Ruminations on Superhero Universe Creation

We went to X-Men Origins: Wolverine this weekend, and although it was a good movie, it got me thinking about both the nature of the comic book universe and the X-men universe in particular. Any movie, comic, novel, or what-have-you reflects the cultural mores of the time and the atmosphere of the time it was created in. As time goes on the way that we view certain things can change greatly, and that can greatly affect how the audience reacts to the media they are viewing.

Now, let me start by saying that my experience with the X-Men universe is limited to the movies and some brief explanations by my husband from his comic-reading youth. So in a way I am looking at the X-Men movies completely out of context from the rest of the series and am instead viewing them in context of the world today. Considering that X-Men takes place in a universe that differs from our own mainly in the existence of mutants, I, as a non-fan, would expect people in said universe to react to certain things much the same as people in our world. Thus, the behaviors and reactions of the characters and the general populace of the X-Men world does not necessarily make sense to me because their reactions are not those that I would expect from people today in our world.

This isn’t because of any fundamental issue with the X-Men universe (although they need to get their timeline straight), but rather an issue inherent to any series that is published over a very long period of time. While we as a society change and grow at a rapid pace in the real world, the characters in these long-running series generally stay close to the same age or do age, but at a much slower rate than the time that is passing between issues. For example, X-Men was created in 1963, at the height of the Cold War; long before computers became household appliances and shuttle missions became old hat. Nuclear annihilation hung on the horizon and was a very real possibility, and society was very different because of that. The government was actively engaged in secret tests of every sort that stretched and often broke the bounds of ethics. Naturally, the distrust of the government and fear of nuclear war at the very least influenced the construction of the society in the original X-Men, not to mention the social shunning of anyone different that was common at that point in time. As the years progressed the comics could adapt themselves to the times, somewhat, but the very bones of the story still kept their original forms.

Which brings me to the movies. The movies themselves are set in a time that seems to be very similar to our own. However, the illusion breaks down when some of the characters behave in what seems like an anachronistic manner.

Think of it this way: in this day and age, everyone is obsessed with being politically correct. Can you imagine if mutants were discovered/started developing today? They’d probably get spots on Oprah where she gushes over how difficult life is for them. The military would probably openly recruit mutants, most likely giving bonuses for more useful powers. None of this hush-hush stuff, either; they’d want the largest number recruited possible, which would mean plenty of mutant-recruitment-oriented publicity. Pro sports? Please. They would be all over mutants like white on rice. There’d probably be a congressional hearing on whether letting mutants play is the same as steroid use. There would be issues with whether mutants are covered by ADA and whether being a mutant is semantically the same as being disabled. They’re not disabled, they’re “differently abled,” seriously. How many class action lawsuits would be brought against major corporations or the government for causing the mutations through pollution/harmful chemicals/inaction/whatever? Most teenagers would be waiting anxiously for their powers to show up, and the ones without would probably go the same way the fake-fang-vampire-wannabes do in our world. Not to say life would be cushy for mutants, but in a way they would form a super-culture, rather than a subculture, one that is lauded and emulated by those not in it.

My point is that the X-Men universe, when taken in context of its Cold War era creation, makes a good deal of sense for the society that existed at the time. However, like many similarly long-running series, when it tries to keep up with the times, it actually loses some of its original punch. In a way it is best for series like that to stay at a fixed time in their alternate universe and neglect bringing in elements from today’s culture; the story will read more authentically and it helps to keep the timeline straight.

Which brings me to two other comments: first, the timeline for X-Men confuses the heck out of me. I think it’s because so many artists and writers have worked on the story over the years, adding and removing details as necessary for their tenure on the line. What I really wish comic artists/authors/creators/Stan Lee would do is write out the personal history for each significant character in advance. I know it’s a lot of work but it would really help to keep cannon cannon and to keep the audience from going “Huh?” Also, I would love to see a version of the X-Men where all the powers are kept a little more reasonably within the realm of science. Some of the characters are within the realm of plausibility but others jar me right out of the story because their powers are so absurd. I can suspend disbelief quite a bit, if you go the science-is-magic-and-we’re-not-going-to-explain-it route (like Star Wars before they mentioned the midichlorians) but when you start to give a scientific explanation and then throw logic and reality out the window I start raising my eyebrow. Then again, I may be in the minority on that one.

