Tuesday, September 30, 2014

I Love Web Comics: The Ensign Sue Trilogy

I’ve cited Interrobang Studio’s Sue Trilogy (written by Clare Moseley and art by Kevin Bolk) a few times in my discussions of the Mary Sue tropes, so now, as the story is winding to its conclusion, I thought I’d post a review. Billed as a “Trek-tastic Parody,” this is a web comic that is full of things that I love. It’s got Star Trek, it’s got Doctor Who, and it’s full of nerdy references and inside jokes that I can appreciate even when I don’t get them. I love playing with tropes and this comic certainly does that.
Kevin Bolk’s caricatures of the nu-Trek crew, all the incarnations of the Doctor, Sherlock Holmes, and a vast array of other fan favorites are cute, clean, simple, instantly recognizable (including both Zachary Quinto and Leonard Nimoy as Spock), and impressively expressive. Clare Moseley’s dialog is funny and pitch-perfect; you can hear the actors’ voices in every speech bubble including McCoy’s wisecracks and or Tom Baker’s Doctor in conversation with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock; even when Kirk calls Spock a jerk.
Book 1, Ensign Sue Must Die! Takes place shortly after the end of 2009’s Star Trek movie with the arrival on the Enterprise of the ship’s new medical officer Ensign Mary Amethyst Star Enoby Aiko Archer Picard Janeway Sue (what? No Sisko?). Ensign Sue has flowing blonde hair with an exotic streak of color and a beauty mark on her cheek that seems to change from panel to panel. Ditto with her eye color. She also favors fishnet stockings. It’s not just that Ensign Sue lives in her own little world, she believes everyone else lives in it too and no one on the crew seems to be able to get rid of her. Even beaming her through an ion storm only results in an encounter with Ensign Sue’s evil but equally self-absorbed counterpart from the “Mirror Mirror” universe. Spock Prime (played in the movies by Leonard Nimoy) finally provides the solution to the nu-Trek crew by pointing them to a Star Trek trope that’s even bigger than Mary Sue.
Book 2, Ensign Two: The Wrath of Sue, opens with the arrival of the Doctor (Number 10, played by David Tennant) aboard the Enterprise. The Doctor grimly informs Kirk and Spock that in ridding themselves of Ensign Sue, they’ve only managed to unleash her on the rest of the multiverse. He solicits the Enterprise crew to help him track down and capture the various Sue incarnations across different dimensions. What follows is a romp through the worlds of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Marvel Universe, the DC Universe, Harry Potter, and others where each time another Sue incarnation has disrupted the fabric of reality. The Doctor and the Enterprise crew capture the Sues, including the original Ensign Sue, never realizing until it’s too late that they’re being manipulated by the sinister power behind the Sues. Book 2 ends on a cliffhanger with the tables turned, most of the crew captured, and Kirk floored by an unsettling piece of news.
Then in Book 3, Ensign3 Crisis of Infinite Sues, things really start to get nuts. As of this writing, the story is still ongoing with the last page scheduled to be posted on the web site sometime in December. However, you can order all three books in full-color dead-tree format from Interrobang’s store like I did and read all the way to the end ahead of time. While $30 for all three books is pretty pricey for the raw materials you get back, the real value is in the story. I’ve already reread them a few times and will probably continue to do so as long as they’re sitting out. So, yeah. Worth it.
Tragically, the books do not include this sublime poster.

There’s a lot to love about this series. There are enough nerdy Easter eggs and cameos to appeal to fans of just about everything. The comments accompanying each page are also always a good read. Genuine laugh-out-loud funny moments are reliably frequent, but then Moseley and Bolk and turn around and hit you right in the feels. (I’m sure it was just a little dusty in the room when I got to the end of Book 3.) The shout outs to Paula Smith, who coined the term “Mary Sue,” were also very cool. Finally, like any good satire, the Sue trilogy makes you think; in this case, about what makes a character a Mary Sue or how even the shallowest character can grow to have interesting depths.
The Sue Trilogy begins here with Ensign Sue Must Die! and updates Fridays. I choose to believe that the events chronicled here actually happened between Star Trek and Star Trek into Darkness.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Song in My Heart (It Should've Stayed There): The Song Title Game

Here’s a little game I’ve been playing with my brain. I got the idea from this page of Between Failures where some of the characters play the same game using movie titles.

