In my last article, I discussed how Watchmen #2 was successful as an individual comic book issue by satisfying the reader with a complete chunk of story. In essence, though part of a series, Watchmen #2 was also a story unto itself, with its own resolution, and yet still leaving a question open for the reader to continue the series. It was a complete story.
But if this is true, then what exactly is a complete story?
While we certainly feel a sense of satisfaction from the likes of Watchmen #2, to define what a “complete story” is will require a bit more digging. Criteria must be established for a story to qualify as “complete.”
While this type of a definition could be debated endlessly, for the purposes of this discussion, let’s limit the definition to two main criteria. First, that the story have a beginning, middle, and end. Second, that these three parts of the story flow logically into one another.
Put together, these criteria mean that a complete story must have a beginning whose events lead to a middle portion, whose events then build towards an ending. All three portions of the story are linked together by what happens, and therefore, the ending of the story must ultimately be logically connected to its beginning.
This doesn’t mean that the story has to be predictable – just that it has to make sense. If an ending does not logically derive from its beginning, it is commonly called a deus ex machina. Tvtropes.org gives a most wonderful definition of this term:
“The term is Latin for god out of the machine, and has its origins in Greek theater. It refers to situations in which a crane (machine) was used to lower actors or statues playing a god or gods (deus) onto the stage to set things right, often near the end of the play. It has since come to be used as a general term for any event in which a seemingly fatal plot twist is resolved by an event never foreshadowed or set up.”
For example, if at the end of the Spiderman movie during the deadly battle between Spiderman and the Green Goblin, Captain America showed up and knocked the Goblin out of the sky, that would be a deus ex machina. It would also be very anticlimactic and unsatisfying, as nowhere in the story’s beginning or middle portions was Captain America mentioned, set up, or involved.
Fortunately, breaking the first criteria of the two is much easier to explain. Quite obviously, if a story lacks any of the three constituent parts, it will not be very engaging. If it has no beginning, the audience is lost. If it has no middle, the story makes awkward jumps to a conclusion. If it has no ending, the audience will be left hanging.
However, it is important to note the difference between a story without an ending, and a story with a cliffhanger ending. Cliffhanger endings leave the main conflict still in question, but always involve some sort of resolution beforehand. This resolution is often the solving of one problem, only to reveal a second, more deadly problem, which the next installment of the story promises to tackle. A story that simply stops before any resolution isn’t a cliffhanger, it’s just incomplete.
1. The Test Subject
So, with our definition in place, we can now turn to our subject of analysis. We’ll be examining a recent release, Diablo #1, from writer Aaron Williams and artist Joseph Lacroix. Diablo #1 is a fairly average comic, somewhat enjoyable, and generally indicative of the type of storytelling and structure used in most modern comics today.
To understand whether or not Diablo #1 meets our criteria of a complete story, we’ll do a quick rundown of the various scenes in the book, what information these scenes give us, and how they relate to the scenes preceding. This should give us a healthy understanding of how Diablo #1 is structured, and then we can see how it measures up.
2. Breaking it Down
There are six scenes in Diablo #1. The first is a prologue, in which an old beggar tells the abbreviated history of the story’s world, known as Sanctuary. This sort of backstory is not always the best way to begin a tale, but it’s done passably.
Fortunately, the story moves on quickly, introducing our protagonist, Jacob. Having listened to the old man’s tale, Jacob is shocked when the beggar grabs him by the cloak and draws him close. The old man reveals himself as a seer, and counsels Jacob to travel northwest until he finds a great mountain. He further cautions that any delay will be his death, as the young man is being hunted by powerful warriors.
Jacob abruptly pushes the beggar off, walking away and pulling his hood over his eyes. He already knew he was being followed, and he doesn’t believe the old man’s blabbering. However, he happens to be traveling northwest anyway. This is a strange coincidence, but not entirely unbelievable.
As Jacob sulks away, the old man reveals that he’s not just a seer – he’s a pickpocket! And he’s pilfered Jacob’s sword. With Jacob defenseless and hounded, scene one ends and night falls.