In any case, it was a good movie, by far one of the best in the series (I like the first about as much if not better and the only reason I like the second is because of Nightcrawler. The third made me go OMGWTFBBQ). If you’ve got the money and aren’t paralyzed by fear of the swine flu then by all means see it. I will say it’s rather dark, though — probably not good kiddie fare. Final grade: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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On Fandoms

The other day, while watching Bones and NCIS, I got to thinking about Rule 34 of the internet. For those of you who don’t know, Rule 34 states that if it exists, somewhere on the internet there is porn of it. Dual thoughts struck me: first, that somewhere out there there’s a Duckie/Gibbs slash fic and I really don’t want to find it, and that the idea of there being a fandom for either Bones or NCIS seemed really strange. The only thing stranger would be a fandom for Law and Order. There probably are plenty of fan shrines to all of the aforementioned shows and their characters out there, but they aren’t exactly fandom material. When contrasting Bones, NCIS and the various reincarnations of Law and Order with other shows and comics and books that have huge, thriving fandoms, I discovered several key points that appear to be necessary to the creation of a strong fandom.

1. The world setting and plot must be epic in scope. Look at Star Wars, Star Trek, the Harry Potter series, the X-men universe, the Naruto universe, and the Bleach universe. Each of those series is set in a world is at stake if the hero(es) doesn’t succeed and where there are many, many ancillary characters that pass through over the course of the story. This makes it easy for fans to come up with their own characters and relatively smoothly introduce them to the cannon characters without really changing the overall plot. If you look at Bones or NCIS or Law and Order, however, the stories are more episodic in nature with the occasional overarching plot, and the cast of characters are fairly small and tightly-knit. In order to create and introduce a fan character into one of these settings, you would have to change either the cannon setting or characters.

2. The world setting is lush and unique. Star Wars, Star Trek, Naruto, etc, all take place in a world that is not like our own in some key way. Even Bleach and Harry Potter, which take place partially in a world almost identical to ours, depart from reality in significant ways. This allows the fan some creative freedom in their fanworks. Contrast this with Bones or NCIS or Law and Order, which all take place pretty much in the real world and in a very rule-bound portion of it. It puts far more of a limit on the fan creations.

3. Characters have special powers. What’s more appealing to the reader/viewer than the idea that they are special in some way? In the series/books/etc with the strongest, largest fandoms, characters have or develop special powers or talents above the norm. Fans who create their own characters can give them special powers as well and therefore feel special vicariously. In Bones or NCIS or Law and Order, there are no special powers (unless you consider being a genius a special power; and for a fan to create a genius character requires some specialized knowledge on their part, therefore making it far more difficult).

4. The cannon characters follow archetypes. This appeals to us because we love seeing the noble hero, the tortured hero, the wise old man (or Vulcan), and so on. In Bones/NCIS/L&O the archetypes are more subtle because the characters are supposed to be “real” people.

5. Additional plot is easily worked in, as in a “quest” style plot or an epic in scope plot. This comes back to the creativity of the fan. Also, Bones/NCIS/L&O are all mystery series, and it is quite complicated to come up with new and intriguing mysteries for the characters to solve. Not that fans can’t, but it is far more of a challenge.

In any case, I’m not a sociologist or English lit prof or psychologist or any of that, so take my musings with a grain of salt. I also don’t think fandoms are necessarily a bad thing, although sometimes they do get crazy. But it is interesting to examine them and try to figure out just why they are so special.

Mary Sue: As Bad as We Think?

The Mary Sue is a concept that is extending its fingers from the realm of fan fiction and into that of original fiction. Original characters in original world-settings are now being described as Mary Sues or Gary Stus; this is even, at times, extending into the world of published fiction. This begs the questions: Why is Mary Sue so bad? and How much Sue-ness is too much?