Link as many song titles together as possible, matching the last word of the song title with the first word of the next song title.
  1. You need song title and you must identify an artist.
  2. Songs must be songs that you know and/or part of your personal music collection. No Googling all songs that end with “love” and all songs that begin with “love.” You’re on the honor system. (If challenged or unsure of a title or artist, you may look it up, but it has to be a song you thought of on your own.)
  3. You may link a singular word with a plural, compound word, or longer word that contains the word in question. For example:
    a.   “Dust in the Wind” to “Winds of Change”
    b.   “Love the One You’re With” to “Within You Without You.”
    c.   Technically, “Blue Bayou” to “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher” would be legal, but come on. Really?
    On the other hand, I just went from “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” to “Funeral for a Friend,” so, whatever.
  4. More than one word is okay too, e.g., “Play the Game” to “The Game of Love.”
  5. Variations or covers of the same song do not count as separate songs.
  6. Different songs with the same title are legal; however, you may not list them consecutively (e.g., “Crazy,” “Crazy,” and “Crazy” by Patsy Cline, Seal, and Aerosmith doesn’t give you three in a row).
Here's the list I've come up with so far:
  1. And You and I                                                                       Yes 
  2. I Wouldn’t Want to be Like You                                            Alan Parsons Project 
  3. You Don’t Know What It’s Like                                            The Bee Gees 
  4. Like a Rolling Stone                                                               Bob Dylan 
  5. Stone Cold Crazy                                                                   Queen 
  6. Crazy                                                                                     Patsy Cline 
  7. Crazy Little Thing Called Love                                              Queen 
  8. Love the One You’re With                                                     Stephen Stills 
  9. With or Without You                                                             U2 
  10. You Never Give Me Your Money                                          The Beatles 
  11. Money                                                                                   Pink Floyd 
  12. Money for Nothing                                                                Dire Straits 
  13. Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now                                              Starship 
  14. Now I’m Here                                                                        Queen 
  15. Here I Am                                                                              Air Supply 
  16. I am a Rock                                                                           Simon and Garfunkel 
  17. Rock and Roll Over You                                                       Moody Blues 
  18. You and I                                                                               Queen 
  19. I Love Rock and Roll                                                             Joan Jett 
  20. Roll to Me                                                                              Del Amitri 
  21. Me, Myself and I                                                                   Scandal’Us 
  22. I Do I Do I Do                                                                       ABBA 
  23. Do You Love Me                                                                   The Contours 
  24. Me, Myself and I                                                                   BeyoncĂ© 
  25. I Want It All                                                                           Queen 
  26. All You Need is Love                                                            The Beatles 
  27. Love Me Like a Rock                                                            Paul Simon 
  28. Rock and Roll Music                                                             Chuck Berry 
  29. Music was My First Love                                                       John Miles 
  30. Love to Love You Baby                                                        Donna Summer 
  31. Baby Love                                                                             The Supremes 
  32. Love Me Do                                                                           The Beatles 
  33. Do You Know Where You’re Going To                                Diana Ross 
  34. To Sir With Love                                                                   Lulu 
  35. Love Child                                                                             Diana Ross 
  36. Child in Time                                                                         Deep Purple 
  37. Time                                                                                      Alan Parsons Project 
  38. Time After Time                                                                    Cyndi Lauper 
  39. Time                                                                                      Pink Floyd 
  40. Time of the Season                                                                The Zombies 
  41. Seasons in the Sun                                                                 Terry Jacks 
  42. Sun King                                                                                The Beatles 
  43. King of the Road                                                                   Roger Miller 
  44. Roadhouse Blues                                                                   The Doors 
  45. Blues Brothers Theme                                                            The Blues Brothers 
  46. Theme from Gilligan’s Island                                                Bowling for Soup 
  47. Island Girl                                                                              Elton John 
  48. Girl                                                                                        The Beatles 
  49. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun                                                    Cyndi Lauper 
  50. Fun, Fun, Fun                                                                        The Beach Boys 
  51. Fun It                                                                                     Queen 
  52. It Takes Two                                                                          Marvin Gaye/Kim Weston 
  53. 2 Become 1                                                                            Spice Girls 
  54. One                                                                                        Three Dog Night 
  55. One Fine Day                                                                         Chiffons 
  56. Day at the Beach                                                                    Joe Satriani 
  57. Beach Baby                                                                           The First Class 
  58. Baby Got Back                                                                      Sir Mix-a-lot 
  59. Back in Black                                                                        AC/DC 
  60. Black is Black                                                                        Los Bravos 
  61. Black Magic Woman                                                              Carlos Santana 
  62. Woman                                                                                  John Lennon 
  63. Woman in Love                                                                     Barbara Streisand 
  64. Love of My Life                                                                    Queen 
  65. Life’s Been Good                                                                  Joe Walsh 
  66. Good Lovin’                                                                          The Young Rascals 
  67. Lovin’ You                                                                            Minnie Riperton 
  68. (You Drive Me) Crazy                                                           Brittney Spears 
  69. Crazy                                                                                     Seal 
  70. Crazy for You                                                                        Madonna 
  71. You Never Can Tell                                                               Chuck Berry 
  72. Tell Her No                                                                            The Zombies 
  73. No Sugar Tonight                                                                   The Guess Who 
  74. Tonight, Tonight, Tonight                                                      Genesis 
  75. Tonight’s the Night                                                                Rod Stewart 
  76. The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia                             Vicki Lawrence 
  77. Georgia on My Mind                                                              Ray Charles 
  78. Mind Games                                                                          John Lennon 
  79. Games People Play                                                                Joe South 
  80. Play the Game                                                                        Queen 
  81. Games People Play                                                                Alan Parsons Project 
  82. Play that Funky Music                                                           Wild Cherry 
  83. Music of the Night                                                                 Andrew Lloyd Webber 
  84. The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down                                  The Band 
  85. Downtown                                                                             Petulia Clarke

