Strips’ Ends by T Campbell

We like happy endings because we know in our hearts that there are almost no happy ends.

An ending is the conclusion of a work of art: the last episode of Friends, Cerebus #300, Bilbo and Frodo's final sail into the sunset. Endings are decided, manufactured by artists who want to bring their audience's emotions to some satisfying close.

Ends are not so kind. An end is forced by fate, not artifice; it's sometimes sudden, sometimes slow, but rarely satisfying. Ends are deaths, divorces, lobotomies, breakups, extinctions, retirements, firings, cripplings, explosions, collapses, the Heat Death of the Universe. In ends, the bad guys always win: entropy triumphs over life. There may be another world after this one, but in this world the game is rigged, and the bad guys– entropy, decay, destruction, oblivion– always win in the end.

As it must to all things, death is coming to webcomics. Keenspot keeps a graveyard of its cancelled series, and Modern Tales's homepage keeps a "completed or paused" dropdown bar with much the same function.

And It's Walky won't last the year. The strip is the first of my longtime favorites to go, so its loss hits me hard, like the death of a high school acquaintance.

How do you spin that? How can anyone, much less a scribbler of tiny amusing pictures, find any grace or hope in these circumstances? How can we give a strip an ending that takes the sting out of its end?

Webcomics have yet to offer many inspiring examples. There are completed works with haunting endings like Jim Zubkavich's Makeshift Miracle, but short works like this are barely around long enough for us to miss them… what works for them won't work for Sluggy Freelance or PVP.

All too many webcartoonists simply go on "eternal hiatus," promising a next episode or a sequel that never quite comes. Others turn their energies to new projects immediately, performing a sort of bait-and-switch: "Bobbins is gone, but you can transfer your affection for it to Scary Go Round!" The argument has some validity: John Allison's kooky sensibility is a common denominator for both. But it's also a cavalier dismissal of the characters and scenarios from the first strip, and often it's a sign that the creator is simply bored… which rarely makes for rousing, satisfying conclusions.

An exception to that rule, though, is Berkeley Breathed's ending for Bloom County (1980-1989). There's always been a slightly melancholic tone to Breathed's best work, and some of the strips leading up to his final fade to white are bittersweet and beautiful.

Unfortunately, his sequels (Outland [1989-1995] and Opus [2004-present]) can't seem to stop digging up the graves of characters Breathed laid to rest here, which diminishes the impact considerably. Still, taken by themselves, the last strips are a triumph.

The world of newspaper comic strips is at least 90 years older than webcomics, so we should probably look to it for instructive examples. But that doesn't mean they're easy to find. Newspapers don't tolerate eternal hiatus, but the fates of newspaper strips are often even more ignominous. Far too many strips over 50 years old are still running, propped up by inheritor artists and hyperconservative newspaper editors and syndicates. The cartoonists who work on these strips are not necessarily hacks. But when the goal is to re-create a 1930s creature like Thimble Theatre or The Phantom with no regard for the change in American society since then, and to do it with less than half the space those strips had to work with in their prime, then the end result is hackwork, no matter who draws it (not even the series creator).

Then there's Al Capp, whose decline and fall is worthy of a major motion picture. Capp is still considered in some circles to be the creator of the greatest strip of all time, Li'l Abner. But if you just said "Li'l Who?" you're not alone. Capp enjoyed an audience of over 70 million in his heyday. His eponymous hulking, naïve manchild from rustic Dogpatch walked through complex plots bristling with antiestablishment satire.

In the 1960s, though, Capp's politics became conservative. Rather than end the strip, he continued to use its satire to push a new agenda, and ended up burning many bridges with friends and fans. As he saw it, he was merely continuing his crusade for the underdogs – whom he now felt were conservatives – but the strip began to feel forced: Dogpatch's college students were all members of S.W.I.N.E., "Students Indignant About Nearly Everything."

Finally, a sex scandal erupted between the 62-year-old Capp and several coeds at universities where he had spoken. Papers finally began canceling L'il Abner, and Capp spent his last years in bitterness and physical decline, finally discontinuing the strip two years before his death.