In scene two, the old beggar runs to a junk dealer, trying to sell the sword for some coin. Unfortunately for him, the hunters who are after Jacob have discovered him, recognizing the sword. The leader of the hunters, Ivan, interrogates the old man for the direction Jacob left in, and then slays the beggar with Jacob’s stolen sword.
This is a strange turn of events. There doesn’t seem to be much point to it, other than to show that Ivan is ruthless. But even this seems questionable, as both the interrogation and the killing of the old man happen off panel! We only see that Ivan finds the old man, and then he abruptly emerges from the tent to tell his compatriot that “he knows which way he went,” wiping his bloody sword on the entryway.
It’s an oddly organized scene. If it is not for the ruthlessness of Ivan, then it merely serves to show the reader that Ivan and the hunters are on Jacob’s trail. But we already know that! The scene remains ambiguous.
Regrettably, scene three is no better. We return to Jacob, stumbling across the desert, muttering to himself about how he should never have trusted the old man. And yet, just a few pages back, he was saying to himself how he didn’t believe the old man’s words, and was just traveling that way by coincidence. Even more perplexingly, Jacob still has his sword! There it is, strapped to his belt. Did he have two? Why? Did he not notice that the second one is gone?
All good questions. None of them are answered.
And yet, there it is! The mountain the old seer spoke of. As Jacob approaches the mountain, he finds a running stream of water to quench his thirst, apparently orchestrated by a mysterious female figure in dark armor. She appears at the top of the stream, Jacob acknowledges her presence, and then she promptly vanishes. Jacob forgets her completely after the next panel, and she never appears at any other point in the issue.
What is her purpose? Why is she there? Is she real or just a mirage? Even if we are meant to ask these questions, if she is important, she ought to be more than a two panel affair.
But the story just keeps on chugging, with Jacob finding a large sword inside the mountain, surrounded by beams of light. As he approaches the sword, he notices elaborate carvings into the stone walls, which seem to depict his own past.
Here, the scene ends, and we are thrust into a flashback from Jacob’s childhood. Jacob’s home is under attack by Barbarians. Only boys at this time, Jacob and his friend Ivan – the very same one who now pursues him – bravely venture forth into battle with the invading Barbarians.
Ivan rushes into conflict with a large Barbarian Chieftain, who knocks him down and prepares to kill him. Jacob stands in the way, declaring that he is heir to the Constable of Staalbreak, and that Ivan is under his protection. The massive Barbarian laughs, raising his axe to kill the boy. But before we see what happens, the scene cuts to after the battle. Jacob’s father, the Constable, is searching the field, and he finds his son and Ivan, both of them unscathed. When he chastises Jacob for not obeying him and staying inside the walls, Jacob protests, asking how he can fulfill his oath to protect the people if he does not lead them in battle.
The scene has shown that Jacob is clearly of noble blood, or at least of ruling blood. And yet, the flashback ends without any mention as to how the Barbarian chieftain was defeated. Did Jacob kill him? How? We don’t even see his body.
What’s more, what does all this matter? Previously, some words exchanged between the old man and Jacob in scene one hinted at a political conflict between the Barbarians and Jacob’s people. While the old man lauded the Barbarians of the North in his story as great protectors of the Worldstone Keep, Jacob commented that they were merely ruthless oppressors.
It’s the only link between this flashback and the present, other than the character of Ivan. Of course, Ivan only speaks a few times, revealing no character beyond brashness – which does not inform or even relate to the present situation at all. So why is this flashback here?
The question remains unanswered as time shifts back to the present for scene five. But this only lasts three panels, and then the scene jumps into another flashback. This time Jacob is a young man, looking to be in his adolescence. The scene depicts Jacob’s father, ordering the execution of his own wife – Jacob’s mother.
Somehow, between the time of the first flashback and the second, Jacob’s father has gone mad. He beats Jacob when he talks back to him, and beheads his own wife for nebulous accusations of ‘treason’. This is easily the most riveting sequence in the book, as it sets up a powerful conflict. What would make a man execute his own wife on ungrounded suspicion? It’s an interesting question to be sure. This scene is also the climax of the book, as it is the highest tension scene occurring near the end.