Sunday, July 27, 2014

But Enough About Me: Stuff I Wish I'd Said, Santa Cruz

Scene: My daughter and I encounter four teens sitting on the sidewalk outside Pizza My Heart in downtown Santa Cruz. One of them asks if I can spare some money so they can get some pizza. I say, “Sorry, no.” They say, “’s cool.”

What I should have said: “Blackjack! Keno! Bingo! Craps! Jeez! I haven’t seen you guys since the casino caper! Listen, I am so sorry for bailing on you guys, but when I saw you had grabbed those boxes of Mexican fireworks instead of the plastique, I knew the Baroness was going to go berserk, so it was every man for himself. Anyway, looks like you all managed okay, though I see Solitaire’s not with you. I wouldn’t worry though. I’ve known her since third grade and I have yet to see that chick not land on her feet. She’s fine wherever she is. By the way, this is my daughter. She’s totally really my daughter and not a shape-changing alien nano-collective life form.

(I glance up the street at some other pedestrians.)

Uh-oh! Looks like a couple Enforcers. Just play dumb; if you pretend not to see them, they’ll probably ignore you. We’ll just duck in here and sneak out the back. Come on Z-03. I mean, um, Zoe.”

Monday, June 30, 2014

Just Enough Trope to Hang Myself: There’s Something Else about Mary Sue

Is the term “Mary Sue” sexist? Well, obviously it never occurred to me to consider this angle of the trope. Pesky Y chromosome. I was looking at it purely as a creative exercise, but the question is a valid one, especially in these days of angry loud-mouthed tiny nerd boys behaving horribly because they don’t want no icky cootie fangirls in their clubhouse.
I was pointed to a couple of blogs that tackled this criticism. The Adventures of Comicbook Girl’s post, “Mary Sue, what are you? or why the concept of Sue is sexist, points up the double standard of how a tragically orphaned character who grows up to be an attractive, wealthy, genius, Olympic-level athlete who rights wrongs, is always right, is ten steps ahead of all foes, and has the unreserved admiration of everyone is a Mary Sue. Except when it’s Batman. The point being that these characteristics are okay for a male character but are subject to scorn and ridicule when applied to a female character.

Batman can defeat anyone, given adequate prep time. Here, he has a bat-anti-Darkseid bullet in his utility belt.

