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Just Past the Horizon: Mary Who?

by  in Comic News Comment

Today I address the subject of “Mary Sues.” I promise profanity beneath the cut.

If I never hear the names “Mary” and “Sue” together for the rest of my life it’ll be too soon. I’ve had–had it–up to my hairline with anti-Mary Sue rants. With critics claiming that a character is stupid because they are a “Mary Sue.” With that fucking stupid Litmus test. With lazy fucking reviews and chickenshit writers! With all of it!

Mary Sue–for those of you wondering what the hell I’m talking about (though I’d have to wonder what internet you guys have been surfing for the last ten years if you’ve never heard the term)–is a word used to describe a character that is “too exceptional.” It started out innocently enough as a way to deride an insipid character made for Star Trek fanfiction that constantly saved the day and was beloved by all the other characters but was not in the actual show. It was a way to say “Hey, Author, your fantasies are showing” in a little as two words.

As the term spread to other parts of the fan community began to get out of hand. Now “Mary Sue” is still used for something approaching its original purpose–to describe fanfiction characters who manage to save the day in the story, fanfiction characters that are beloved by the entire character and fanfiction characters with overly complicated/angst-filled/fate-defying backstories. But it’s also used to describe a character in the actual show/movie/comic book who is a recent cast addition and outshines the rest of the cast, or a character who has been in the cast for a long time but starts to become considerably more awesome as they mature.

All too often it is used to describe the main character of a series.

And way too fucking often is it used to deride any character that isn’t a straight white male but turns out to be just as competent or more central to the story than the straight white male characters are

Here’s the thing, folks. This is fiction. Yes, there are forms of fiction where someone needs to be as normal as possible, but I’m reading these rants about comic book characters. I’ve seen the term Mary Sue leveled at Superman, Wonder Woman, She-Hulk, Reed Richards, Hal Jordan, Luke Cage, Bucky Barnes, Wolverine, Jean Grey, Rogue, Storm, Black Panther, Renee Montoya, John Stewart, Batwoman, Cassandra Cain, Supergirl, Barbara Gordon, Bruce Wayne… Generally anyone in Gotham City, the Green Lantern Corps, the X-Men, the Avengers, the JLA… Any character worth reading about has been called a “Mary Sue” or a “Gary Stu” or whatever nauseatingly cute rhyme the cranky online fans can come up with.

Comic book characters were designed to be the exceptional soap-operatic angst-filled fate-defying odds-beating fantasy-fulfilling author-self-inserted centers of attention from the most unlikely corners of the universe! That’s why they’re comic book heroes! They’re exceptional! Otherwise, they wouldn’t be in the freaking book!!

Of course they’re somebody’s fantasy! The point is that the writer’s fantasy overlaps with the reader’s fantasy and we all get a good imaginary adventure out the experience!

Of course they have complicated backstories! It’s a serial form of storytelling and you need some twists and turns!

Of course this isn’t what your average woman is like! She’s a superhero!

And here’s the considerably more infuriating thing. As I said above, superhero characters were created to be exceptional. Since most established characters in superhero comics will answer “A” to most of the above after being created to be the center of attention and then spending a few decades in the spotlight, we have a lot of characters fall into some sort of “Grandma Sue” clause. And because most of the old center of attention characters are straight white males, we have a lot of straight white male Grandma Sues running around. Now, because most of the characters who aren’t straight white males are either rescued from an incompetent/useless or simply very small side-role in the past or are new creations, we have a bunch of people bashing female, minority and gay characters because they don’t pass the Litmus test. (The stupid fucking useless Litmus test that the straight white male characters would bomb even more miserably but they get a pass on since they’ve been around fifty-plus years.)

So not only are the people complaining about “Mary Sues” in ongoing comics missing the point of superheroes, they are also disproportionately rejecting and deriding characters who aren’t straight white males.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that there is such a thing as specialness overload. There are characters with just too much crap behind them, too much suspension of disbelief involved. There are characters that just don’t connect with the reader. There is such a thing as the writer displaying his/her fantasies all over the page and draining the story of all life. But you know what that is? That’s bad writing. We know there are writers out there who can handle these kinds of characters well. We know there are writers out there who can balance their fantasies with the necessary suspense and conflict needed for a good story. That’s about the skill of the writer, not the composition of the character.

People use this Mary Sue thing like they can come up with a formula for a good or bad character. Geeks seem to want to measure and weigh the soul and subjectivity out of everything. (That tendency is probably how the rules for D&D came about.) We want to be able to say that if the character has more than 20% angst in their backstory, they’re a wash no matter what the setting or plot is. We want to be able to take a test that says if you answer “A” to all of the above, no one will like your story but if you answer a mixture of “C” and “D” you will be an instant success. But writing doesn’t work that way. Art is subjective.

Honestly, either we have a bunch of superhero fans just don’t like a part of the genre–the “super” part”–or we have a bunch of fans translating “Mary Sue” to mean “character I don’t like.” The latter is just fucking lazy reviewing. If you don’t like a comic, give a real reason why. Say you think the character acts like a jerk. Say the character is superficial. Say you don’t think the other characters would react to them that way. Say the backstory comes across heavy-handed. Say they whine too much. Say they’re out of character. Say you can see the writer’s hand behind the character and their thought process, and that is ruining the ability to immerse yourself in the character.

But for heaven’s sake, when you say a character is a “Mary Sue” you’re telling us that the character is too much of a superhero. That’s not saying anything when you’re discussing superhero comics.