Why do bad things happen to good fans? Whether it’s atrocious art, ridiculous writing or something else entirely – some crimes against fandom cannot go unanswered. When that happens, it’s time to say “BLAARGH!“
I think we’re all well aware that few things sell copy like a good mystery. Serial publications love loose threads – it all but guarantees the readers will keep coming back for more. There’s just one problem: somewhere along the way, a good mystery (or, for that matter, an even remotely mediocre one) became a common substitute for good storytelling. Off the top of your head, how many books have you read recently whose plots hinged on some sort of as-of-yet unrevealed secret? For some titles, it just makes sense. Batman is, after all, the Dark Knight Detective. When we, as readers, are on the same chase as Bruce (or Dick, or that Japanese kid, or the French Muslim guy, or…) it adds to the excitement and strengthens our bond with the protagonist. Even when the main character isn’t naturally steeped in mystery, there are still some great whodunits out there that really pack a punch. On the other hand, when three or four issues of a six issue Avengers arc hinge on the team not knowing who’s attacking them… well, that’s just weird. It doesn’t entirely fit with the characters, but more than that, it simply doesn’t make much sense.
Well, okay, it makes a lot of sense when you look at it under the microscope. Ben Gilbert just recently gave us the rundown on decompression as a storytelling mechanic whereby plots are stretched to better fit the six or twelve issue standard for trades. Here’s the problem… when you’re stretching a plot that could be told in two issues out to six, how do you keep it interesting?
This, more than anything, is where the need for the obligatory mystery man, woman, or child stems from. Referring back to my aforementioned New Avengers experience – this was a story that could have been told in three issues: the first issue is the heroes hanging out and having fun, and ends as disaster strikes; the second issue is the heroes dealing with the fallout, and ends with the reveal of who’s behind it all; finally, the third issue would be the climax of the battle and the aftermath. But three issues does not a trade make. Instead, the length of this story had to be doubled. Had you revealed the villain at the end of the second issue, that would’ve meant just a whole lot of punching and kicking throughout the next three issues. Instead, the reveal had to be put off for as long as possible, which unfortunately then made the ending to the story seem to come rather abruptly. The irony is, as Ben pointed out, Bendis is usually one of the masters of decompression. This simply wasn’t his finest hour.
Ultimately, I don’t have a problem with there being mysteries in comics. I don’t want anyone to get the wrong impression about that. A good mystery can be an integral and enticing plot point to a stellar book (see: The Stuff of Legend). But there’s a time and a place for everything, and leaving your readers in the dark just so you can stretch a thin plot out over a few extra issues? That’s hack work, plain and simple.