Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Why Batman is Not a Mary-Sue

Or: What I Think Makes a Character Mary Sue-ish, With Some Guilty Self-Correction

So on a forum I was reading recently, it was put forward that Mary-Sue is a slam applied near exclusively against female characters, when there were plenty of male characters that were unbelievable wish fulfillment and they never got tarred with the Mary-Sue brush. Batman was brought up as the example.

A quick origin note, the term Mary-Sue comes from fanfiction writing, and refers to a non-cannon character that is an idealized wish-fulfillment version of the writer, with many or all of the writer's obsessions and proclivities, who becomes the star of the (fanfiction) show by any combination of: 1) being beloved by everyone 2) being more competent than cannon characters at their specialties 3) having a romantic relationship with the writer's favorite character of their preferred gender 4) being best friends or family of characters the author likes but doesn't want to sleep with 5) giving "richly deserved" come-uppance to characters the author does not like 6) sometimes dying heroically to be universally mourned by everyone who the author thinks isn't a jerk. (The masculine equivalent term "Gary-Stu" exists, but despite the fact that it's an explicitly gendered pejorative, from here on out, I'm just going to use "Mary-Sue" to refer to both male and female characters because it comes out of a very feminine milieu and I'd like to keep that alive)

Mary-Sue fanfiction is kind of by definition written for the author, not the audience, and as this term has escaped into the wild and mutated, I like to think that's always been the defining characteristic. A Mary-Sue is born out of the primal id-centric sludge of what an author wants, believes, and values in an unexamined way.

Before we talk about Batman, I want to talk about a character now largely referred to as Fantomex (he's the one in that picture whose ass you don't see). Because when the topic of male Mary Sues comes up, this guy is my go-to example. He was introduced during the Grant Morrison run of X-men, which is a set of comics I feel profoundly ambivalent about. It has both some of the best X-men stuff ever and some of the stupidest, in my opinion.

Fantomex appears in one issue, in which he waltzes onto the screen, speaks with an eccentric put-on French accent, informs Wolverine that he's completely wrong about his own origin story (and mainstay of the comic)- that he's not Weapon X the letter, he's Weapon X the roman numeral, and Fantomex is Weapon XIII- observes that Jean Gray is wildly sexually attracted to him and trying to hide it but he can totally tell by all her tiny non-verbal cues (which is better than her telepathy anyway (which also doesn't work on him)), then after a long dialogue-heavy exposition about how cool he is, he flounces off into a city of the mind in the future. I nearly pulled eye muscles from all the rolling I was doing, and I say that as someone who really likes the Weapon X retcon.

I'm willing to give him a little more of a pass after finding out from his wikipedia that he's an homage to a longstanding European comic character and not just Morrison's personal pet "what's cool" list. He's a reference I didn't get- an inside joke I was on the outside of.

But that's the heart of what a Mary-Sue character is. They aren't for you. They're for the writer.

I'd like to highlight another comic book example here: Spider Jerusalem of Transmetropolitan. It's very easy to see Spider as a bit of a Mary-Sue. He's chiseled in the image of Hunter S Thompson, but his internal monologue is virtually indistinguishable from any blog post his writer, Warren Ellis, has ever put out onto the web. He gambols through his future world having anarchic fun, punching priests, and shaming politicians. I'm hard pressed to think of a character in any medium who has more of his author transparently in his makeup than Spider, and there is no small amount of misanthropic wish fulfillment that goes on in this comic.

That all said, Spider's also a great character specifically because Ellis is a great story-teller who does not let him off easily. It's not at all certain that Spider will win, and in the darker parts of the story, it's not certain he deserves to. As much as he wants to see himself as a champion of right and decency (in his own cynical, angry way), the character is forced to confront the fact that he's also an ego-maniac with poor impulse control and that many of his decisions have been the wrong ones, both for himself and for the people he reluctantly cares about.

We think of Mary Sues as being about the character, but I think really when it comes down to it, Mary Sues are about the world around that character. About the way you tell a story. There are loads of characters with every possible advantage, with every pet obsession of the author, with a competence level that exceeds a normal person's by several orders of magnitude- and they're not inherently bad. The fact that your characters have strong opinions and beliefs that match your own can be a great thing. That they want the same things you do isn't always a handicap.

You just have to have the maturity and discipline to make sure they aren't always right; that they don't always get what they want; that if they do, it comes at a cost.

No realistic character is the center of the universe, and it's only a flat, cartoonish, unsatisfying world that would let them be, no matter how smart or competent they are.

Which brings me to Bruce Wayne, a handsome, billionaire master-ninja who is both the world's greatest detective and owner of the coolest car in that has ever existed. He's a genius. He almost always wins his battles. Sure, he has a tragic backstory, but lots of Mary-Sues do.

Aside from the fact that Batman is a character with a long, established history written by a rotating stable of writers, thus pre-empting him becoming the fictional flesh-suit/mouthpiece for any single one of them, there's one main thing that I feel makes Batman clearly not a Mary-Sue.

Batman isn't winning.

Batman may win his individual battles, but Gotham never becomes a safe place, or even a safer place. Batman may gain allies and have some people who like and admire him, but it's a net loss when you count the people he's constantly alienating. Bruce Wayne is making a heroic effort, giving everything he has and more than he can afford, and at best he is losing more slowly than he otherwise would, and losing any chance of a normal human life while doing so. Neither crime nor the system of justice are fixed. And perhaps most importantly, he's never made peace with his own tragedy, never meaningfully healed.

And if you ask me, the sisyphean futility of all his life's efforts and the inability to see that what he's doing isn't what he really needs are the things that make Bruce Wayne a compelling character and not a Mary-Sue at all.

(If he were a Mary-Sue, the series would have been over years ago after every hot villainess fell in love with him, and his totally tragic death inspired all of them to switch sides and fix a world that was never good enough to appreciate a guy as awesome as Bruce Wayne in the first place. Also, all those people who made fun of how much he loved Raymond Chandler detective stories would be shown to be obvious jerk-faces with a 75 IQ and terrible breath, so there).


  1. I'm still half head-cocked at the notion that someone would reach for Batman as an example of this. Analysis aside, it doesn't pass the "I know it when I see it" test.

    I would say James Bond is much closer. The interesting thing there is that the character IS semi-autobiographical to Ian Fleming, but the Mary Sue aspect comes out more in non-Fleming iterations.

    1. The original article this cites was pointing out that the "I know it when I see it" test is very biased. Many people dismiss any female character with power or importance as a Mary Sue while Batman can throw down and beat gods because he has a gadget, ninjitsu, or "they could see the determination in his eyes", or some such.

      I think that a lot of Batman's (or most any other popular comic hero's) popularity is that he is not really a Mary Sue (which would be boring) but just close enough and in such a generic competence-porn sort of way that everyone can make him a Mary Sue in their own personal escapist fantasy.

  2. True. Adding the fact that Bruce can really be an ass, specifically to his family (one example is when he took Jason to where he died traumatically) I guess people just like to be bias.