The Problem with a Never-Ending Story


I strongly dislike a Never-Ending Story.

Just for the record, I am not talking about the movie series The Never-Ending Story, which, perhaps with some irony, actually ends after three films. What I’m talking about is stories that are seemingly never-ending, or designed to be continuous publications. The biggest genre of this kind is obviously superhero comics, but one could easily shove lots of reality television into this category.


This was also a book, which also happens to have an ending.

This was also a book, which also happens to have an ending.

Before going into more depth of a never-ending story, these continuing publications should be noted as being different from a fictional universe. A fictional universe is designed to be a place where different people can write and create new stories, characters and adventures in one, cohesive world. An example: Mass Effect 4 is set in the Mass Effect universe, but is supposedly going to have nothing to do with the previous three Mass Effect games. Using the same universe allows writers and other game creators at Bioware to have an infrastructure up for a game, and can allow them to focus more specifically on the plot of the new game. And using a fictional universe is not a particularly bad idea; universes such as the galaxy in Mass Effect or Tolkien’s Middle Earth can allow someone who has possibly a great story to use a world that they may not have been able to create on their own. Now, if a storyteller can create their own world, they probably should. But, especially if you have permission to use someone else’s universe, there is that ever-valuable infrastructure already in place.


Now a Never-Ending Story is a story that is inherently designed to allow for theoretically infinite continuation. Infinite continuation can happen from both within the narrative itself or exist on a more metaphysical (“meta”) level. Sometimes, it is a way to establish a character as being able to have theoretically infinite adventures, even though they are supposed to be a human (e.g. James Bond, Batman to a lesser degree) that are sort of implied in the story telling. For instance, there is no way that a single James Bond should have four or five decades of adventures as a super-spy. Logically it doesn’t make any sense, but there you have it. From a different perspective, one that comic book superheroes are notorious for using, are more meta reasons as to how there can be so many different stories about the same characters, some of which have existed for 70 years; the comic book industry sort of relies on being able to keep telling stories about their iconic heroes and heroines to make money. It is entirely understandable that, say, Spider-Man, the Fantastic 4, Batman, and Superman are way more marketable than a new, original superhero.


It is really this Never-Ending Story that has kept me on a love-hate relationship with superhero comics in general. Granted, I am not in their target audience, and yes, there are plenty of themes within superhero comics that should change (e.g. the “Women in Refrigerators” trope) but I have always loved the idea of superheroes, obviously, the fantasy of being a superhero. I just can’t enjoy the actual comics. There are plenty of amazing stories that appear from this genre, but there is over 70 years’ worth of stories, and what can only be a gigantic mess of continuities created by the sheer number of issues, graphic novels and the rest of the stories in the superhero comic genre.


A good retcon.

A good retcon.

The ridiculous continuities that have arisen from superhero comics are quite possibly some of the ugliest parts of the genre, from a storytelling standpoint; they create massive plot holes, and make it confusing for new fans and old diehards alike. They even get so bad that the current writers and editors have to retcon characters, and even entire fictional universes to attempt to streamline stories. (Some retcons go over well, like the 1986 Crisis on Infinite Earths, but some are just really, really, dumb, like Marvel’s Clone Saga with Spider-Man, or Superboy-Prime literally punching reality in 2006.) Let’s take a look at one of the most iconic superheroes of all time: Superman. He has had numerous retcons, even just over the past 30 years, and Superman comics have been coming out since 1938. He has had his origin story re-written no less than 6 times since the massive, entire DC Universe retcon Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1986.


A really dumb retcon.

A really dumb retcon.

I do want to be clear; there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with the idea of a retcon; however, the fact that retcons have to exist is a bit of a problem. When a continuity is so confusing that writers and editors have to retroactively change anything, maybe a continuity is too much.


But there is a reason (well, lots of reasons, but one I want to talk about) why Alan Moore’s Watchmen is so acclaimed; besides being exceptionally well-written, it ends. There is a very definite end to the story. It doesn’t continue. While, yes, there is always a chance that making Watchmen a Never-Ending Story would lead to other, well-written stories, it would also lead to convoluted storylines, plot holes, and retcons. It could inevitably take away from the written excellence that the story holds.

With "Watchmen" considered to be one of the greatest superhero stories, it is a shame that too often the grittiness of "Watchmen" was copied, rather than the distinct end, or memorable characters.

With “Watchmen” considered to be one of the greatest superhero stories, it is a shame that too often the grittiness of “Watchmen” was copied, rather than the distinct end, or memorable characters.

As for perhaps a newer example of a superhero story that I believe is a strong narrative, in part because it ends is Heroes Rise, which yes, is good enough for me to drag into another article. The Heroes Rise trilogy helped to keep me very interested in it because I knew the story would end. There was going to be a conclusion, a place that the plot and character development to build to. The ending meant that all of my decisions would have greater meaning; you know that these decisions can’t be rewritten at a later date (only on a different play-through of the same story)

The third part came out! And, seriously, it may be very visually minimal, but I highly recommend the trilogy. It's even on Steam!

The third part came out! And, seriously, it may be very visually minimal, but I highly recommend the trilogy. It’s even on Steam!




2 responses to “The Problem with a Never-Ending Story

  1. The characters are perpetual, not the stories. That’s the whole idea behind a retcon. If you get hung up on the history as some real-world comparable timeline, you’re missing the point, and I can see why Capes and Tights ain’t your bag.

    Great post, BTW!


    • Hello!
      First off, I do want to say thanks for commenting, as it gives me an opportunity to hopefully clarify a few things. There are some details, which you brought up that I can talk about. I think that you are absolutely correct when you say that superhero comics are about the characters. Certainly, if one were to ask a fan of the genre about what are the essential elements of superheroes, it is the characters first and their adventures second. I don’t think that continuity is all that important for enjoying the genre, in general.

      This is only a guess, but I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that your average comic fan is not a “superhero historian” who loves the genre based on the continuous narrative that these comics have. The individual stories and the characters themselves are the best parts.

      And I do want to clarify that I’m not against having perpetual characters. From an industry perspective, they have heroes who are iconic (e.g. Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, etc.) and it is easier to sell a story about an iconic character. I also would love to see more stories like “Watchmen” which can take new, original heroes and heroines and write a self-contained story. From the fans’ perspective, the iconic heroes are favorites. It should be exciting to see new stories about the characters you love. What is really off-putting is the continuity, specifically. The fact that all of these stories are intertwined with other stories is getting in the way of me liking them; yes, continuities aren’t what the superheroes, their stories, or the genre is about, but the fact that it is there makes it hard for me to ignore. It is as much a personal flaw as much as a fault on the industry. As well, as much as I dislike continuities, I don’t necessarily have a good answer for writers who would want to continue a story if these continuities were removed. Its why i used retcons to sort of focus on my problems with continuities; you are right in that a retcon does refresh a character and allow for more stories to the written about these characters. Rebooting a character is again fine; but (and I know this is a tautology) but a retcon is a retroactive continuity, and that means that there is an overarching narrative, and it is the overarching, almost historical narrative that I dislike.

      Liked by 1 person

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