META: Wish Fulfillment, WCs, and Mary Sues

Tom Russell milos_parker at
Mon Mar 13 22:44:50 PST 2006

The Joltin' One wrote:

> To be fair, that's probably not the fault of the concept but of the way
> it was handled.

Yes.  As the hangman advised the writer, Execution is everything.

You know, one of my favourite movies when I was a kid was Albert
Brooks's DEFENDING YOUR LIFE (I was a weird kid).  I watched it again
recently, and I realized that I loved the movie more for the set-up
than for the way it was done.  Really, it's a pretty weakly executed
film.  But the set-up!  The little world that Brooks built, his whole
concept?  It's terrific, and could easily support dozens of great
stories.  I really think it'd be a great TV series, and I'm surprised a
DEFENDING YOUR LIFE fan fiction fandom hasn't developed yet.

There are a lot of movies, TV shows, and comics that thrive on a high
concept that just isn't executed well, that doesn't really deliver the
goods.  For example, there's this story in SUPERMAN # 125 (November,
1958), "Clark Kent's College Days."

The gimmick is this: Clark "Superboy" Kent finds himself engaged in a
battle of wits with the famed Professor Thaddeus V. Maxwell, "... one
of the most brilliant men in the world!"  In fact, he's so famous, that
Metropolis University has a glass display case featuring "Scientific
Awards Won By Professor Maxwell".  (My video teacher was Russ Gibb, the
man who started "Paul is Dead".  He didn't get a glass display case.
All he got was a yardstick.  But that was high school.)

Prof. Maxwell deduces that Superboy is one of the students in his
class, and decides, as a personal challenge to himself, to try and
figure out which one it is.  He has never before failed in an

Now, this is a great *concept* for a story.  It's an offbeat sort of
challenge for Our Intrepid Hero, and one that requires intellect and
cunning.  A battle of wits, set in the halls of academia!  But the
*execution* ...

First of all, Prof. Maxwell pulls out a lie detector and attaches it to
each of his students, one-by-one, and asks that student if he is
Superboy.  Let's pretend for a moment that the lie detector does work.
Okay.  Does it strike you as odd that one of the most cunning and
brilliant of all scientists would, as his opening gambit in this battle

The bell rings before Clark has to take the test.  He's the only
student left.  Now, if you ask me, that means the mystery is solved.
Since it's already clear that Superboy is a member of the class,
wouldn't the only student left be Superboy, just by process of

Maxwell proceeds, by a number of ridiculous schemes that I will not
even attempt to summarize here, to try and prove that Clark is
Superboy.  Each and every one of these schemes takes place during
class.  So, if Maxwell succeeds, than Clark will be outed-- in front of
the entire class!-- as Superboy.  If Maxwell was secretly Lex Luthor,
this would make a lot of sense.  But, no: Maxwell just wants to figure
it out to see if he can figure it out.  In fact, he tells Clark that
should he deduce that he is Superboy, he would keep that information to
himself... a statement that is directly contradicted by every single
action Maxwell has ever performed in the story.  If you ask me, he's

Clark does end up beating both the professor and the lie detector in
the end, and, really, the way in which he does so is somewhat clever.
And the story is of note because it is, actually, the origin story of

But it's still pretty lame.  There's a good story in there: a canny
professor trying to satisfy an intellectual curiosity but meaning no
harm.  A superhero desperate to perserve his identity.  It could be a
great, fun, entertaining story with a very offbeat sort of menace.  But
the actual execution of the story doesn't do justice to the big idea,
to the premise.

I might just go ahead and swipe the premise for a story of my own.  But
this raises some tricky questions: to start with, would it be ethically
right for me to do so?

How important is the big idea in art?  Stan Lee argues, for example,
that the person who comes up with the character or the idea should then
be called the creator of that character or idea.

Is someone who is good at improving (like Shakespeare) or synthesizing
dispariate and often-times inferior source materials (like Tarantino)
less of an artist than those who created those original materials?  I
mean, by all accounts, ANTZ is a knock-off of A BUG'S LIFE.  But ANTZ
is better!

Is it plagarism to take a high concept (like Defending Your Life, or
Clark Kent's College Days) and extrapolate from it? I think I'd be a
bit miffed if someone created a character with Gregory Dingham's powers
and wrote a story about said character's moral decline.  At the same
time, what if they did it better?

Questions, questions.

Any answers?


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