Meanwhile, Feminist Fiction argues that there should be more Mary Sues and points out that there is only one female Avenger in the movie and she is one of only two members with no super powers. Again, the male characters—Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk—are all unapologetically powerful while the Black Widow has to make due with … well, actually I disagree with the author on that point. The Black Widow is pretty much awesome every time she’s on screen from the interrogation she conducts while tied to a chair to being the one who shuts down the stargate in the final battle. She can basically do anything Captain America can do, only without the shield and the super soldier formula, plus she’s a master spy. That’s why everyone on Agents of SHIELD is all “Even Romanoff couldn’t have escaped from this” and “Only Romanoff ever beat that.”

No, I’m Batman
Those points considered, it’s important to go back and have a look at the time, circumstances, and intent under which Paula Smith created the character Lt. Mary Sue, the main character of “A Trekkie’s Tale.” It was 1973; there was no Internet or desktop publishing. If the Star Trek fan community wanted to share ideas or stories, it had to be through hand-made, hand-mailed fanzines created using typewriters and mimeograph machines. These fanzines, which usually contained ads for other fanzines, could be mailed to subscribers or traded, passed around, or sold at Star Trek conventions, the very first of which had been held only a year earlier.
 You kids have it so easy with your new-fangled "Internet."

Smith described these early days of handcrafted fandom and the creation of Lt. Mary Sue in a fascinating 2010 interview (Walker, Cynthia W. 2011. “A Conversation with Paula Smith.” Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 6. doi:10.3983/twc.2011.0243):
It all goes back to the early 1970s, when Star Trek fandom was just breaking away from mainstream science fiction fandom. I went to a lot of conventions around that time and I bought every zine I could lay my hands on. It was just an explosion of mimeograph and hectograph and ditto; very few zines were even photocopied back then. I read everything. Some of it was pretty good. Some of it was extremely good. But an awful lot of it was just plain awful.
As Theodore Sturgeon said, 90 percent of everything is crap. The amazing thing was, the crap had so much of a pattern. I’m very much a pattern seeker, and you could see that every Trek zine at the time had a main story about this adolescent girl who is the youngest yeoman or lieutenant or captain ever in Starfleet. She makes her way onto the Enterprise and the entire crew falls in love with her. They then have adventures, but the remarkable thing was that all the adventures circled around this character. Everybody else in the universe bowed down in front of her. Also, she usually had some unique physical identifier—odd-colored eyes or hair—or else she was half-Vulcan. The stories read like they were written about half an hour before the zine was printed; they were generally not very good.

It was the type of story that begged for a parody, so for the second issue of her Star Trek fanzine, Menagerie, Smith…
… tossed off “‘Gee, golly gosh, gloriosky,’ thought Mary Sue as she stepped on the bridge of the Enterprise.” Lieutenant Mary Sue—that’s what I called her just to give her a name. And the piece was—what? Probably two hundred words. It was half of one of our reduced columns. It wasn’t very much. I really just retold the story of that quintessential Mary Sue. It was a parody. … it might have died right there, but I began doing LoCs—letters of comment—and reviews of zines in other zines. Anyway, because this was still the early 1970s, there were still a ton of these stories coming out. So, when we wanted a shorthand to refer to them, Sharon and I began to call them “Lieutenant Mary Sue” stories. We explained why the first couple of times we used it, but the term caught on …

So, Lt. Mary Sue was a parody of a poorly written character. Why a female character? According to Smith, 90 percent of Trek fandom at the time was female. That’s who was writing the stories.
“Trek fandom was the mirror image of science fiction fandom. I would say 90 percent of science fiction fandom at the time was men and 10 percent was women, and there was a reverse 10-to-90 men-to-women split in Trek fandom.”

So, no sexism in the original intent. However, through use and misuse over the years, the term “Mary Sue” has gone from a call out of a thinly developed character to an insult leveled at a female character that has any agency in a story whatsoever. That’s stupid. And annoying, because I wanted to explore this archetype without getting caught up in a lot of messy gender politics. Nonetheless, names have power and there are legitimate reasons to find the name “Mary Sue” off-putting. So let’s go with PC or “Pat Chris” as a gender-neutral alternative for the sake of this discussion. Besides literally being “PC,” it can also stand for a character that’s “Poorly Conceived” or perhaps the author’s “Pet Character.”

