In his seminal work of comics theory/criticism, Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud writes about “closure” as a central element to comics literacy – that is the ability to fill in “the gutter” so to speak, the space between the panels – in order to make them have a form of narrative continuity. The reader is the central component providing “the sense” between what otherwise might be disparate isolated squares of art and words.
In my current dissertation project I am working with a further development of this idea, calling it “macro-closure” (at least until I can find a better name for it). While McCloud is interested in how we read (and make) comics, any comics, I am mostly interested in superhero comics, and even when I am not (the main focus of the first chapter, maybe two, of my dissertation is Love & Rockets) I am interested in how mainstream American comics (i.e. superhero comics, stuff by the Big Two) influence so-called alternative comics. As such, continuity is a central concern for these bloated dinosaur superhero franchises. Fifty-plus years of stories has made quite a mess, a mess that both DC and Marvel have tried to clean up more than once, leading to an even bigger mess of contradictions, parallel worlds, ruptures. . .
But it is my assertion that part of being a superhero comics fan is this practice of broader closure, of finding ways to smooth over the ruptures, to make sense of the contradictions, even if often in order to make that sense we as readers have to positionally erase events from the continuity, mostly by just not thinking about them, arguing their lack of legitimacy, making a case for the greater authenticity of other aspects of the convoluted history of a character or a title.
Furthermore, those ruptures are productive for comics writers, because they provide entry points in what is a non-linear narrative that is constantly being re-written, re-imagined – new meanings are always emerging from the old.
When I was a kid I didn’t have regular access to a comics shop. I still bought my comics at a newsstand, or if I was lucky, I’d find a box of them to pick through at a flea market. As such, there were huge gaps in my collection. I could not count on getting new comics every Wednesday. I could not count on getting the next issue of Amazing Spider-man to find out what happened next, but I learned enough of the tropes of the genre that I could piece it together. As much as I would have loved to own every issue to connect up the 1960s Ditko-era Spidey with the Roger Stern period of my heyday in the 80s, I did not need that gap filled in by issues (if anything those would only reinforce the contradiction of a Peter Parker who had not aged despite being college-aged in the 60s), instead I could use the elastic nature of comic time to bring any two or more stories together, to make sense of how he moved from event to the other. I could find my own closure between issues or between titles or between versions of the character. It was my engagement with the form that unified the character through my identification with it. Ultimately, the if the story made sense it was because of what I as the reader provided it.