Not sure about everybody else, but I’ve really enjoyed the Mary Sue roundtable…not least because it’s prompted so many thoughtful comments. I thought as a conclusion to the festivities I’d collect some of them here.
Backing Craig L. up here: I’ve heard – and I don’t have a source, and it could be an urban legend – that as soon as Robin was introduced the sales on Detective Comics skyrocketed from “good” to “amazing.” Even if this ISN’T true, comic companies obviously thought sidekicks sold – look how many of ’em there were back Golden Age comics. Expanding the point a bit, Jimmy Olsen (the original Snapper Carr) had his own comic for decades, so he must have had some kind of fan support.
And a Snapper/Jimmy Olsen/Robin can be useful to have around for other reasons, as well.
A) Someone for the hero to talk to. A Holmes to their Watson, someone in the know who will listen patiently while the hero drops exposition.
B) Handy comic relief, quick defusing of narrative tension. (Think Etta Candy here. WHOO! WHOO!)
BC) To paraphrase Frank Miller “There ain’t nothing like having Robin in the panel to make Batman look BIG.” They’re a visual device to make the hero look bigger/more powerful/less dorky in his silly 19th century carny costume ’cause he’s standing next to Jimmy Olsen and his doofy bow tie.
D) Older comics tended to aim for an audience that wasn’t necassary skilled at parsing both the pictures and the text at the same time.
Which means that it’s REALLY useful to have someone around to say “Holy Mother of Fuck! Superman just turned coal into diamonds! Superman is awesome!” to let the people who are JUST reading – not looking – know what’s happening. And even with today’s storytelling it’s useful to underline an awesome Superman moment by having Jimmy hang out and look awestruck.
And, for the record, I like Robin more than Batman. Always have, and still do.
Speaking of teenage sidekicks, it is worth recalling that Stan Lee, who was a teenager himself when they were first in vogue, confessed to hating the concept and saw to it that Bucky was wounded and replaced by a female, somewhat older sidekick towards the end of World War 2 and who in the early 1960s had him retroactively killed. (And I don’t care how much praise people heap on Brubaker, Bucky should’ve stayed dead, dammit). I am not sure if Rick Jones was meant as a substitute for Snapper Carr; at least to begin with he probably wasn’t since he was created as part of the origin of the Hulk (where Rick’s criminal recklessness, driving into a nuclear bomb testing range, led to Bruce Banner becoming the Hulk).
I wrote about this a while back, but the example of a Mary Sue that I think of is The Sentry, the Superman-like Marvel Comics character created by Paul Jenkins. He’s a pretty stupid character, but the audacity of his introduction was notable, with Marvel even waging a promotional campaign that posited him as a lost creation of Stan Lee. The idea was that he was the first Marvel superhero. He was insanely powerful, and he inspired all the rest of the heroes in the Marvel universe. He was a smarter scientist than Reed Richards, he found a way to cure the Hulk, etc. And then everybody forgot about him and history was rewritten, but he came back, and, I forget, it was stupid. The thing was, Jenkins created a new character that was not only supposed to be the greatest ever, but he rewrote history to ensure that he would be greater than everybody else as well. And who knows, maybe that’s kind of clever, but the execution was pretty terrible, and that’s where the real Mary Sue-ish-ness comes out: he’s supposed to be great and awesome, but we never see him actually do anything. It’s all hushed, reverential tones, with everybody assuring us that yes, he is wonderful and perfect, but there’s no story there. The entire comic is an introduction that makes sure we know how great he is.
Of course, he did have flaws, and that’s what allowed him to remain in the Marvel universe, since if he was as perfect as the text says he is, he would solve all problems and there wouldn’t be any plot conflict. So now he’s crazy, or amnesiac, or under other people’s control, or something; whatever they can do to keep him around and usable. Maybe he’s ceased being a Mary Sue (he’s still a shitty character though), but at least in that story that introduced him, he was a doozy of one.
Does it help that the original story is very brief?
It’s about abusing a fictional world to gratify your ego. The emphasis doesn’t land on Mary Sue’s unlikely prowess (wouldn’t that be a “tall tale”?) but on the shower of triumph and admiration. The problem with some of the suggestions we’re seeing is that a derisive term that came from Star Trek fan fiction can’t be used in a way that would also describe Captain Kirk. There’s confusion because, after all, isn’t heroic fantasy designed for ego gratification? But the Mary Sue doesn’t smell right.
Noah, I do agree that you’ve identified a style in late-period DC, the endless recognition of the character’s wonderfulness, that has to be related. If you haven’t seen Superman Returns, don’t. But I think the “author’s ideal self” is a ubiquitous and often perfectly healthy part of the world of fiction- Elizabeth Bennett? If authors were as tall and attractive as they’d like they wouldn’t spend so much time at their desks.
