Heroes Never Rust #94 by Sean Ironman
Endings are difficult. Do you leave the story open-ended? Do you lead into another story? Do you connect the story back to the beginning? Do you have an epilogue? There are a lot of questions and no answers. Ambiguous endings work from time to time, but so do endings that give a definite end to the characters. There is no one right way to tell a story, and there is no one right way to end a story. Watchmen’s final issue opens with six splash pages showing the destruction that Ozymandias has caused in New York city. There is a bit of a scuffle back at Ozymandias’ secret base as Silk Spectre and Doctor Manhattan get in on the fight. But, for the most part, the superheroics of typical superhero comics are not found here. Watchmen’s ending works well because the last third of the issue deals with Ozymandias potentially being right.
The problem with many endings is that they become too simple. This is especially true with superhero stories, which usually end with the hero and the villain punching each other until the villain either dies or gives up. The writer tries to wrap up the story, so the story gets stripped down. But, Watchmen goes in the opposite direction—it gets more complicated in the final chapter. There’s a light scuffle in the first half, but then news stories come in on Ozymandias’ many TVs. People are scared that there is an alien presence threatening Earth. The United States and Russia begin to talk about peace. What’s the point of countries waging war only to be destroyed by aliens? Russia and the United States come together, and nuclear Armageddon is averted. Ozymandias’ plan worked. Instead of going with the easier ending of Doctor Manhattan coming in and crushing Ozymandias and the world finding out about Ozymandias’ actions, the comic pushes into unknown territory. Was Ozymandias right? Are the heroes still heroes for lying to the world? And who does watch the watchmen? It seems that in many superhero stories, if not many action/adventure stories, once the climax occurs, the story simplifies. Watchmen succeeds because the final issue furthers the themes and leaves the reader with something to think about.
There seems to be a lot of focus on happy or sad endings. But, to me, a good ending is neither. To me, the ending is the lost shot at making your story memorable. Some readers might prefer a happy ending, and other readers might prefer a sad one, but if the ending is complex and leaves the reader not knowing how he or she feels, then the story will be one the reader needs to think about. If the ending is totally satisfying, then the reader just continues on with his or her life. In Watchmen, Rorschach is killed, Doctor Manhattan leaves Earth, Ozymandias continues on, and Night Owl and Silk Spectre are in a relationship and talk about continuing adventuring. There are a lot of questions and what ifs to play with the ending, allowing readers to continue the story in their own heads. The final sequence involves Rorschach’s journal, which he mailed before confronting Ozymandias, possibly being chosen by the young newspaper intern, Seymour, for some filler. The beauty of this sequence is that Moore and Gibbons do not show Seymour picking up the journal, nevertheless publishing it. The journal is in a pile of papers—it stands out because we as readers recognize it, but Seymour’s hand is just shown hovering about the pile. It leaves the reader questioning whether the journal will be published or not. And, if it is published, will anyone believe it? If it is published, will Night Owl and Silk Spectre tell the truth, or will they lie to protect the world Ozymandias has created? There’s a world after the story we as readers are given. There is a world before the story, and after the story.
Watchmen’s ending is not truly ambiguous, however. Readers can play what if, but what occurs at the end is clear. Ambiguous endings can fail because events can be taken multiple ways or the story’s ending is unclear. With Watchmen, there are possibilities, but the ending that occurs is very clear. Questions are left for the reader to consider—questions about Ozymandias’ plan, about what Night Owl and Silk Spectre will do now, about whether the newspaper employees will publish Rorschach’s journal, and if so, will the world take it seriously. Any answers to these questions are valid. One reader may walk away knowing that Rorschach’s journal is published, that Ozymandias’ plan ultimately failed. Another reader, like me, believes the journal will change nothing, published or not. But both readers are correct. There’s nothing to really read between the lines—the writer isn’t trying to hide the true ending from the reader. Lives continue on, situations may change, but there s clarity in the ending. It seems to me that the most difficult aspect of writing an ending is to be clear, yet leave certain story elements still up in the air. Will the character’s actions produce lasting change?
Sean Ironman (Episode 102) earned his MFA at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he teaches creative nonfiction and digital media at the University of Central Arkansas as a visiting professor. His work can be read in The Writer’s Chronicle, Redivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others.