Before we begin discussing the answers to these questions, we must first explain exactly what a Mary Sue is. Wikipedia defines the Mary Sue as follows:

Mary Sue, sometimes shortened simply to Sue, is a pejorative term used to describe a fictional character who plays a major role in the plot and is particularly characterized by overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as wish-fulfillment fantasies for their authors or readers. Perhaps the single underlying feature of all characters described as “Mary Sues” is that they are too ostentatious for the audience’s taste, or that the author seems to favor the character too highly. The author may seem to push how exceptional and wonderful the “Mary Sue” character is on his or her audience, sometimes leading the audience to dislike or even resent the character fairly quickly; such a character could be described as an “author’s pet”.

Television Tropes and Idioms gives a slightly lengthier and more detailed definition:

The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of wish fulfillment. She’s exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She’s exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — or her “flaws” are obviously meant to be endearing. She has an unusual and dramatic Back Story. The canon protagonists are all overwhelmed with admiration for her beauty, wit, courage and other virtues, and are quick to adopt her into their nakama, even characters who are usually antisocial and untrusting; if anyone doesn’t love her, the character who dislikes her will get an extremely unsympathetic portrayal. She has some sort of especially close relationship to the author’s favorite canon character — their love interest, illegitimate child, never-before-mentioned sister, etc. Other than that, the canon characters are quickly reduced to awestruck cheerleaders, watching from the sidelines as Mary Sue outstrips them in their areas of expertise and solves problems that have stymied them for the entire series.

Now, as Pat Pflieger describes in her article 150 Years of Mary Sue, Mary Sues are nothing new to the land of literature; rather, they are commonly the creation of young or inexperienced authors. In order to help these young and inexperienced authors avoid the pitfalls of Suethorship, there are several Mary Sue Litmus Tests available, including The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test and The Original Character Mary Sue Litmus Test.

The major downfall of these tests is that they can scare a young author away from writing a character that, while well-rounded and appropriately flawed, has several Sue-like characteristics. It could be argued that some characters from popular fiction can be classified as Mary Sues, if judging them solely on this criterion. (For the sake of this article, I will not discuss certain characters in published fiction that have been determined to actually BE Mary Sues.) For example, Sherlock Holmes could be considered to be Gary Stu-esque. He is unbelievably intelligent, always holds the key to solving a mystery, is an accomplished violinist, and so on and so forth. Similarly, Nathaniel/John Mandrake from The Bartimaeus Trilogy could be considered a Gary Stu. He is exceptionally talented for his age, attractive to the opposite gender, has a tragic past, and heroically saves the day repeatedly. However, all this is made up for by his genuine character flaws – pride, arrogance, and so on.

So this begs the question, Why is Mary Sue so bad? Well, Mary Sue is bad when the reader is jolted out of the story or finds the story laughable because of the character’s Sue-ness. More important than any litmus test is the readability test – when a friend or a cohort online reads your story, what is their reaction? Is the story enjoyable, despite the main character’s Sue-ness? And if not, what is it about her that needs to be changed? The best way to correct any Sue-related problems is to listen to critique and take it to heart.

So, then, if not all Mary Sue characteristics are bad, How much Sue-ness is too much? Readers of your typical adventure-genre stories (fantasy, sci fi, horror; we’ll ignore contemporary fiction for the moment, and romance falls under a different set of rules entirely) won’t be interested in reading about an absolutely average or sub-par character. If nothing else, your character has to be able to survive in the situations the plot throws at them. An interesting way to look at this is to think about it like character creation for Dungeons and Dragons. The Player Handbook describes stats of 10 as being average — for adventurers. Commoners fall more closely into the 8 or so range. This higher base stat is what allows the adventurers to survive attacks by goblins, bugbears and so on that they face during the course of a story. Now, if you were to have a character with stats of 18 across the board, people would think you cheated, and you would stray into the Land of the Sue. While higher abilities and exceptional skills across the board are something that makes a character a Sue, having some exceptional skill or higher ability is all but necessary to keep the reader interested. Who wants to read about Joe the Farmer and Nothing Particularly Exciting? People want to read about Joe the Barbarian and the Angry Bugbear Hordes. They just don’t want Joe the Barbarian to also be an accomplished bard and wizard.

The main point of this article is to open the doors to conversation on this topic. Mary Sues are typically derided, and while generally it’s deserved, more good can come of encouraging young and inexperienced writers to improve their characters instead of scaring them away from writing certain character types.