by Patrick Ehlers
This article contains SPOILERS! If you haven’t read the issue, proceed at your own risk.
A couple months ago, I went to Disney Land for the first time. I’d been to Disney World in Orlando a bunch as a kid, but despite living in Southern California for the last seven years, I’d just not gotten around to visiting the Land. I went with my girlfriend, my best friend from back home and his wife. We had one day, but it was a nostalgia-fueled tornado of a good time. We were there until after the park closed, and in that last half hour or so, we got on more rides and ran around that park more than we had in the previous 5 hours. You do anything to make the most of those last precious minutes. As The Unbelievable Gwenpool comes to a close, Gwen finds herself doing very much the same.
Only comic books aren’t measured in minutes, are they? Early in this issue, Gwen is gifted a wristwatch that is counting down to… something. When she gets it, it’s displaying the number 15: since it’s pretty early in the issue, and the reader is well-tuned to Gwenpool’s meta-shenanigans, we’re able to figure out what the watch is counting down. Pages. To this point, the story has already been accelerated, with huge swaths of exposition and action left off the page. I love that, somehow, Doctors Strange and Doom are able to perceive it.
It’s a cute conceit, and something that we talk about a lot on this site: time is expressed through space in comic books. And that’s out of necessity. We tend to think about comics as existing for the sole moment we read them, with only a handful living on in the canon forever. But the truth is that there is no time in comics — any series could be considered on-going as long as someone can revisit it in the future. Time is exclusively experienced and controlled by the reader. Seeing Gwen’s countdown watch approach zero actually make me slow down my read because I knew the consequences of getting to the end. Or at least, I assumed I did. Writer Christopher Hastings, it turns out, had something different in mind.
That last page is so brilliant. It places the “gutter” scenes in time — after Gwen visits the deathbed of a woman who she saved as a little girl. That implies that 80-90 years have been collapsed into a few pages. But more importantly, Gwen stepping up off the page after the last incident of the issue sorta forces the reader back to page 2 of this issue, where Gwen starts chatting with the older version of herself. That draws a sort of narrative circle around this issue.
And in exploring that circle, Hastings and artists Gurihiru recall almost every plot point from the entire series. They bring back Gwen’s parents, return Cecil to a human body, they loop in Squirrel Girl, they even bring M.O.D.O.K. back from space. It’s a series of buttons on all my favorite Gwenpool stories, practically forcing a re-read. And that is precisely how this series never ends — because we’ve been given a reason to look back and read it all again.
The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?
Damn, I felt like this was a bad ending.
Meta is a hard, complex thing to do right. I hate meta stories that literally are about themselves to be about themselves. It feels like a cheap attempt to be smart, caring more about surface affectation than actual meaning. If you think of comics like Order of the Stick or… any of Morrison’s work, they actually have a point. Order of the Stick is about critiquing simplistic models of human behaviour, whether alignment systems or stereotyping and Othering the unlike. Animal Man is about authorial responsibility. They are books that are about something.
And Gwenpool was usually about something, because it was usually about the growth of a fan. There was a reason that my ending to Gwenpool’s story would have been her getting a job writing for Marvel Comics. Gwen’s story, at its best, was about becoming a better fan, maturing and building a deeper understanding, instead of enjoying it merely as a mindless self indulgence . Seeing the truth beneath, approaching with empathy (because, to misquote Ebert, art is like a machine that generates empathy).
This is not a story that is about Gwen’s growth. IN fact, I would say it takes a big step backwards. After 24 issues where every story was about needing to see beyond our base wants and seeing the comic as more than a chance for indulgence, we get a big, giant indulgent montage that gives us everythign we want. Turns the book into what the book ha salways critiqued. I think I would have preferred a comic where Gwen admits that this is very likely her last day as a main character and makes the choice to sacrifice her own happiness to use that chance to do something really important. DO something like she tries her hardestt use her powers to manipulate events in such a way to create the best Batrxc story possible, so that if her time comes to an end, at least Batroc could become a break out character that everyone wants to use. Imagine an issue all about giving Batroc a ‘Ask me about my Feminist Agenda’ moment. Or make the future Gwen want to help Gwen hijack other books, in a desperate, futile attempt not to accept an ending.
Instead, we have ‘this is the last issue, but don’t worry, it is a party where you get every whim indulged’. Yeah, the idea that this is only the ending of Unbelivable Gwenpool, volume 1 is clever, but most of the meta elements feel like attempts to show off and be clever than to actually have anyu point. Hell, the subplot of the fangirl encapsulates that perfectly, because it is so notably wrong. Desperate attempt to be meta and smart, but is just a cheap joke that doesn’t actually work. Because that’s not how aging in comics work. Yeah, ageing in comics is weird. Yeah, characters age at different speeds. Sometimes they overtake each other. But everyone’s age is ultimately relative to other characters in their orbit. It doesn’t matter that Kate Bishop has aged much faster than Nico Minoru, because they are in different orbits. Both Nico and Kate’s ages are the same relative distance to the characters of their respective teams. The fangirl will grow up. Maybe even grow down. But never will she overtake Gwenpool because that’s not how comics work. Because the fangirl will always be younger than Gwenpool because that’s the point of the character. And so, the joke falls flat, because in its attempt to be meta and clever, it not only has no purpose, it doens’t make sense.
A sad ending to a great book. I don’t know if Gwen will ever return with her own book, but ultiamtely, as much as we WANT Gwen to go on forever, what we NEEDED was the last issue to be the best conclusion it could be.
But Gwenpool forgot all about wants and needs, and so we didn’t get that