After such an example, it's easy to see the wisdom of Bill Watterson's closing words:

"This is not a recent or easy decision, and I leave with some sadness. My interests have shifted, however, and I believe I've done what I can do within the constraints of daily deadlines and small panels. I am eager to work at a more thoughtful pace, with fewer artistic compromises. I have not yet decided on future projects, but my relationship with Universal Press Syndicate will continue."

This was not a bait-and-switch situation… a dozen years later, Watterson still has not decided on future projects, or if he has, no one knows about it. Perhaps he left the comics field too soon… just as he was departing, the webcomics scene was getting on its feet, with all the artistic freedom a cartoonist could ask for. There wasn't much money in it, but money had never been much of a factor for Watterson, who had refused to license his creations.

Watterson's last strip is entirely unmarred by cynicism. Published New Year's Day, it features Calvin and Hobbes comparing the endless white of a snowy yard to a blank piece of paper and a magical world. It's tempting to wonder what Calvin – or another Watterson creation – would have made of the infinite canvas. Watterson is too reclusive for anyone to say for sure why he never took up that challenge.

If Capp left too late, and Watterson too soon, Charles Schulz will forever stand as an example of how to end your career on your own terms, and end it right. Schulz, it should be noted, was not a merry fellow: despite his commercial success, he struggled almost as much with depression and anxieties as his namesake Charlie Brown. Unlike the bitter Capp and the shy Watterson, however, he is remembered as a kindly patron saint, a frequent mentor to other cartoonists and an all-around class act. His last strip, typically, expressed gratitude for his editors, fans and good fortune.

Like Capp and Watterson, Schulz had a clause refusing others the right to take over the strip after his death. As it turned out, the strip outlived him anyway – he died of cancer shortly after completing the last Sunday, and the day before it came out in newspapers. Tragic, yes. Another victory for entropy?

Perhaps not. Because Schulz's death made hundreds, thousands of people come forward and talk about what that strip meant to them – and most of their comments echoed those of Patrick McDonnell: "The thing that's always impressed me about this strip is the spiritual quality that is carried through the strip. If I had to sum it up I'd say (the message is) kindness."

What a message to leave to the world – and what a message to leave in your final strip. Watterson's last words spoke to artists, but this message speaks to the world. If there is a way past entropy in this world, or in the next, spirituality and kindness will help us find it. And in any case, Schulz's graceful curtain call has ensured that cartoonists will continue to make him their model for decades to come.

This end was so handled, said cartoonist Lynn Johnston, that it was "as if he had written it that way."

It was as if it were not an end, but an ending.


  1. I’ve always been a big believer in that the mark of the true artist is knowing when to stop.

    A dignified end is always preferable to a series that has lost its juice but still drags on forever.

    I like It’s Walky and I’m going to be sad when it ends. But I am glad at the same time it’s not going to fall into forever trap.

    Just think X-Files.

  2. It’s walky is ending?? OMG that’s….that’s just horrible 🙁 It’s like my favorite daily read 🙁 This is so sad.

    Rich 🙁

  3. These examples are why I don’t support the “never ending story” method of making comics.

    Which is one the reasons I admire Lynn Johnston’s work. Since her characters are aging in real time, you can conceive that there will be an ending to the series. Maybe when Lynn and Ellie both retire.

  4. I think saying Scary Go Round is a “cavalier dismissal of the characters and scenarios from the first strip” is a little unfair. Although it started out as a spinoff focusing on a couple of minor characters introduced late in Bobbins, it wasn’t long before most of the old cast reappeared and took over the strip. It’s really just Bobbins with a name change.

  5. Not necessarily; look at the way Gasoline Alley just keeps going on.

  6. An interesting point.

    The general perception of Sequels is that they suck.

    Even the classics suffered from this. Compare The Three Musketeers to the other two sequels Alexander Dumas wrote. One was The Man in The Iron Mask, the other you’ve probably never heard of, much less read. I won’t insult your intelligence by explaining why this is so.

    If we were to go by statistics, then I would have to agree that indeed, most of them do. There are exceptions, but they seem to be rarer than albino lion cubs.

    I know whay Anonymous means about peeking back into universes and finding that characters still living their own lives… Certainly those thoughts do pop in my head, and then their children’s childrens doings etc.

