Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Yes, It's A Real Job: Habitual Offenders

Previously, on “Yes, It’s A Real Job:”*

“But the first and foremost sin of writing, though it was first identified in fanfic, is one almost as old as storytelling itself, and one many a professional writer, including some of the world's most well-known bestsellers, is guilty of.”

“Mary Sue is… literally Perfect. At everything. If she's a Star Trek character (and the character who lent her name to the phenomenon was), she's smarter than Spock, a better doctor than McCoy, can coax speeds from the warp engines Scotty could never dream of, and can beat Kirk in negotiations *and* ship-to-ship combat, simultaneously. …Readers hate her fucking guts.”

“It's hard to feel anything for Mary Sue except naked envy, the kind teenage girls have for the head cheerleader who's class president *and* dating the captain of the football team (who also happens to be the valedictorian). And that's why she never works. She's noble, but not a hero. She's beautiful, but not attractive. Everyone loves her, but no one likes her.”

“Comics is no stranger to Mary Sues. Next week, we'll discuss some of the most most egregious offenders, past and present, and try to puzzle out just why a writer who has progressed beyond the level of novice would even consider using her for any purpose but parody.”

And now it’s next week.

In comics, Mary-Sueism is most prevalent in the realm of superheroes. This is not at all surprising; the step is a very short one. The earliest, proto-Superman stories show a very much idealized and perfected version of Jerry Siegel; the material that made it into print, thankfully, shows, if not restraint, then at least a self-mocking tone that makes the Man of Steel tolerable to the reader, if not to Lex Luthor. It is, however, a member of the Superfamily who holds the title of DC’s number one Mary Sue: Jeph Loeb’s iteration of Supergirl.

This Supergirl, or Kara Sue, as I like to call her, is the original brought back into Post-Crisis continuity, only without the charm. Indeed, she lacks any sort of personality whatsoever; she’s neither arrogant nor naïve, charming nor bratty, anything nor everything. Her sole distinguishing trait of any kind is that she’s apparently more powerful than anyone in the DC Universe, including her famous cousin. This was not only the central conceit of her introductory arc in Superman/Batman, but also in the still-ongoing first arc of her regular series, which has been little more than “Kara meets established superteam, beats them all up, they don’t hold it against her, repeat.” The Justice Society, Teen Titans, Outsiders, and Justice League have all gotten their butts sorely whupped; one wonders if she’s done now, or if she’ll just get petty and go after the Metal Men, the Doom Patrol, and the Challengers of the Unknown.

I say “she,” but I mean Loeb, as it’s not like he’s bothered to give her anything like motivation or depth or even a cliched catchphrase. It’s as if he believes the costume and name are enough. The sad thing is, he might be right; the Superman/Batman issues sold out despite month-long delays (courtesy of artist Michael “Rob Liefeld without the charming naivete” Turner), and the ongoing is raking in the bucks as well.

Less prosperous, but equally irritating to anyone with a creative atom in their body, is the central figure of Reginald Hudlin’s Black Panther. Not T’Challa himself, as it turns out, but his home nation, the fictional wonder kingdom of Wakanda. Now, I’m not against Wakanda in principle; I think the notion of a technologically advanced supercountry in the heart of Africa, sole possessor of a unique and valuable resource-cum-plot-device, is great fodder for political intrigue and social commentary.** Reggie Hudlin, on the other hand, thinks it’s great fodder for an extended allegory of “Niggaz rule, honkeys drool!” Well, that may be unfair; Hudlin does at least refrain from using hackneyed graffiti street talk to explain his point. But the undercurrent is there, and he straight up admits he wants to make the Panther and Wakanda into Black Pride icons.

Giving the black community a pop cultural comics icon to rally around and identify with is a noble goal, but the execution leaves much to be desired. Hudlin’s Wakanda has a troubling undercurrent of authorial Divine Right to it; it resisted colonization, became a world power without being culturally diluted by other nations, and produced two Black Panthers who can both kick the ever-loving crap out of Captain America (and have, just to prove they can) simply because Hudlin wishes it so. There’s little internal logic to the world he’s created, and the result is a country that doesn’t feel like a country. The only parallel that immediately comes to mind is the Sanc(timonious) Kingdom from the anime Gundam Wing, a game but ultimately failed attempt at a metaphor for the virtue of unwavering pacifism.

There’s also little depth to Hudlin’s Wakanda; we’re assured that Wakandan culture is unique and awe-inspiring, but we never actually see what any of it is. Why is Wakanda great? It just is. Such flag-waving might work for a three-minute rap song (although, to be fair, there’s far more depth in underground and alternative rap than in some mainstream artists’ entire discographies), but not as the backbone for a story.

But then, Mary Sue isn’t about story; she’s about propaganda, either for the author, the author’s pet philosophy, or, in the sad case of Kara Sue, for herself. Mary Sue comes from an author taking for granted that the audience will immediately agree with him that Character X or Position X is right and good. No attempt is made to convince us, because the author cannot imagine someone in need of convincing. Mary Sue fails to ever make an argument for herself, because victory is a foregone conclusion. She is proselytization, not writers talking to us but talking at us. And as anyone who’s ever been trapped at a party with an insufferable bore will tell you, being talked at is the most annoying thing on the planet.***

*Forgive me this utterly self-indulgent recap device. I’ve just always wanted to do that.

**And it was, in the Christopher Priest-helmed BP series that ran from 1998-2002, an immediate precursor to this one. To this day, I’m baffled by why

***I promised last week to explain why Wolverine is not a Mary Sue. There are certainly plenty of fanboys who believe Logan is the perfect character, but fortunately, none of them have ever written him. Most of Wolverine’s writers portray him in a very grey light, making no bones about the fact that he’s one of the world’s authorities on savage, bloody murder, but also leaving it up in the air as to whether or not that’s a good thing to be. He’s been chastised by every leader he’s ever worked under for his over-violent methods, spurned by or otherwise denied every woman he’s ever loved, and often refers to himself with disgust. He is, at his bests, a study in the contrasts of human nature, and while he’s more often than not the most cynical character in comics, his levels of depth and ambiguity keep him off the lists of Mary Suedom. But that’s another entry.


Mordechai said...

I cannot believe you wrote an entire article about Mary Sues without mentioning Warren Ellis once.

Michael said...

I figured it was self-evident.

Anonymous said...

Your 'points' concerning Reginald Hudlin are extremely racist. You attempt to caricaturize a black author's work by writing in ebonics, then you use the n-word.