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, naÃ¯ve 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 â€“ whom he now felt were conservatives â€“ 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.
"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 â€“ or another Watterson creation â€“ 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 â€“ 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 â€“ 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 â€“ 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.