(In Dungeons & Dragons, there is no foe more fearsome than the Dungeonmaster’s Pet Character. I had one in high school: His name was Victor Anthony Kas. He was a paladin with a tragic backstory and was heir to the Sword and Armor of Kas, destined to become the evil Kas Dester. Eventually the whole campaign was about him. Despite that, I guess I had enough going on in that campaign that everyone was able to stay engaged and have a good time. The story arc was about getting Kas to his redemption, but in the end, the whole thing was about my Pet Character and the outcome was pretty much preordained, so, honestly, it was not very good dungeonmastering.)

It's Pat

So what makes a character a PC and what is it about PC that induces vision-distorting eye rolls? It’s important to remember that PC is a native of the fan fiction genre. A PC, in fan fiction, is often a new main character dropped into a defined setting with established characters. If that new main character is the center of attention, solves everyone’s problems, and causes the existing characters to start acting out of character (for instance, Spock weeping openly at the character’s beauty and goodness or Kirk suddenly becoming bi-curious), then it’s definitely a PC. Or as Paula Smith put it in the above-cited interview, “presence of a [PC] in a story is like a black hole, a neutron star, because it warps everything else out of their normal orbits.”

Your audience does not love your pet character.

Basically, Pat Chris is in the story more for the author’s pleasure than any would-be readers. This is charmingly illustrated in a seven-page comic called “Fan Fiction” by Shaenon K.Garrity and drawn by Phil Foglio. In it, a girl inserts a new character into a bedtime story about some famous heroes, much to the annoyance of her younger siblings. Luckily, Mom’s a bit more sympathetic.

Once we leave the genre of fan fiction, it’s a little harder to point to the new character that doesn’t belong and PC gets a little harder to pin down; that’s where the misuse of the term really gets going. The criticism is leveled, justly or unjustly depending on the story, that the main character is too good/competent/powerful/whatever. The implied and/or perceived follow-up “for a woman” isn’t always there in all discussions, but it’s there often enough and loudly enough that the accusation of sexism has some merit. Particularly given that a male character displaying the same properties tends to get a free pass.
Seriously, why does one young, attractive, charismatic, hyper-competent main character induce eye rolls and snorts of derision while another becomes a cultural icon? Take the Doctor. Or Sherlock Holmes. Most stories, they arrive on the scene and resolve the problem to the great admiration of those around them and then leave, usually with little or no character development on their part. How is it that no one labels either of these guys a PC? It’s not just because they’re men. Obviously, the answer is because they’re British.
What is it that makes these two interesting characters rather than PCs? Perhaps the key element lies in how their stories are structured. While Holmes and the Doctor are the main characters of their respective series, their stories are filtered through the points of view of their sidekicks, Dr. Watson and the various TARDIS companions, respectively. Imagine a solo Sherlock Holmes story or a solo Doctor Who story: The main character is brilliant, a step ahead of everyone else, and fairly smug about it. That’s when readers or views would start to get annoyed with him.
(The one solo Doctor Who episode that comes to mind is “The Deadly Assassin” from the classic series starring Tom Baker. In it, the Doctor returns to Gallifrey and gets caught up in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with his arch-nemesis, the Master. In this instance, going against the formula works and works well, but it’s a very different kind of story.)
On Gallifrey, being smug and brilliant is one of the entrance requirements.

I mentioned Batman earlier. Very early in his career, Batman got paired with Robin, and that was purposely to make him more accessible to readers. Batman goes long stretches without a sidekick, but inevitably the writer or editor will come to decide that it’s time for him to have a Robin again. I haven’t kept close count in recent years, but there are at least a half-dozen characters who have taken on the role of Robin.