    But the point is, they may live on, but whether you should choose to continue telling their story depends whether it’s still worth telling. Sometimes, even the appeal of seeing old friends again isn’t enough.

  7. By describing strips like “Bobbins” and “Bloom County” as “marred by cynicism” because the creators went on to other projects, while presenting “Calvin and Hobbes” and “Peanuts” as the ideal examples of how to end a comic strip, the article seems to imply that the only graceful way for a cartoonist to end a comic strip is to never do anything again, ever. That’s a bit… daunting, to say the least.

    But my reading may be colored by the fact that my own webstrip will end in a couple of years, and I hate to think that my only options after that point will be to go into a permanent Salinger-like seclusion or die. I mean, I probably will, but I hate to think that I have to.

  8. I have to agree about finding the right end. While its a different media, I was remembered of some Anime series I’ve watched. One of them captured my heart quickly, called ‘Onegai Sensei’ (Please Teacher).

    The series had characters with potentially more depth than the 13 episodes we’ve received. In fact, only 12 episodes are important to the story, the 13th given has a sort of bonus/epilogue. But that last episode held the quality that said “we could have made 50 more in this style”.

    Yet, I had the feeling that if they had indeed made 50 more episodes, it would have dragged on unnecessarily the story, and would have killed part of the charm that the serie had for me.

    Finding the right balance between where you want it to go and where it should end is important when you don’t want to leave an unfinished work behind you.

  9. A few strips in my daily newspaper are pretty good, such as Pooch Cafe, Fisher, and Bizarro. Good enough that I look forward to reading them every day, just like my favourite webcomics.

    But I guess we’re lucky to have newspaper editor people who actually listen to their readers. They constantly turf strips that get the most negative reactions; Blondie was tossed just a week or two ago, and Cathy has been gone for years. (Hopefully Drabble goes next.)

    Maybe if more people wrote to their newspapers, saying what they like and don’t like, then comics pages would be funny again.

  10. Well spoken. Each comic is the outpouring of the artist/writer (at least for me). When you read a comic from start to finish, you are observing an aspect of the person who created it: goofy, dramatic, damned cool, all are just a part of the creator. If the artist/writer’s personal interests aren’t in the comic anymore, or if the comic is no longer a high priority, the comic stalls or stagnates. People grow, people change, and in so doing, their creations must change or be left behind.

    The sweetest endings are the ones that leave you aching for more. Having grown to love the characters, I will miss It’s Walky… And wish good luck to Mr. Campbell on all his future endeavors.

    Food will still taste good, though.

  11. Though many webcomics do have troubles with their endings, I believe that there are some acceptable endings to popular, long-running comics. For example, Dave Kelly’s “Living in Greytown.” A series that appeared to have almost no connecting threads at first would later create them, and finally end on a rather triumphant note, if you ask me.

    The strip would later be brought back to life, in a sense, with “Lizard.” But Lizard is to LiG as Outland or Opus would be to Bloom County, I believe. If one can examine Bloom County as having ended, one can do so for LiG, despite the artist’s later continuation of the work, involving some of the same themes and characters.

    I think that webcomics can, and have been, ended successfully – even popular ones with long histories and large fanbases. It would be unfair to the artists to demand anything else; especially as many of them(such as the aforementioned David Willis) have had storylines planned out years in advance. If a story is meant to end, it will – we, as readers, must simply sit back and enjoy their passing.

  12. In Tales from Earthsea, Ursula LeGuin wrote that calling The Farthest Shore the last book in her four-book Earthsea cycle was a mistake… she thought the story was over, but years later some editors asked her to write a short story in the Earthsea universe, and she peeked in and discovered that the characters had been quietly living their lives while she was gone.

    Although as far as writing is concerned, I’m just a hack, I’ve noticed that the characters I develop do the same things… sometimes I’ll hit a point where there’s just nothing else to write, and everything I write sounds fake, but if I set it aside for a few a few weeks, the characters come back to life on their own.

    The problem with an end instead of an ending is that we don’t always give the characters the time to clean up the loose ends that we all hope we’ll be able to clean up in our own lives before we shuffle off this mortal coil. Even in a good ending, when we discover a few months or years later that the characters are still demanding to live their lives, we can neither pick up where we left off nor put the characters away.

