Sunday, April 30, 2006

On Nonendings: My Collection of Mini-Apocalypses, from Daytime Soaps to DC’s Infinite Crises

I am obsessed with endings.

When I was in junior high, I used to tape Days of Our Lives on our new VCR and watch it after school. Usually, the show ended in the way that all soaps of the time ended: a close-up on someone’s face, swelling background music, fade-to-black. Then the famous Days hourglass sitting in a Daliesque nowhere of blue sky and clouds would come on, the music would change abruptly to the show’s antique theme song, and the full credits would roll for a couple of minutes. The end.

But there was a brief period back then, in the mid-eighties, when every once in awhile, a particularly dramatic episode of the show would end with the special freeze-frame treatment. Rather than the usual fade-to-black, the final close-up would freeze as the music continued uninterrupted in the background. That frozen frame would command the screen for a few long seconds and then, with exquisite slowness, the words “Days of Our Lives” would materialize in yellow, superimposed over the stilled image. As the music played, the words would crawl up the screen and a small pyramid of text would come into view: A Corday Pictures Presentation in Association with… Then the screen would cut to the Columbia Pictures Television lady, her torch throwing off stylized radiance, and the show would be over.

Even more rarely—and these were the endings I really waited for—the scrolling text over the frozen frame would be longer and more elaborate. These longer versions generally included a complete run-down of the executive producers, writers, and director, always ending with the technical director (J. C. Reilly? Tim O’Neil?). More rarely still, the full credits—including the actors—would roll over that frozen image, extending its life to as long as 60 or 90 seconds. And then, finally, that center-justified pyramid of text. And then the Columbia Pictures lady. The end.

Because they were on tape, I could collect them, recording over each show that finished with one of the standard, unsatisfying, fade-to-blacks, until I had a tape of six full-length episodes that all concluded with the freeze-frame fanfare that had become a sort of weird adolescent fetish for me. Needless to say, I would rewind these ornate, absurdly overproduced endings and watch them over and over. There was something inexpressibly thrilling about that precise moment when Victor Kiriakis would throw his snifter of brandy into the fireplace, grind his teeth in frustration, look just to the left of the camera…and freeze. Or when his old lover, matriarch and fishmonger Caroline Brady, would reach into her purse, retrieve a pistol, cock it, preparing to shoot him…and freeze. The arrested image, set to that twanging, sinister background music that every Days of Our Lives fan of that era will remember. The slow crawl of yellow text up the screen. Death. But also a strange reprieve in those few lingering moments of sound and movement. Only then the lady. The torch. The end.

The glass shattering in the fireplace. The gun emerging from the purse. Freeze it, but keep playing.

Oh, and tune in tomorrow.

Endings that are not really endings so much as deferrals of an ending—and the promise of another beginning. Endings that tell us something important about the nature of all endings: that they are provisional, fictitious, arbitrary, ultimately illusory. The image freezes, but the music keeps playing, the text keeps rolling, like a ghost-image of the narrative movement that’s just been stopped. Anticipations of the movement that will resume tomorrow or next week. In short: nonendings.

The American deconstructionist critic J. Hillis Miller describes something very much like a nonending when he writes about the strange, contradictory way in which endings have conventionally been conceptualized by novelists and critics as both a “tying up” of the plot’s “loose threads” and, conversely, as a denouement (literally the “untying of a knot”). Here’s Miller on the paradox of endings—on how all endings, it seems, are always (or at least always potentially) nonendings:

