Sunday, March 12, 2006

Cronin Theory of Comics - Last Page Turns Should Be Used Fairly

I don't mind surprises in comics. I don't mind "twists" either. One thing that I do dislike, and what I think should be avoided in comics is the use of the last page turn "shocker," where the last page exists strictly to shock you, not to service the story.

These "shockers," which often get referred to as cliffhangers, seem to me to be one of the lazier writing tricks, and I think it should be dissuaded. I don't mind having a reveal or anything like that at the end of the issue, but just so long as the ending is fairly played.

Brian K. Vaughan (a fine writer) always used to be a big proponent of what I call last page turn shockers. By "last page turn," I mean, of course, the hidden last page of a comic, which is often placed so that the last page and the second-to-last page are not visible at the same time, so that the last page is a secret until you turn that last page. Vaughan once gave an interview where he remarked, after being asked "You've got a rep for kick-ass cliffhangers. Do they come easy or with much gnashing of teeth?" "Thanks. I think good cliffhangers are easy to write, actually." I totally agree with Vaughan, at least in regards to the type of "cliffhangers" he was known for at the time. When you just have some random event occur at the end of the issue, not tied to the plot of the story, it IS easy to write, because you don't have to build up to it, and you still get the "shock" effect that you would get if you had spent time building up to a reveal.

A perfect (or imperfect, as it were) example of this style of last page turn shockers is Geoff Johns. How many times in a Geoff Johns comic did a random character just pop up dramatically at the end of an issue, even if they were not referenced up until that point? He uses the device frequently (most recently, the Flash storyline where it seemed like a different person was dramatically popping out of time every issue), and I think it is far too much of a creative shortcut.

You can have effective cliffhangers and surprises while following the foundation you laid out in the story. It may take a little more work, admittedly, but it CAN be done. You CAN shock people by playing fairly with the last page turn.

In fact, since those early days of his (in my opinion) fairly cheap shock endings, Vaughan has pretty much completely gone away from that style of storytelling. For instance, when the traitor in Runaways was revealed on a last page spread, I think that was a fair use of the last page shocker, because Vaughan had laid the foundation for the traitor for issues, so the reveal was a culmination of that groundwork, it was a shock based upon the story. Likewise, in a recent issue of Y, Vaughan had a "twist" at the end of an issue where he reveals what the letter Yorick had Hero give to Beth said. Again, Vaughan laid the groundwork in the issue by A. Showing the letter and B. Establishing that Beth was hiding what the letter actually said, so while the reveal at the end changed the way the story was seen, and was a surprise, it was built into the story - not an "out of story" shocker for the sake of shocking.

That's all I want, writers to play fair with their stories.

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Blogger T. said...

Just a little criticism for this article: I was really intrigued by your point about cheap shock endings. Plus it criticized Geoff Johns' writing, which always makes an article good for me. But when you set up examples of bad shock endings, I assumed you were going to add an example of the right way to do one. You even mention how it's possible, but you never show us an example.

Can anyone think of one?

3/13/2006 01:09:00 AM  
Anonymous Harpo said...

Not specifically because it's very late and I'm very tired and still have a lot of work to do so I can't go look up a specific example, but it seems like I remember "The Walking Dead" having some "good" last pages turns.

Word verification "Ebfgzuhq" - wasn't he the third demon brother from those early Justice League stories?

3/13/2006 02:12:00 AM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

Fair point, T.

I'll edit one in.

3/13/2006 04:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Waaza said...

I hadn't thought of Johns as being one of those kinds of cliffhanger-writers until you mentioned him, but, won't he be remembered for the shock ending of this era? Superman E2, that is, breaking through the fourth wall.

3/13/2006 08:16:00 AM  
Blogger Bill Reed said...

If anything about Infinite Crisis is remembered, let us hope that it's "God, what a colossal waste of time."

3/13/2006 09:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about Bendis? Sometimes I think he invented the cliffhanger.


3/13/2006 11:15:00 AM  
Anonymous Steven said...

I don't mind last page reveals where a character pops up randomly. To me, that feels like an ad for the next issue:

"Next Month, Prepare for the Attack of Superboy Prime!"

Sure, it's using a page of art instead of a text box in the lower corner, but in a multi-part or on-going story, that's good writing.

Personally, I dislike the Cover Promise/Last Page Reveal combo.

"In this issue, you won't believe who attacks our hero!"

And then, say, Kobra shows up on the last page.

Not only does the blurb giveaway the surprise, but it also falsely says the attack happens in this issue as opposed to the next.

3/13/2006 12:34:00 PM  
Blogger Melanism said...

I'm pretty convinced Grant Morrison's entire X-men run was written last page first but I still loved it (The Xorn/Magneto reveal being the best of the bunch)

I'm not totally against last page shockers as long as, as you note Vaughn does, you can go back and see how we got to that page.

3/13/2006 01:13:00 PM  
Blogger Jake said...

Kirkman uses the last page shocker almost every issue of Walking Dead, but I think it works pretty well. Often it comes out of the blue (i.e. the last issue ending with "Hey... is that a helicopter?"), but what's interesting is that when you read the stories collected in a trade, it's difficult to tell where one issue ended and another began because the first page of the next issue picks up seamlessly from the last page of the previous. Therefore, the last page shockers wind up reading more as natural plot points.

3/13/2006 03:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm just curious, did this get posted Sunday night in response to the end of the season opener of the Sopranos? It was the first episode in 5 seasons + 1 episode to actually have a genuine cliffhanger ending. And while is was kind of weird, it was not out of nowhere. The whole episode was showing how comfortable Carmella was getting with the status quo, and how Tony was still harping on how you can only count on blood relative. Just before a blood relative causes him a world of pain and trouble, and overturns the status quo.

3/13/2006 04:06:00 PM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...


I forgot Sopranos was on!!

I am TIVOing it now...hehe.

3/14/2006 02:24:00 AM  
Blogger ninjawookie said...

so i take it the cliffhanger comics imprint wasn't your bag? :P

3/14/2006 06:14:00 AM  
Blogger David C said...

A good example of the "right way," I think, was the ending of Thunderbolts #1, which really was completely unexpected at the time.

3/15/2006 11:08:00 AM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

Agreed, David C.

That ending played by the rules totally, while still being a big shock.

3/15/2006 01:06:00 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Now that it's out, Brian, would you say Runaways 14 is a fair use of the last page turn?

3/16/2006 08:40:00 PM  
Blogger kelvingreen said...

A perfect (or imperfect, as it were) example of this style of last page turn shockers is Geoff Johns.
Oh look! It's Old Superman!

Oh look! It's Earth-2!

Oh look! It's Superboy With Braclets!

No, I don't see where you're coming from there... ;)

Yeah, this has been annoying me for a while now, as a lot of writers seem to be using it as a crutch to pull the reader along, rather than attempting to make it a meaningful twist. But I'll also nominate Kirkman as a writer who knows how to do them well, particularly in the aforementioned Walking Dead.

3/17/2006 06:07:00 PM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

"Now that it's out, Brian, would you say Runaways 14 is a fair use of the last page turn?"


Vaughan established that they were trying to bring Alex back from some point in the past, however, something went wrong in their casting of the spell, so at that point, Vaughan could have fairly, in my mind, brought back pretty much anyone he wanted to from the past at that point.

3/19/2006 05:52:00 AM  
Blogger Angela Dixon said...

You got a really useful blog and I really your style of writing. Keep it up

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