“Where’s my prize?
I want my prize.
Don’t I get a prize?
I deserve a fucking prize.”
— Stephen Sondheim, “Another National Anthem” in Assassins
A story is a delicate thing, much like a newborn child, a burn victim or even an international crisis. Such things are to be handled with diligence and care, as if the universe or, indeed, one’s eternal soul were in the balance. Certain steps, then, must be taken to ensure the survival of the infant, the scarred survivor, or the human race. These steps, much like all stories, must have a certain amount of structure to them. If the structure is flawed, however, all hope is lost.
There are countless examples of perfect story structure in fiction. For the comic book fan, there’s always Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series; for the cineaste, classics of varying decades including Taxi Driver, 12 Monkeys and Million Dollar Baby; and, of course, literary classics including Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Vonnegut’s Mother Night. Many of these, such as Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, employ the more convenient three-act structure, whereas Macbeth and most — if not all — of the Bard’s work make use of the harder-to-navigate five-act structure. While both are, of course, equally valid storytelling methods, sometimes it’s best for certain tales to be told in certain ways.
Steven T. Seagle’s latest story, Soul Kiss, drawn by Marco Cinello, is a perfect example of a story with a five-act structure that would have been better served as a three-part tale. The tale of a young woman, Lili, who makes a deal with Lucifer to prevent her rape on a desert highway and, later, to resurrect her dead boyfriend, Soul Kiss weaves an intricate tale of desperation, anxiety, vengeance, sexuality and betrayal that, for the first four issues, is a page-turner. However, it’s the fifth issue that brings the tale to a brutal and ignominious close. The reader is left with the sensation of having just driven a truck into a brick wall, wondering if the experience had just happened to them or they had merely dreamt it.
If the first four issues of Soul Kiss feel like the horrific set-up to a potentially soul-crushing but not unexpected conclusion, then the fifth and final issue feels like a desperate attempt to run away from the most (or, really any) logical ways to conclude the tale. Instead of remaining a cautionary tale about meddling with powers beyond one’s control, the fifth issue transforms Soul Kiss into the perfect examination of the delicate balance of maintaining momentum and quality over a set five-act structure, and what happens when the final act fails to measure up to the initial four, and indeed ends up dragging the whole tale down.
It’s nearly impossible to dispute the power and potency of the well-told story centering on a Faustian bargain. Eric Kripke’s terrific television series Supernatural has triumphed with this sort of story in recent years, and the brilliant subtext relating to yet another demonic crossroads encounter in the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou? is another fine example of this. But for every good example of a fictive demonic deal, there’s something like Spider-Man’s recent controversial decision and, indeed, Soul Kiss.
Without getting too deep into Spoiler Alert country, the fourth chapter ends with such a remarkably intelligent, ingeniously twisted cliffhanger that the reader is left waiting with baited breath for the conclusion. And then, well… it’s safe to say the end of the series the reader is left wondering if the creators made their own Faustian bargain to get the final issue published.
It’s remarkably hard to discuss the problems inherent in the final issue of the story without feeling physically ill. It’s almost as if a theatrical production of aforementioned Shakespearean epic Macbeth concluded in a way unfamiliar to the world. Imagine, instead of the play’s original conclusion — wherein Macduff, the only person in all of Scotland capable of killing Macbeth, decapitates him — David Lynch comes in to write and direct the final act, filling the stage with backwards-talking little people surrounding the main cast as a sort of dyslexic Greek Chorus, replaces Birnham Wood with a giant tank piloted by Care Bears who look like rejects from a Todd McFarlane comic, and Macbeth has an anvil dropped on him by Wile E. Coyote. Imagine the outrage and collective anger of the theater-goers that night, the shock, the anger…the betrayal.
When Lili’s boyfriend is resurrected and then eventually damned again — of her own accord, no less — it feels as if the entire story is a cheat and a waste of time. His initial death and much of the story’s inciting incident is rendered moot, and his resurrection and second death lacks the power of a fitting denouement. In an obnoxious, roundabout way, Seagle has robbed his readership of not just their time and money, but their investment in a logical, structured story. It is nowhere near the double-crossing, tragic hero ending Seagle hopes for and the solicitation of the fifth issue promises; instead, it comes off more as a surprise, a terrible shock, as the reader turns the page and hopes what preceded was just a horrible dream sequence. Then they are betrayed when the story just ends, and it really is like Wile E. Coyote dropped anvils on the heads of the readership.
That is exactly what reading the conclusion of Soul Kiss feels like: a betrayal so large and heinous that the perpetrators could not have been those creators responsible for the initial 80%. At times, it’s almost as if the logic centers of the reader’s brain are arguing with Seagle and Cinello’s false and hollow conclusion, making the reader himself feel the bipolar depiction of the real-life Samuel Byck in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins, replacing Byck’s rage at Richard Nixon’s toying with the American people with the rage at Seagle and Cinello for such an unsatisfying conclusion that toyed with the readership, their time, their interest and their pocketbooks.
They deserve their prize, indeed. And stories deserve better care.