Robert Langdon, the main character of The Da Vinci Code and other best-selling novels by Dan Brown, is described as a fit, rugged Harvard professor all the hot young coeds are in love with. Beyond that, there is not much that’s memorable about him, even with Tom Hanks playing him in the movie. That actually works to the story’s advantage. Langdon’s discussed a bit in the comments thread of Laura Miller’s Salon.com article of April 21, 2010, “A reader’s advice to writers: Beware of Mary Sue." Miller speculates that “Since Brown’s books are all treasure hunt and chase scenes, Langdon isn’t that intrusive. His character or personality isn’t ever a focus, and a lot of Brown’s readers can’t even remember his name. So I think he’s close, but not really a [PC]; he just doesn’t take up enough of the book’s attention. However, it’s true that certain kinds of very plot-driven genre fiction seem able to get away with pretty flagrant [PCs].” Brown doesn’t invest a lot in his main character. Would it have been better with a stronger main character? Sure, but that’s not what drives these stories. What drives these stories are the cryptography, keys, symbols, codes, and conspiracy theories. Langdon’s function is to prevent the novel from being a long essay.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension, gets away with having an improbably competent main character who’s a brilliant inventor, brain surgeon, rock star and adventurer by hanging a lampshade on the trope; it’s presented with a wink and a nudge. Buckaroo Banzai’s associates have worked with him long enough that they’ve all become pretty jaded about his exceptionalism. Jeff Goldlbum plays team newbie New Jersey to be the POV character. The other thing that gives the movie a free pass is that 1980s Peter Weller is just that awesome.

"No matter where you go, there you are."
Let’s look at a few female characters now: For example, here’s one whose name is actually Mary and she’s practically perfect in every way. It says so right on the label. She too sweeps in, is much beloved, solves everyone’s problems, and then leaves at the end with little or no character development on her part.
I don't have character arcs. I cause them.
However, Mary Poppins is more of a plot device than a main character. (I refer to the Disney movie here.) She’s something that happens to the other characters in the movie. Specifically, even more than to the children, she happens to this guy:
However, “Saving Mr. Banks” would not be workable as a movie title until many, many years later.
The story is all about Mr. Banks’ character arc. So, Mary Poppins is no PC. Besides, she’s also British.
Here’s another one: She’s the one girl in all the world with the power to fight the vampires and demons. Although her backstory is not as tragic as the trope usually calls for, it does feature her parents’ messy divorce, a brief stay in a mental institution after trying to convince people that vampires are real, and pretty much being run out of her home town. Fortunately, she’s got a couple of broody vampire boyfriends to help distract her from her troubles. So what is it that makes Buffy the Vampire Slayer so successful? Unlike Holmes or the Doctor, Buffy is the POV character throughout most of the series. She’s got her sidekicks/supporting characters, but they’re not there for the purpose of making the main character more accessible to the viewer. Buffy’s plenty accessible as she is. Being a young, strong, attractive chosen one doesn’t necessarily make a character a PC; those are things we look for in our heroes. However, a hero, as opposed to a PC, has one other key ingredient: In her interview, Paula Smith called it “headspace … you have to give the reader somewhere to fit into in the character.” Buffy has real flaws and doubts with which viewers can identify; she has the headspace that makes it easy to see the action through her eyes. Even though it’s series television and you know she’s going to survive the episode (or in those instances where she doesn’t, it will still work out somehow), the stakes still feel genuine. There’s no guarantee that her supporting cast will come out unscathed or that she’ll save the innocent bystander or that the bad guy will get away and later return as a fan-favorite regular.
Buffy’s relationship with her supporting characters works textually as well as meta-textually as seen in the season three episode, “The Wish.” Buffy without her friends is cold, humorless, scarred, and ultimately gets chomped on by the Master.

Another thing that makes Buffy work where a similarly situated PC might fail is her relationships with the other characters and, more importantly, theirs with her. Willow, Xander, and Giles are each fully realized characters who have their own problems and motivations. Said problems and motivations do not exclusively revolve around Buffy. Likewise, Buffy is not the solution or necessarily even involved in the solution to their problems. Each character from stalwart allies to vampiric love interests to the Big Bad of the season to minor villains has some headspace to latch onto.
At the other end of the spectrum, let’s have a look at the girl voted most likely to be called a “Mary Sue” by people who find the term “Mary Sue” demeaning to women, Twilight’s Bella Swan. Bella is attractive, very much the focus of other characters’ attention, largely pure of heart, and the creation of a first-time novelist housewife, so she certainly hits those PC tropes. However, if writing a PC is wrong, then Stephenie Meyer’s bank account doesn’t want to be right. How does Bella Swan succeed where so many others like her fail, and so many others wish she had failed? Her character has been described as lacking, passive, irritating, and the descriptors get less charitable from there. The one thing she does have though is headspace. In fact, Bella is mostly headspace; she’s a pair of eyes to check out and react to the hot-looking vampire and werewolf competing for her affection. It’s not a new formula; a Bella Swan is the main character of a good many of the paperbacks in the Romance section of the bookstore or airport newsstand.

