What is a cliffhanger.

August 25th, 2010 by | Tags: , ,

A little while ago, I posted an entry about my decision to temporarily drop the Birds of Prey comic, due to a cliffhanger plot element.  Last month, after an epic separation of one issue, I jumped right back on board, and I’m eagerly awaiting the next issue due to a different cliffhanger.  At scans_daily, and in conversations with other comics people, I noticed that many people felt the same.

Tastes differ, and what makes me sit up and take notice of a comic is going to make another person throw it across the room.  But the conversations got me thinking about how cliffhangers work, and what separates the good from the bad.

In theory, almost every comic book out there ends on a cliffhanger.  Every last page in a storyline contains a new element, introduced to leave readers on edge and waiting for the next issue.  Even the conclusions of most storylines tease us with a new story to come.  It’s to be expected.

But how often are we actually on edge?  I would argue that not one ‘Return of Bruce Wayne’ story left us in even the slightest bit of suspense.  I have to admit I actually snickered at the last one, in which Bruce is shot and left bleeding in the street.  They’re not going to kill off Batman.  Add to that regular cons, creator interviews, previews, and the occasional spoiler in the teaser blurbs, released three months ahead, and death isn’t much of a spoiler one way or another.  It doesn’t shock us.  We saw it coming.  Often there were enough blogs about it months before it happened that it’s old news by the time the pages hit the stores.

The same is true for almost every major plot element.  If it’s important to continuity, both it and its consequences are out by the time we see it.  The only way to really keep us in suspense is by making us wonder about something not big enough or continuity-heavy enough to be mentioned in the solicits.  That’s one element of a cliffhanger.

The other, most important part of a cliffhanger, is it makes us want to hang on.  You won’t be hanging on to a cliff if what happens if you pull yourself up is less pleasing than what happens if you let go.  This is my major beef with character death.  It’s technically a cliffhanger, as in it is something unexpected happening with major consequences to come in the next book, but it never makes me want to do anything but walk away.  It’s overdone, depressing, repulsive and makes me want to pull back from the book and comics – which is everything a cliffhanger shouldn’t be.

Now, if say, two minor characters, one of whom truly loved the other, finally had their feeling revealed after years and years of silence, and because of their second-tier status in the book the result could go either way, and no matter what it’s guaranteed to be a mix of funny and sweet and sad – that’s a damn good cliffhanger.  Speaking of, who else is looking forward to Birds of Prey #5?

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3 comments to “What is a cliffhanger.”

  1. The Walking Dead gets me every time.

  2. I don’t think it’s quite fair to blame the publishers for the ecosystem that’s grown up around comics. If a cliffhanger can’t be a cliffhanger because you read about it on a third party blog a month prior, what options does the publisher have?

    Sue the bloggers? Even if it were effective, the negative PR is worse than the lack of cliffhangers.

    Jealously guard the secrecy of their future plots, a la Apple? Again, good luck pulling that off 100%. Efforts would just re-double to get the “scoop.”

    Change the plots last minute after they’ve been spoiled? Not really possible given art requirements and the nature of the industry.

    Quit writing cliffhangers? Hardly an ideal solution, especially given that a large portion of their audience is NOT being spoiled by online blogs, or doesn’t mind if they are.

    Only write cliffhangers for second tier characters, as you propose? Meh. That’s pretty lackluster. Not to mention, what happens when a second tier character becomes popular enough to move up a tier?

    It’s a pretty untenable situation from the publisher’s perspective, and the most effective solution is just what they’ve been doing: keep moving forward, and the folks online reading the blogs with spoilers will just have to be disappointed.

    All that said, I completely agree about the over-use of character death (both real and faked for cliffhanger suspense). Not that it’s a terrible technique inherently, but it has lost effectiveness from commonality.

  3. What if you were reading a comic that wasn’t starring some major trademark? I think that the rule about characters dying only really applies to the upper tier properties, but in a mid-list book, anything goes, which means that character death/drastic changes are a very real possibility.