A week or so ago I did a post in which I compared contemporary iterations of Wonder Woman to Mary Sue. Mary Sue, for those not in the know, is the derogatory term given to an egregiously wonderful original character and/or author surrogate inserted into a piece of fan fiction. As many commenters noted in the comments to this post, the Mary Sue phenomena has many analogues in non-fan-fic texts, from D’artagnen to James Bond.
Anyway, everyone seemed to pretty much enjoy talking about Mary Sues, so we decided to do a roundtable on it. So I’m starting things off here.
When I started thinking about Mary Sues in canon, one name that scuttled to mind was Snapper Carr. Who the hell is Snapper Carr, you ask? Well, as folks who have read way, way too many comics may or may not know, Snapper was a kind of mascot to the Justice League of America back in the titles early 1960s heydey under the creative team of (I believe) Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky. Anyway, Snapper was just some idiot kid who liked to snap his fingers, and who talked in a kind of bastardized, pseudo-hip patois, which sounded exactly as if it had been invented by clueless, middle-aged men trying desperately to connect with those darned kids. Nonetheless, despite his lack of powers, or skills, or, indeed, discernible brain activity, Snapper not only got to hang out with the Justice League, but actually helped them on their cases. Snapper’s debut occurred in a battle against Starro, the giant space starfish. If I remember correctly (and no, I’m not going to go reread the fucking comic. It was bad enough the first time.) Starro had mind-controlled much of a town, with only Snapper Carr unaffected, because he had no mind to control. No, actually, it was because he had been using lime on his lawn, and starfish don’t like lime. Or something like that. Anyway, the point is, for no real reason, Snapper held the key to defeating the intergalactic echinoderm, and so he got to be buddies with all the JLA’ers, and then he even stuck around for further adventures, until the inevitable happened and he was corrupted by Grant Morrison, given a short leather skirt and sent to destroy the JLA, at which point he was immediately annihilated becasue he STILL DIDN’T HAVE ANY FUCKING POWERS!
I don’t know, maybe that happened. Or not. (Actually, I think Snapper did get powers at some point in the 90s; something to do with super-powered snaps? No, really.) Anyway, here’s Wikipedia with a more sober analysis:
As the JLA could not have the sidekicks of all its members occasionally wandering through its secret headquarters, but needed a character to whom the reader could relate, the group needed a distinct character not associated with the home town of any of its members. In order to rationalize that an ordinary person could become an honorary member of the JLA, he had to be important to them at the moment of that group’s formation. The solution, devised by Gardner Fox: young Lucas — called “Snapper” for his penchant for snapping his fingers — is immune to Starro’s attacks, by the good fortune of his just having put lime on the lawn. It is Green Lantern who recalls that various sea invertebrates are susceptible to lime, and by these means, Starro is defeated.
The most pertinent part of that paragraph is the first sentence. Let’s repeat it, because, hey, what’s a few bytes between friends?
As the JLA could not have the sidekicks of all its members occasionally wandering through its secret headquarters, but needed a character to whom the reader could relate, the group needed a distinct character not associated with the home town of any of its members
Right; Snapper is there like the other sidekicks to give the juvenile readers someone to relate to; a young everyschmo who could buddy around with the super-heroes just like all the kiddies want to do. Since his point is gratuitous youth audience identification rather than gratuitous author identification, and since he’s just way-more-effective-than-he-should-be rather than actually the-most-effective-and-wonderful-person-in-the-world, he’s not exactly a Mary Sue, but he’s a kind of cousin, I think — a Snapper Sue, if you will.
Snapper Sues are kind of ubiquitous, in older comics especially — Speedy, Aqualad, Wonder Girl, and, of course, Robin all qualify. And they do show up in other venues as well; Wesley Crusher, for example, seems like a Snapper Sue, thrown in so kids can imagine how cool it would be if they were on the Enterprise with all those awesome heroic social workers.
The thing about Snapper Sues is…I mean, does anybody like this character? If you’re a kid, and you’re reading a super-hero comic, why do you need some Snapper Sue to identify with? Kids don’t in general seem to have any trouble pretending to be Batman, or Spider-Man, or Flash, often all within the space of a minute or two, if my own son is any indication. I mean, my kid likes Robin fine…but he doesn’t identify with him specially, or like him more than any other super-hero. And I can’t imagine him being at all interested in Snapper Carr — because, you know, the guy doesn’t have any powers. Where’s the fun in that? Similarly, I was fairly young (15) when Wesley Crusher first appeared…but, like everybody else, I didn’t identify with him; on the contrary, I loathed him. Or again, Zan and Jayna on the Super-friends — I never liked them; I was always like, what the hell are they doing there? Those aren’t real super-heroes; somebody please make them leave me alone.
In short, the whole phenomena just seems incredibly ill-conceived and confused, based on some bizarre idea that kids can’t’ identify with anyone older than they are. But, of course, kids prefer to identify with people older than they are. Kids like Batman; you don’t need Robin to sell the idea. And you certainly don’t need Snapper Carr. The more I think about stuff like this, the more I wonder…did those comic companies way back in the sixties even have marketing departments? And did the people in them drool and gibber, or did they mostly just drool?
There is at least one iteration of the Snapper Sue archetype that I think did actually work…or that, at least, seemed to make some kind of marginal marketing sense. That’s Kitty Pryde of X-Men fame. Kitty definitely fits the Snapper Sue model; she’s young, she seems clearly meant to be an object of identification, and she was, while not all powerful, definitely competent and resourceful to an extent that often started to seem like special pleading (saving all the other X-Men when she had barely started in the game; or turning into a super-ninja at the drop of a hat…I’m the only one that ever read any of that Kitty Pryde and Wolverine mini-series, aren’t I? Sorry; we will not speak of it again.)
Still, Kitty at least did have unique super-powers rather than just being a carbon-copy sidekick (Kid Colossus! Wolverboy! Storm Girl!) And, perhaps more to the point, she seemed to be an effort to pander to a demographic that could, in fact, stand to be pandered to. That is, Kitty seems aimed at tween girls. Tween girls have traditionally been something of a hard sell for super-hero comics. It therefore makes some kind of sense to try to reach out to them to expand your audience.
Again, I’m not saying Kitty Pryde was perfect. Giving her a name that sounds like a catfood brand seems like it was maybe a mistake, for example. And I honestly don’t have a sense of whether she was effective in appealing to young girls— though I will say that the X-Men of that era, with Storm and Phoenix and Kitty and later Rogue and others did seem to do relatively well in having a varied cast of female characters. But the point is, Snapper Carr couldn’t even in theory possibly appeal to anyone; Robin/Kid Flash/ad nauseum seem redundant, inasmuch as if they appealed to anyone, they’d appeal to the exact same people who were already identifying with the non-sidekick super-heroes anyway. Kitty at least seems like a Snapper Sue who you can look at and say, okay, I can see what they’re trying and why theyr’e trying it. She was never exactly my favorite character…but I never got the sense she was exactly appealing to me, and she didn’t make me hit my head and say, what the fuck? In comics, I think that qualifies her as an example of marketing genius.