We live in an age of serialization. The current Golden Age of Television is built on great arcs of episodic drama—the slow accretion of catastrophic detail as morally ambiguous antiheroes strangle themselves and others in cyclopean plot strands. Novels have embraced serialization too, as the multi-volume fantasy series has turned into YA and gone mainstream. Even films have re-accessed their long-past, adventure serial roots. Big-budget superhero films have dipped their super-toes in comic-book cliffhangers, or at least super-teasers, while warhorses like Star Trek and Star Wars chug along with their own more or less convoluted continuities. As Dr. Manhattan told Ozymandias toward the conclusion of one masterpiece of serialized fiction (which has latterly experienced an extended afterlife), "Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends."
Serialized fiction is the focus of so much critical attention that it can sometimes seem like the only form of fiction going. Comics scholar Bart Beaty, though, reminds us that there are other options in his new study Twelve Cent Archie (which, full disclosure, is in the same Rutgers comics studies series as my own book.)
Beaty's monograph focuses on the Archie comics of the 1960s—roughly the period during which the comics cost 12 cents. The book is divided into 100 different self-contained sections—and as that form suggests, one thematic point Beaty keeps returning to is the startling lack of continuity in Archie. But that non-continuity goes beyond the simple fact of self-contained stories. Reality in the comic is actively inconsistent—what happens in one episode has no bearing on what happens in the next. At the end of a story, everything that occurred is utterly forgotten, erased, and reset.