  13. I’m a bit confused by the “bait-and-switch” comment. Is SGR considered a Bait-and-Switch just because it’s a reworking of the world of the original strip rather than a totally new one? Or is it just wrong to tire of one project and start another? What about Exploitation Now and Errant Story? Boy meets Boy/Friendly Hostility?

    So, what is the respectful way to end a strip – are artists under some obligation to take a hiatus rather than start the new strip immediately, or is it that they shouldn’t re-use characters from their old comic, or is it just that artists, once they create a strip, must either continue it forever or retire and leave their drawing days behind?

  14. I’m afraid I have to disagree with the “bait-and-switch” comment. Creators have to be allowed to end their creations and move on to something else when their muse says its time. If we didn’t have that, we never would have had “It’s Walky!” which, incidently, was a much more ambitious spinoff of Willis’ previous comic, “Roomies”. It’s not trickery or a scam, it’s a way for a creator to keep his ideas fresh and new. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But the only alternative is “Zombie Comics” like Blondie, Cathy, or Snuffy Smith. That’s the way the creative process works.

    From David Willis’ few references to life after Walky, it sounds like a similar transistion as his previous one. If it comes with as significant an improvement in quality, we have a lot to look forward to.

  15. Just for my own reasons I’d like to mention other webcomics that are favorites of mine that are ending soon.

    Fans! (by the writer of this article, T.Cambell)

    it’s a bad year for !’s

  16. Compare:

    Star Wars to Empire Strikes Back
    The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings
    Lion, Witch, & the Wardrobe to Prince Caspian & to Voyage of the “Dawn Treader”
    The Book of Three to The Black Cauldron (the book, not the horrid Disney movie)

    I think it can be seen that sequels can be even better than the original work. The problem is that it takes work, and too many lazy writers are out there.

    Also, even if a sequel isn’t QUITE as good as the original, it’s often damn near and certainly worthy of the original. See George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire & Ice for this.

  17. (This is user Arrowfyre, but i’ve forgotten my password)

    I really don’t think that there IS on specific way to end a webcomic. Let’s look at Penny Arcade for a second. If Gabe and/or Tycho got sick of the project (this is purely hypothetical, as they both seem to be having the times of their lives) and wanted to end PA, all they’d really have to do is post a news message, maybe do a farewell strip featuring all the litte minor people and stuff. But, let’s say that the project needing an ending was Sluggy. Or Real Life. Pvp, Walky, CRFH!!!, Dominic Deegan (I could go on) anything full-continuity. There would have to be an entire storyline, not to explain why the artist can’t carry on, but why the characters suddenly can’t or have no reason to (essentially, everyone in the strip would need to be given either a definite ending or a death). And if the artist had it in him or her to do a storyline of this magnitude, you can be assured that they would be in no state to end the comic. So it really is incredibly difficult to satisfyingly end a full-cont strip.

    On another note, crud, Fans is ending? Man alive, i’d fallen out of touch what with the guest artists, but that strip was the reason i joined GS.

  18. FANS does have an end in mind (and yes, that fact probably did influence this piece) but I haven’t said anything about when that end is going to be.

  19. I hate watching a good story or characters slowly degrade into developed mush simply because the author dosen’t know when to quit. I also hate when a strip just ends because an artist gets bored with the characters, in a sense, killing them off before their time.
    What really gets me though is when a really good comic ends gracefully, because you just want MORE. I’ll miss It’s Walky, but hopefully Willis will go on to create another great comic to take its place, like It’s Walky did to Roomies.

    Oh, and that Bait-and Switch thing is more about an Artist giving up on a story instead of finishing it. The thing is that some stories shouldn’t be finished, or they are replaced by better comics. Exploitation Now was a good strip but it was replaced by another good strip when the author retired it. Sometimes that’s not the case, and the result is sort of a poor substitutre for what the readers really want(like a conclusion or more story-line)

    Either way, if the artist is sick of writing about the characters, then they should just stop because often you see work that leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

  20. Well, I don’t know exactly about certain things with endings. All good stories come to an end, and I’m sure its tempting to an artist to consider ending sooner rather than later to make sure that they don’t fall into the forever trap or the eternal hiatus because they won’t be able to tie up the loose ends. A good story has an ending, and for a comic artis that means planning that ending in advance, whatever it may be. But as others have stated, for story strips it takes a long time to get to a solid ending of any sort. “Adventurers!” declared that it was heading into its ending and that its artist was enjoying creating the story “Antihero for Hire” because he had become so tired of the RPG clichés and jokes, and needed something new. This declaration was made a few months before the beginning of the AHFH, which has now existed itself for 10 months. It’s Walky’s eventual end was announced almost a year ago as well.