You tolerate me because my boyfriends are so, so pretty.

For my last two character studies, I’m going to turn to the world of web comics. The first is Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius. Agatha Heterodyne starts out as an ordinary university student who discovers that, in fact, she’s the latest in a long line of brilliant (and mostly evil) mad scientists, or “sparks.” Her father and uncle, both mysteriously missing since she was a child, were the legendary and heroic Heterodyne Boys. Her mother was the villainous Lucrezia Mongfish, also known as the Other, who started a war that nearly enslaved/destroyed all Europa. By the thirteenth volume of her adventures, she’s mastered her powers of mad science, been trained as an expert hand-to-hand combatant, is reclaiming her ancestral castle and homeland, has an army of loyal monsters at her command, along with a town full of adoring minions, and her suitors are two of the most powerful and brilliant (and handsome) sparks in Europa (and they’re also princes).
"Mary Sue?" Why, my three consecutive Hugo awards and I would be delighted to have that conversation with you.
Put that way, it sounds like a checklist for PC; you can hear the eyes rolling across the floor and down the hall. The thing is, Girl Genius is excellent. It’s funny, it’s smart (selected as one of Mensa’s top 50 web sites), and boasts three Hugo awards in a row for Best Graphic Story (after which the Foglios voluntarily took themselves out of the running) along with shelves full of other awards.

Stories of improbably exceptional characters predate actual literature. We love them. The take away here is that there’s nothing wrong with writing about an improbably exceptional character as long as you write her well.
Finally, let’s bring this long discussion full circle to the adventures of Ensign Mary Amethyst Star Enoby Aiko Archer Picard Janeway Sue by Claire Moseley and Kevin Bolk. Ensign Sue Must Die! is a parody of PC tropes that opens with the arrival on the Enterprise of a lovely young new medical officer. Spock Prime is familiar with her type and makes the logical decision to make himself scarce.
Ensign Sue proceeds to make herself the center of attention, much to the annoyance of the hapless Enterprise crew despite their efforts to get rid of her. Like any good satire, Ensign Sue Must Die! and its sequels, Ensign Two: The Wrath of Sue and Ensign3: Crisis of Infinite Sues, has a point underneath the laughs. As the story goes on, Ensign Sue begins to develop as a character, becoming not just someone to laugh at, but someone you feel for.
Here. Here is where it starts happening.
That headspace Paula Smith was talking about comes to Ensign Sue as she realizes the people she loves don’t love her back and doesn’t know what to do next. That’s something a reader can latch onto. Personally, I’ve come from enjoying the Enterprise crew’s futile attempts to get rid of Ensign Sue to actually rooting for her.
So, maybe there are no bad characters, only badly written ones. Who knows? Maybe even the fall and redemption of Victor Anthony Kas is a story that deserves to be told. Even a PC has a story to tell; it just needs to be told well.
References Cited:
Adventures of Comicbook Girl. “Mary Sue, what are you? or why the concept of Sue is sexist.” http://adventuresofcomicbookgirl.tumblr.com/post/13913540194/mary-sue-what-are-you-or-why-the-concept-of-sue-is-sexist.
Feminist Fiction. “We Need More Mary Sues.” http://feministfiction.com/2013/09/17/we-need-more-mary-sues/.
Foglio, Phil and Kaja. Girl Genius. http://www.girlgeniusonline.com/.
Garrity, Shaenon K., and Phil Foglio “Fan Fiction.” http://www.girlgeniusonline.com/comic.php?date=20051212.
Miller, Laura April 21, 2010. “A reader’s advice to writers: Beware of Mary Sue” Salon.com. http://www.salon.com/2010/04/21/mary_sue/#comments.
Moseley, Claire, and Kevin Bolk. Ensign Sue Must Die! http://www.interrobangstudios.com/comics-display.php?strip_id=988.
Sims, Chris. October 7, 2010. “Ask Chris #28: Robin, Robin, Robin.” Comics Alliance. http://comicsalliance.com/ask-chris-28-robin-robin-robin/.
Walker, Cynthia W. 2011. “A Conversation with Paula Smith.” Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 6. doi:10.3983/twc.2011.0243. http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/243/205.