ones with no specific endgame the characters are striving for, it’s not necessarily the lack of ending we’re upset about. It’s the lack of more story, of the adventure no longer continuing. We’d be almost as upset if, and when, such comics reach their natural end. One day, summer camp ended and all the Lumberjanes went home to their families, the end. Everyone graduates from Gunnerkrigg Court and learn to live in peaceful coexistence with the Forest, the end. All the villains are defeated and Batman gets to retire, the end. No one wants to read that — because if we read that, then the story’s over. The only thing we dread more than an unfinished story is, in fact, a finished one. No wonder we have such a love-hate relationship with cliffhangers. Or that fanfiction is so ever-increasingly popular.
Disappointment sucks, especially when it comes from a comic you’ve become particularly attached to. But dread of an ending — or lack of ending — shouldn’t stop us from reading new comics, or cause us to avoid comics whose future seems uncertain. My personal solution, when a comic I love is abandoned, is to go back and re-read all my favorite parts of what has been published. Whatever got me hooked on the comic in the first place is still there, regardless of whether I ever learn how the story ends. As long as I can go back and re-read what portion of the comic I have, then the story can continue as long as I like. And I don’t need an ending of any kind to be able to enjoy that.