Tracing genealogy is never an easy task. The DNA of humans are hard enough to track, but doing the same excavation on characters becomes even more problematic.
One fictional hero whose murky inspirations, while populated with the likes of Hercules and Mercury, does have a very stable definitive father figure. The son is Superman. The daddy would be Gladiator. Siegel and Shuster the midwives? Tortured metaphors are now my superpower.
Gladiator is a quasi pulp novel written by Philip Wylie and published in 1930. Based on a lawsuit filed after Superman’s premiere in 1938, the creators officially never heard of the character, even though Siegel wrote a book review of it for his high school paper. With this history, many Geeks make pilgrimages to find and read Gladiator, all in order to understand what impact this story had on an impressionable teenage boy way back in yesteryear.
And the actual tale told here is interesting to say the least. Back in turn of century America of the 1890’s, a scientist is an unhappy marriage decides to take his genetic experiments to the next level and subjects his serum onto his unborn child. Shortly after birth, it becomes obvious his theories are proven successful, causing much fury from his unsuspecting wife. After some problems raising the boy, Hugo Danner, the family takes a secretive approach, all in order to protect young one. Even before his teen years, Hugo shows advanced strength, speed, invulnerability, and incredible leaping. But virtually every time he tries to pull a Superman and save the day, the public is disbelieving to belligerent, causing many hurt feelings in Hugo.
Trying to find his way in the world, Hugo goes off to university. Many more adventures follow, with our hero hopscotching from place to place, job to job, girl to girl, you get the idea. All with the mission of fitting in, helping others, and making Earth a better world. Sideshow strongman? Interesting, but ultimately pointless. Fighting in World War Two? A good cause with brutal results. His vagabound existence showcases that with great power comes great listlessness. And some of these situations makes you feel true sorrow for Hugo, other times the ending of these phases lay squarely on his own powerful shoulders.
Coming full circle by the end, Hugo goes very far both physically and philosophically to find the answers to his existence. But the outcome of these desperate measures brings a Biblical sense to the whole enterprise. The first comic book cosmic adventure?
Gladiator raises many questions, beyond the usual pulpy roots of it would dictate. Wylie delves into thoughts about eugenics, religion, sex, responsibility, corruption, and class, and some of it feels quite daring for 1930. He is not subtle either, much like a really good Star Trek episode, he lays the issue out and expounds on it through the characters. You get the definitive idea that Wylie really wants discussions to happen now for something that seems not to far off in the future. For a social studies class, Gladiator is a quite a goldmine.
The one hindrance to this becoming a serious text is the writing style of Wylie. The late author had a long and prodigious career, with fiction and non-fiction, for decades. But this book feels very schizophrenic. At times, events and actions pass by in a choppy uneven fashion and makes for an ugly laboured read. Thankfully these sections are spaced out, leaving the truly good character based parts to propel you into the ideas expressed. Methinks Wylie suffered from an impatient, impulsive streak, to get to the next moral point he wanted to expound upon.
Even with the writing flaws, and slightly episodic nature of the book, the cultural impact Gladiator enjoys amoungst hardcore Geeks is huge. And I say hardcore because I fairly certain this book is not very well known in the general public, or even most Geeks. Shortly after Superman did his first leap, a comedy movie loosely based on Gladiator was released. Two adaptations into comics were done, an incomplete one by Marvel (!!) in the 1970’s, and a completed one by WildStorm several years ago. Legendary writer Roy Thomas had the basic story put into the background of the Iron Munro character in his Young All-Stars comic from DC. Fan spasms happened when Munru and Superman met just a few years ago.
For an almost forgotten book, Gladiator has made it’s own small dent into fandom all by itself. It’s true super power was not what Wylie intended, but in infiltrating the collective consciousness of two gawky boys he helped set the stage for the birth of the greatest hero of them all.
Gladiator meet Superman. Hugo Danner meet Clark Kent. Father and son. Together forever.
…is currently reading Once Every Never by Lesley Livingston.
P.S. This post is one of several I hope to do this year to celebrate the 75th Birthday of Superman. Happy Birthday Kal-El! Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
P.P.S. Superman Man Of Steel opens Friday, June 14th 2013. For an indepth look at the creation of this landmark movie, check out Jeffrey Taylor’s columns.