Narrative fiction is so important. Every culture has its own myths, legends, and fables. They tell us who we are and explain life in subtle and multifaceted shades of gray. Stories teach us and they educate us, sometimes simultaneously.
Comic strips are narrative fiction. They tell the story of a character or group of characters in tiny doses. In one to five panels, you get a glimpse of someone’s life. If you read a comic strip for weeks, months, and years, you find that there are similar peaks and valleys to a comic strip character’s life as there are to yours. Sometimes the cartoonist is tired, so you may get a week’s worth of material reflecting that mindset. Other times, the cartoonist is in the zone, and in those wonderful periods you may see some of the best adventures unfold. Snoopy and the Red Baron, Calvin and the cloning device, Opus searching for his mother: these unique stories rival the best storytelling in any medium.
But how important are beginnings and ends in comic strips? In every writer’s workshop you’re encouraged to tell complete stories. It isn’t acceptable to omit a conclusion, and a beginning is as easy as typing the first sentence. In this regard, comic strips seem to work differently from other forms of narrative fiction. Rarely do people pick up from the beginning of a comic strip’s run. Many of the most successful comics of the last hundred years haven’t ever ended. The ones that have, have done so in ways that highlight the conundrum of the cartoonist: how do you end a story that mimics all aspects of life but aging?
Who read Peanuts from the very first strip? Before reprints of comics, there was a good chance that, once the day’s paper had been delivered, that strip was out of sight forever. Most people I know started reading it one day, and if they liked it they kept on reading. That’s how I started reading the comics. When I was seven or eight, it never occurred to me to seek out the very first strip. All I knew was, every day in the newspaper there was one section that was interesting: the comics. I read that section.
Like people you meet in real life, I got to know the characters over time. There aren’t many people you know from birth. The important parts of their life and character are filled in over time. Sometimes they do something very surprising that you never would have expected of them. That makes life more interesting. (Unless we’re talking about murder. I don’t condone murder.)
And what about endings? Comic strips are designed to run indefinitely. You won’t get syndicated if you have an idea that peters out a month or a year into the story. This isn’t a sprint, or even a marathon. It’s an ultramarathon. (As a side note, I’ve been reading a wonderful book about running by the novelist Haruki Murakami. In it he has a chapter about running a 62 mile race. Near the end of the race he achieves a transcendentalstate that he says changed his life forever. I imagine few of us can imagine what Charles Schulz’s frame of mind was for the last ten years of Peanuts, but I bet it was similar to Murakami’s.) Sure, you’ll get a resolution of some sort every day – it’s what we in the business call a punchline. If there is a longer story you’ll get the resolution a week or two from now- longer if you’re reading Funky Winkerbean.
I’m much closer to the beginning of a comic strip than the end. Falling Rock began in 2006, which makes it a little over two years old. A drop in the bucket in comic strip time. I’m not even syndicated yet, so I’m looking forward to a long run once I break in to the majors. After one year, I felt like I got to know my characters. After two years, I finally began writing and drawing them the way they really looked. On my third year, I’m getting into a groove. But who knows what will happen if I can keep drawing Falling Rock? What will it look like in 10 years? 35 years? I hope I can find out.
My first daily strip, The Family Monster, ran for four years before I decided I needed to write more “relatable” characters. That was the consensus of criticism I got from editors and syndicates and professional cartoonists. So you see, comic strips aren’t looked at by their beginnings and ends, but by the lives of the characters in them.
An ending that really affected me came in the bitter winter of 1995. The last day of Calvin and Hobbes was momentous in a terrible way. A friend of mine actually gave me a “condolences” card. Calvin and Hobbes ending felt like a death in the family. Of course, after it ended I realized how important it was to my daily routine. I felt I had so much more to learn, both as a reader and as an aspiring cartoonist. You may take your brother for granted, but when he leaves, you’ve got this hole in your life. Good thing I was too young to start drinking. Just kidding.
To some, that last strip was a letdown. I don’t know what they were expecting. Calvin wasn’t going to get hit by a meteorite. Susie Derkins wasn’t going to see the “real” Hobbes. I thought it summed up what the strip was about without getting overly sentimental. (That didn’t stop me from getting all teared up when I read it, though.) Bill Watterson felt that ending a long-running comic strip was not about creating a change in his characters or their situation. Calvin was 6 from the beginning to the end, and Watterson wisely didn’t change that on the last day. Some people felt that it didn’t wrap things up – what it did was allow you to go back and pick up at the beginning without missing a beat. As it stands, Calvin and Hobbes is a loop, a story without beginning or end, and is all the better for it.
As an anti-conclusion to this post, I’m attaching the first week’s worth of Welcome to Falling Rock National Park for your amusement. I’m amazed at how different they look, especially considering they weren’t drawn that long ago.