The aporia of ending arises from the fact that it is impossible ever to tell whether a given narrative is complete. If the ending is thought of as a tying up in a careful knot, this knot could always be untied again by the narrator or by future events, disentangled or explicated again. If the ending is thought of as an unraveling, a straightening of threads, this act clearly leaves not one loose thread but a multitude, side by side, all capable of being knotted once more. If marriage, the tying of the marriage bond, is a cessation of the story, it is also the beginning of another cycle in the endless sequence of generations. “Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending,” says George Eliot in Middlemarch. Death, seemingly a definitive end, always leaves behind some musing or bewildered survivor, reader of the inscription on a gravestone, as in Wordsworth’s “The Boy of Winander,” or in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, or in that mute contemplation of a distant black flag, sign of Tess’s execution, by Angel Clare and ‘Liza-Lu at the end of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Death is the most enigmatic, the most open-ended ending of all. It is the best dramatization of the way an ending, in the sense of a clarifying telos, law or ground of the whole story, always recedes, escapes, vanishes. The best one can have, writer or reader, is what Frank Kermode, in his admirable phrase, calls “the sense of an ending.”

Knotted, unknotted—there is no way to decide between these images. The novelist and the critic of novels needs them both at once, in an interminable oscillation.
Of course, Miller is writing about the novel, a genre whose materiality—it is literally an object you hold in your hands—requires an ending. But when he speaks of how the endings of novels can be re-opened or “untied” (as they often are by later writers who pick up the story where the original novel leaves off), and when he explains how the persistence of survivor-witnesses to a dead protagonist or the implied future children of the hero and heroine undermine the very sense of closure that such conventional endings are meant to produce, Miller is also describing a structure of nonending that serial genres like soap operas and comic books explicitly cultivate and literally embody as a matter of course. Miller is describing, in other words, a very specific form of narrative pleasure to which soap and comic fans are drawn (literally) over and over again. Nonendings: “endings” suspended between knotting and unknotting, raveling and unraveling, freeze-frame and moving text, image and music. Apocalypses—in a minor key.

Most mainstream comics exploit the nonending in some fashion. But comic book crisis-narratives are nonendings writ large. They thematize nonendings in stories that promise both endings and beginnings. That is, they promise apocalypse in the strictest sense—not simply the end of the world (as popular usage would have it) but a “revelation,” an “unveiling,” an ending that is not really an ending so much as a cosmic rebooting: the dawn of a new age. And in comics, there isn’t ever just one apocalypse but infinite apocalypses, infinite crises.

That stunning moment in Watchmen #12 when Dr. Manhattan contradicts Adrian Veidt’s pathetic Ozymandian claim that “It all worked out in the end” by reminding him that “nothing ever ends” summed up my early sense of what I loved about apocalyptic nonendings but also about the medium itself.

No wonder I’m relishing DC’s latest mini-apocalypse so thoroughly.

The first Crisis was literally an apocalypse. “Worlds will die!” the adverts screamed. And they did, giving birth to a new earth in the process—the perfect nonending. The fact that Marv, George, and Jerry’s original nonending produced a passel of messy historical paradoxes and temporal hiccups hardly mattered—was, in fact, part of the fun. The sense of a nonending (to bastardize Frank Kermode, who also wrote famously about the relation between fictional endings and apocalypse) requires precisely these sorts of narrative incompletions and inconsistencies to produce its unique effect of nonclosure. That the current Crisis actually unravels the fairy-tale “ending” of the first Crisis to weave its own narrative is a beautiful development of the original story’s own peculiar status as an ending/beginning.

For connoisseurs of nonendings like yours truly, the current Crisis is turning out to be not just a banquet but a multicourse meal in a five star restaurant and—fittingly—it isn’t even over yet. Cynics will sneer that I’m just a victim of clever marketing (guilty!), but the infinite spinoffs of the current Crisis tap into something genuine at the core of the medium itself: the awesome sense of suspension—literally a kind of acute breathlessness—that inheres in the masterfully orchestrated, infinitely deferred nonending that is comic book seriality.