I went through my doubts about Ghost World after Noah scolded me, but now I’ll carry the certainty to my grave: it has a hospital bed scene.
I don’t think anybody referenced this elsewhere in the roundtable, so I thought I’d delurk and mention it–there is a nice, if now somewhat old essay on Mary Sue that traces her as far back as 19th century literature: 150 Years of Mary Sue. When I originally read it–probably back in 2001 or so?–it was one of the first things I’d encountered that made me think twice about the MS phenomenon as some kind of a prima facie evil. The many qualities that people identify as MS in one interpretation or another are both very old and very widespread in fiction, which is just damned interesting, too interesting to dismiss or simply demean: there’s clearly something psychologically important going on.
I don’t really endorse Pflieger’s definition of What’s a Mary Sue–she’s trying to trace a character type, not unpack the whole idea, and to do that, she narrows it more than I’d like–but it’s interesting anyway.
I personally gave up on Mary Sue as being a useful term for discussion a long time ago: the many, many overlapping definitions of the folk term make it too vague to be used for any prescriptivist advice to writers (I think, anyway), and since many people in fandom are wedded to the idea that a Mary Sue is a Bad Thing, it fuels a kind of witchhunt mentality–fandom writers and readers are socialized into constantly hunting for signs of Mary Sue, whose presence, even in small doses, renders a work unfit for enjoyment, whether it’s a fanwork or an original creation. You’re not supposed to enjoy a Mary Sue–to be gratified by something so gratifying shows you’re immature, unsophisticated, childish (I could go on forever about the age-related stuff but it’s tangential to this). If you don’t enjoy a work, it’s enormously satisfying to be able to point to some perceived quality of Sue-dom, and say, that’s why! Not that such behavior is exclusive to fandom or anything–but I have reached a stage in life where I have to roll my eyes at anybody who works so hard to limit their enjoyment of the culture of which they partake.
I do enjoy discussions like this one, though, where there’s more interest in examining the functions of MS and related things than in hammering out a strict definition for the purpose of being able to shake our fingers at perpetrators for Doing Culture Wrong.
Back in the early 80s an author named Vonda N. McIntyre wrote what was then (and probably still is) one of the better Star Trek novels, The Entropy Effect, and followed it with adaptations of the second, third and fourth Trek films. In Entropy we are introduced to Security Chief Mandala Flynn and Captain Hunter, two strong female characters who are Captain Kirk’s subordinate and former lover, respectively. For my money, both characters — who are for all intents and purposes the same character — are the ultimate feminist Mary Sue. Both possess superb abilities, hair-trigger tempers, intimidating personalities, and a severe animus towards that cement-headed sexist James T. Kirk. Now, there are few fictional characters who could use a good feminist ass-kicking more than our good Captain, but with McIntyre it becomes almost an obsession. In her version of The Wrath of Khan (in which Mandala and Hunter are prominently mentioned) Saavik can barely suppress her burning rage against the Admiral, and Dr. Carol Marcus is simply a milder version of Hunter. In The Search for Spock we meet Scotty’s willful, angry niece Daneen, who gives her uncle an earful about what an asshole Kirk is (her brother was the young cadet who died in the previous film). McIntyre’s version of Gillian Taylor in The Voyage Home is a bit mellower Mary Sue, but still more rebellious and quick to anger than her film counterpart.
If the standard Mary Sue is intended to be loved and/or romanced, Vonda McIntyre’s Mary Sue was intended (I think) in great part to correct or avenge the inherent sexism of Gene Roddenberry and of Captain Kirk specifically. (Spock and Sulu are treated in a gentle and greatly respectful manner by the other characters.) I’m not sure this was at all a bad thing, except for it becoming slightly tiresome to have nearly every female character possess so many similar traits. And often the thoughts and backstories of these characters at times threatened to drag the story to a halt. But if you’re gonna have a Mary Sue, I’d prefer McIntyre’s version over the fan fiction variety.
I was going to comment something like this on Kinukitty’s post, but then I deleted it.
As someone who writes the occasional Mary Sue (amethyst eyes!), I think part of what is going is that Mary Sues are the adult equivalent of loving sparkly unicorns. Look, I adored unicorns. I still might. I had purple unicorn shirts as a kid, and I was ruthlessly mocked by many. Sometimes by other people who also had purple sparkly unicorn shirts.
If we mock our Mary Sues, then we’re saying “We know these are just worthless toys, ha ha ha” and it’s like we’re in on the joke. Even though our own laughter might be uncomfortable and insincere, it’s a way to get the critics to back off. Bold and shameless enthusiasm is simply not considered a serious thing (as a girl, anyway). A more staid, critical approach is more acceptable.
There are lots more, but my cutting-and-pasting digits done got wore out. Thanks again to all who commented and all who read.