Comics and the Art of the Cliffhanger

By Pastor Will Rose

When the weather allowed, I rode my bike to Wrightsville Beach Elementary School. On the way to school I would stop at a convenient store and spend my lunch money on the newest Uncanny X-Men comic book on the spinner rack. When I was younger, I loved the action and the art that moved from panel to panel and page to page. My imagination would run wild, “What if I had superhuman strength, or the mutant gift to teleport, or force blasts out of my eyes?” I would read the comic book through its art, its kinetic movement combined with words, and then run outdoors to pretend I was one of those superheroes.

When I got into my teenage years and 20 something’s, I didn’t read comic books as much. I was too busy trying to “be cool”, find my place in this world, and go on dates. But I would closely watch what was happening in geek culture, classics like the X-Men Saturday morning cartoon, Batman: The Animated Series, and the Star Wars expanded universe. Then, the long rumored X-Men film was finally released in 2000. This movie, with the other emerging superhero movies, grabbed my curiosity of what was happening in the canonical comic books. Once I stepped back into a local comic book store the flood gates opened. I jumped back into these stories head first, and to this day my weekly routine consists of going to my local comic book store each Wednesday to pick up my pull list.

These serialized stories still grab my attention with amazing art stoking my imagination, but in this stage of my life, it’s the ongoing story and drama that keeps me coming back. I love the world building and the character development that keeps the story moving forward. Being a pastor of a community of faith, I enjoy the team books best, reflecting on how a team works together with their diverse gifts and personalities. And, if the comic has a good cliffhanger at the end of each 24ish page book, you can bet I will keep coming back each Wednesday to see what happens next.

The cliffhanger, that last page of the comic that leaves you wondering what is going to happen next, when done well, leaves you wanting more. This last page could be a full spread of a villain who finally reveals themselves to be behind the ongoing injustice within the storyline. Or, it could be the dramatic return of a hero thought long gone or even dead. Or, the main character breaks the fourth wall, stares at the reader and leaves you with a final word or phrase that leaves you shook. Even the conclusion of a story arc, if done well, can be a cliffhanger setting up the next upcoming storyline that I can’t wait to read.

Comic books and geeky story telling should be fun and a means by which we can get a small break from the pressures of the world we live in. These stories can serve as an escape and a distraction from the heaviness of the human condition. Entertainment and escapism is fine in moderation, but I also believe the stories we consume can be a means by which we can go deeper with the questions and issues we all face in life and faith. These stories can invigorate and inspire us when we enter back into reality, perhaps to do our own world-building, character development, and to share our God given gifts. As a pastor who shepherds a community of faith, I use these stories as a tool to help us consider how pop culture and fandom can resonate with our faith, as well as challenge us to see the world we live in from a new angle. Believing that our personal stories are connected to a larger sacred Story.

I believe serialized storytelling, particularly monthly or weekly comics, can be a tool to help us process the human condition. These story arcs can help us understand our stories because I believe we are in a grand ongoing Story. A Story of love and forgiveness, a Story of justice and grace, a Story where we are challenged by injustice and tragedies in our world. And like comics, our own stories also have twists and turns, and dramatic surprises and cliffhangers, which hopefully leave us wanting more, or at the least striving to keep the story moving forward.

Let’s be honest, weekly comics can be expensive. They can range from $2.99 to $7.99 for a single issue, depending on the page count. Many fans of the genre wait for the trade paperbacks so they can get the full story arc all at once, and maybe for a slightly better cover price. Going back week after week, month after month, to buy comic books is an investment. Not necessarily an investment that one of these comics will be worth thousands of dollars in the near future (although it could happen!), but more so you are investing in an ongoing story. My challenge to my parishioners, and those who I meet at Comic Cons, is to make sure they invest in their own story. To allow the stories they consume to help them understand the human condition, and to challenge them to not only take notice of those monumental turning points and cliffhangers in their own life and faith, but to also take action in the world we live. How we respond to these key moments and cliffhangers can and will shape the way our stories play out in the world, and hopefully connect us with a larger Story at work within us and beyond us.

Leave us a comment and share with us what you are reading these days that keep you turning the page or coming back to an ongoing story. What do you like, or not like, about story telling via comic books? Do these stories ever allow you to do deeper in life and faith, if so, how so? We would love to hear of an example.

Will Rose is the Parish Pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church and Lutheran Campus Ministry in Chapel Hill, NC. Will leads a “God Loves Geeks” book club and discussion group in Chapel Hill, and has moderated a number of panels at Comic Cons around the integration of fandom, geek culture, faith and theology. He would love to connect with you about his and your weekly pull list, and anything about Star Wars.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Rev Ben Krey says:

    Great Article, Pastor Will! “The heaviness of the human condition” is an awesome phrase. I mean, whoa. BAM!

    I am really really good at ignoring the heaviness of my human condition. I just charge through whatever stuff is in my way. And I never slow down to count the cost of charging through.

    I spent 2-3 hours weeding my garden on my day off (Monday). It cost me trading in both of my hamstrings for two knots. Tuesday and Wednesday were miserable because my hamstrings were so tight! My legs felt like they weighed 200 lbs each. But did I take any extra time to recover? Nope, I just plowed through. And never counted the cost of what this did to my body or soul. Am I a person of grace? If so, charging through isn’t exactly living like I ever give myself grace. The heaviness of the human condition ….

    Maybe my greatest strength (adding energy to systems) is intimately connected to my greatest weakness (not modeling a life of grace)?


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