Even just on its own, Infinite Crisis is turning out to be an immensely satisfying (or should that be deliberately dissatisfying?) nonending. On the one hand, it is a bang-up resolution of the Countdown that has been going on both in the official pre-Crisis minis and in most of DC’s regular books for (in some cases) the past couple of years. Revelations, catastrophes, dramatic deaths, and heroic sacrifices—a tying up of many colored threads. On the other hand, when issue #7 hits comic stores this week, there will undoubtedly be many loose threads that are not tied off very tightly, or at all, and many more that will have been deliberately “straightened” or “unraveled,” leaving “not one loose thread but a multitude, side by side, all capable of being knotted once more,” as J. Hillis Miller so eloquently put it.

In a sense, Infinite Crisis has been a massive unknotting of the DCU, an untying and straightening of the violently tied knots of continuity of the past twenty years. A narrative process that is one of untangling rather than of tying up, a process designed to restore the possibility of future knots, perhaps more delicately tied. I am thinking mainly of Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman—a braided knot that has proven especially challenging to storytellers in the past decade or so. Crisis is in a sense rebooting these characters without actually retconning them—a process that is nicely described, I think, by the metaphor of untying. (Untying a knot preserves the stresses and strains on the thread from that original knot, while making it possible to tie off new knots using the same thread. This method of untying and reknotting has become the specialty of Geoff Johns, the DC boy-scout and master continuity-synthesizer who has become famous for rejuvenating characters without erasing old stories.)

The status of Infinite Crisis as nonending—a story that ties and unties in the same gesture—is beautifully illustrated by its ironic treatment of the apocalyptic theme of a dying multiverse from the original Crisis on Infinite Earths. That first Crisis, as I mentioned before, was a nonending too. But it took the idea of dying worlds more seriously than the current series does. What we have in Infinite Crisis is a set of mock-endings and virtual apocalypses in which Alexander Luther destroys worlds that have been custom-made for the story and for all intents and purposes never “really” existed in any fan’s heart, clever though many of them are. (By the way, WTF is going on on Earth-154??) The simulation of apocalypse in its more conventional end-of-the-world sense is a suggestive symbol for the series as a whole, for a simulated apocalypse in its conventional sense is just another form of nonending: an ending that does not really signify a conclusion (or tragedy) at all since, from the perspective of reader-affect, nothing has “really” happened. So, when Alex Luther smashes together earths from the newly splintered multiverse in his “Petri dish” in search of the perfect earth, all we can do is shrug because we know the story is going to continue, just as the ending that Crisis will provide to two-years worth of great DC stories will not really be an ending either.

So, yeah. I’m digging Infinite Crisis.

But the really crazy thing about the nonending of Crisis is that it sets the stage for the unbelievable genius of One Year Later and 52. If One Year Later is indeed a new beginning for DC (and what a brilliant beginning—to start in medias res), then 52 must be the nonending that precipitates it. I honestly can’t remember when I’ve been this excited about mainstream comics, and this is why: with 52, Johns and Co. have engineered a nonending on a more massive scale than has ever been seen in mainstream comics. This is that rarest of rarities: the Days of Our Lives freeze-frame ending where the credits just scroll on and on and on. Sixty seconds, ninety seconds, two weeks, two months, three months, a year… The ending that defers its own end—infinitely. (Well, almost!)

52 is going to be an irresistible event, not simply because of its wonderful gimmick or because of the talent behind it, but because it literalizes and extends the structural principle of the nonending that most comic readers love. Moreover, by releasing One Year Later and 52 simultaneously, DC allows us to enjoy beginnings and endings simultaneously at another level as well—giving DC fans a sort of composite, line-wide experience of nonending produced by the time lag between 52 and its regular books.

Are all of DC’s OYL books unqualified creative successes? No—but many are spectacular and in some cases it’s premature to judge. I’ll put in my two cents about some of the ones I’m reading and enjoying in a future post. Will 52 be a mainstream masterpiece of pulpy goodness? I certainly hope so. But even if it stumbles, it’s a thrilling experiment. For me, nonendings are the most sublime feature of “high” and “popular” art alike, and we’re all about to start reading one of the most ambitious nonendings in comic book history. This is what the medium was made for.