    These artists have shown that they are dedicated to finishing their stories. Adventurers has had well over 200 comics since its announced ending, and walky still hasn’t missed a day.
    Adventurers, despite being mostly daily jokes and whatnot, had an RPG’s load of loose ends to tie up – the collection of relics needed to be completed, the final sword found, the sealing amulet,argent’s backstory revealed, closure for argent and mizuna, and the 8-month saga to defeat eternion have all been dealt with. The finale with khirma, the return of the axe and blanc, and the characters endings and such are still unfinished – so it looks like the comic will easily cross the 1000 mark to succinctly tie up the story. I’ll be sad when I can’t check for a new adv comic three times every week, but you can’t fault shallow’s storytelling – adventurers story has ended up better than a number of actual RPGs that I’ve finished.

    David Willis, however, has far more on his plate than even Mark Shallow. “It’s Walky” has more loose ends to tie up than I can even begin to mention, and Willis has been doing so perfectly up to this point. While closing many of the doors and answering questions, Willis manages to always prompt more. While Its Walky has run, he’s even managed to visit and check in on all of the major characters from “Roomies” and bring some closure to their stories as well (In fact, the only roomie on the cast page who hasn’t been given a solid ending is Howard). It has already been announced that the next project will include “some of our favorite characters” who don’t have a lot of story to them yet… which of course, has left the forums full of guesses. While its too early to truly tell if It’s Walky will have an “ending” or an “end” as put in the article, the comic and its story have only been improving since when I first started reading. As much as I hate the idea of losing my favorite comic, if anyone can pull off an ending good enough to fit the comic, its willis.

    I’ve never much liked newspaper comics myself, but I never really read them in their heyday. Calvin and Hobbes had already been granted its new sunday format long before I began reading, and for the longest time it was the only comic I cared for. It seems that most available strips that are available hit the forever trap long ago (Garfield, anyone?) and my newspaper doesn’t even offer serial strips anymore. The further starilization with such a wide demographic and commercialization, combined with small space, has simply made me stop reading newspaper comics. Show me a comic that measures up to any on keenspot in newspapers (dilbert and non sequitor are possible exceptions)… its just not there. It appears that the age of newspaper comics has hit its end… we can only hope that our beloved webcomics don’t suffer a similar fate.

  21. A lot of webcomics have a newspaper comic strip format, or were inspired by the best in the same genre. These, and their cousins the comic books, are typical in the sense that they never end. They just keep going and going until they are no longer popular or the creator dies. Very little webcomics are conceived with a defined life spam. Hell, very few webcomics last or have lasted beyond a few years, mostly because they don’t turn in money, and the cartoonists find themselves no longer able to do them in addition of a job.

    What I see happening a lot is that webcomic creators are mostly very young, often in his 20’s, drawing through high school or college. And what happens is that they outgrow their own comics. That is, their interests and view of life change in a few years, and they no longer feel part of their comic, it’s no longer inspiring or related to them. I think something similar happened to Josh of Avalon… he outgrew his comic. He’s out of college now, and high school seems very far away. Or maybe the explanation is something else. This also happened to Strings of Fate.

    Bobbins didn’t necessarily make a comeback in SGR, I think SGR is a very different comic, and while the characters are returning, the tone is different. I think that some creators get tired of their characters or their comics and end them, and later they realize they miss them, or they make a natural return. You never know how you’re gonna react to the ending of your own comic. Some people close definitely the chapters, some others have to go back.


  22. I have read that Johnston will not renew her contract when it ends in 2007, and then the strip will end. It almost seems to soon, but I guess it’s better to end when the strip is still strong.

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