No reason is given as to why Jacob’s mother is being executed. She mentions to Jacob that she is actually from the Barbarian culture – her marriage to the Constable was used to seal a peace treaty. Since hostilities have erupted once more, Jacob’s father has her summarily executed, on what appears to be no grounds at all.
This is yet another unanswered question, but for once this makes sense, as it’s clear that Jacob also doesn’t know why his mother was executed, and feels intense anger over it.
The final scene is a third flashback, lasting only a page and a half, in which Jacob confronts his father. His father justifies his actions with nebulous rhetoric about duty to his people, but Jacob protests his mother’s innocence. The issue ends as Jacob’s father readies his blade, announcing that even his son should be condemned in the name of the law. In the reflection of the Constable’s sword, we see that Jacob also draws a blade.
And we still don’t know about what the sword inside the mountain is, why the political conflict matters, why Ivan is now pursing the friend who saved his life, or even why Jacob ran away in the first place. One might surmise that as he is alive, he killed his father and thus had to flee the country, but we don’t really know – maybe he lost and was exiled.
3. The Core Problem
So, Diablo #1 is fraught with confusing scenes, too many flashbacks, and so many false starts and unanswered questions that it’s a jumble to read. But all these problems actually stem from just one source – one fundamental problem that if remedied, would pull the issue together.
That problem is that Diablo #1 is two stories.
There is the story of Jacob on the run, pursued by Ivan the Hunter, and told to seek out a great mountain by a crazy seer. Though initially unwilling, he finds the mountain, the sword within, and then… Well, we don’t know.
There is also the story of Jacob the young man, trying to realize his familial obligations as a prince, but thwarted by his father at every turn, until political conflicts drive his father to execute his own wife. Thereafter, Jacob confronts his father and… Again, we don’t know.
Now remember our definition of a complete story. Beginning, middle, and end, with a logical progression from each part to the next. Diablo #1 has two stories, both with a beginning and a middle, but no end! Each time a possible resolution appears to come, the storyline ends! Upon finding the sword, we are suddenly thrust into another storyline. Upon confronting his father, the comic book ends!
This means that while Diablo #1 doesn’t have a deus ex machina, its ending still does not logically follow from its beginning. The comic actually ends in the middle of a different story than the story it began with!
It’s not a cliffhanger ending either. There is not a main resolution, and the main conflict does not continue with a larger problem. The ending of the book does not even fully show why Jacob is on the run. It doesn’t set up a new problem, nor does it resolve the original problem, that of Jacob’s relationship with his father.
In truth, there’s no doubt that these two storylines are intrinsically connected later on in the overall scheme. But this makes no difference to the reader of Diablo #1, because this chunk of the story is not satisfying or engaging, it’s only confusing.
Fortunately, fixing this problem is quite simple. All that would need to be done is to pick one of the storylines and have it fill the entire issue. Due to the time dedicated to the second storyline, or that of Jacob’s childhood and his mother’s death, it seems the natural choice. If we need to understand all the political conflicts and personal history of Jacob to understand the story, then simply start with that information!
Not only would this be more satisfying, it would also allow for many questions left unanswered and characters left undeveloped to be fulfilled. We could learn more about Ivan, properly chronicle Jacob’s father’s descent into madness, understand Jacob’s mother a bit more, and even figure out what the hell happened on that battlefield when Jacob and Ivan fought the giant Barbarian Chieftain.
Thus, with our understanding of the world and the characters established, and our sympathies resting with the exiled heir whose father slew his own wife, the story could smoothly transition into issue #2, as Jacob is on the run, pursued by an old friend…
Diablo #1 is unfortunately not the only comic with this problem. In fact, its structure is nearly emblematic of the majority of the comics on the shelves these days! Very often, issues will have multiple storylines running simultaneously, with no ending for any of them in sight until the final issue of that story arc. This isn’t an effective tactic for holding audience interest, in fact just the opposite. Its only effect is to deter any neophyte reader from enjoying the story.
All prospective readers open a book, whether comic or prose, expecting a complete story. A beginning, a middle, and an end. The author needs to fulfill that expectation. If done so, it is the surest hook to keep the reader returning for future issues. Not even the most clever cliffhanger can match the power of a complete and satisfying story.