<img class="alignleft size-medium wp-image-8792" title="gladia
tor” src=”http://www.comicheronews.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/gladiator-197×300.jpg” alt=”" width=”197″ height=”300″ />Gladiator by Philip Wylie – Available Now
by Tom Bolenbaugh
Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! It’s the amazing Hugo Danner!
Were you expecting someone else?
In 1930, two years before Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created The Man of Steel, a pulp novelist named Philip Wylie unveiled his own superman in his novel Gladiator. Hugo Danner shared many of the same abilities as Superman, including amazing strength, speed, leaping, and near invulnerability, both had fathers who were brilliant scientists, and both sought to use their powers for the good of humanity. On the surface the similarities are quite striking, and it is easy to find accusations that Superman is merely a copy of this earlier character. However, despite many allegations, I could find no solid evidence linking the two. If Siegel and Shuster did base Superman on Wylie’s Hugo Danner they didn’t leave a record of it, which seemed unusual considering how much they spoke about the creation of their character.
a fan of both old school pulp novels and comicbook heroes in any form, I wanted to compare the two. I found Gladiator to be compelling, thought-provoking, greatly enjoyable, and nothing like the story of
Superman despite their superficial similarities. It is a story that feels more at home alongside Alan Moore’s deconstructionist works like Marvelman or Watchmen than it does being compared to the idealistic, hopeful world Siegel and Shuster created with the last son of Krypton.
There are a few things to note before reading Gladiator. It’s a novel written using the language and atmosphere of its era, which gives it a dated feel. It predates superheros as we know them and you won’t find any special costumes or super villains. While it is an adventure story, it’s also a cautionary tale that confronts us with the pettiness of our species. It is an excellent book, but it is not uplifting.
The story begins with Hugo’s parents. His father is a reclusive, henpecked, emotionally detached man who embodies the term “milquetoast”. He is also a brilliant scientist seeking to unlock the secrets of creating the ultimate human being, but he does so not for fame or altruism, but primarily out of selfish curiosity. Hugo’s mother is an overbearing, nagging, extremely pious woman who frowns on her husband’s work as affronts to god.
Eventually the professor’s work bears fruit, and one of his first successes is on a kitten, imbuing the animal with fantastic powers. However the cat quickly becomes uncontrollable, able to casually smash through any door or cage they try to hold it in, and they soon come to fear the creature. When the cat takes to killing cattle, the Danners are forced to kill the animal by using a massive dose of poison.
Undeterred by this, the professor conspires to try his formula on a human, but it needs to be administered while an embryo is still developing. To accomplish this, he drugs his pregnant wife and administers the formula. When Hugo is born his mother quickly realizes what happened, however despite her misgivings she decides to cope with what her husband had done and rears the child as best she can while instilling in the young super-human the strict ideals of her own upbringing.
The rest of the novel follows Hugo as he and his powers grow, and as he seeks a purpose and place in the world. He is smarter and stronger than all those around him, torn between his deep need to hold himself back and fit in, and the almost irresistible compulsion to unleash his abilities and a conviction that he has a duty to play a vital role for humanity. It’s a struggle that Hugo never resolves, and time and time again he learns that his greatest foe isn’t any villain or natural disaster, it’s the crushing power of humanity with its fear, jealousy, and hatred for anything different or which makes people feel insignificant.
Hugo moves from place to place in life, finding what he thinks is somewhere he can belong, and then quickly outgrowing it or having to flee when his power is discovered. One of his first experiences with this is when he goes to university, where for the first time he faces challenges both mental, from his classes, and physical, when he becomes the star of the football team. People flock to him, taken by his charm and abilities, but gradually things begin to unravel. He learns faster than his teachers can educate him, and the accolades for his prowess on the football field give way to boredom because there is no challenge in the game. The situation reaches its climax when Hugo is faced by the jealousy of a fellow player during the final game and his anger causes him to lose control. Hugo goes on to win the game, but to his horror he hits another player so hard it kills the boy. Filled with grief and shame, Hugo leaves the school and begins wandering the world.
The same pattern follows Hugo for the rest of his life. The closest he ever comes to finding a place and purpose, where he doesn’t need to hold back and can still hide his nature from those around him comes in the horrors of World War I. Hugo joins the French Foreign Legion immediately after the war breaks out and becomes a killing machine, able to survive and achieve objectives that would be suicide for an entire company of normal soldiers. It is during the slaughter in the trenches that Hugo learns how truly powerful he is, especially in terms of invulnerability and strength, and at the same time he is able to conceal his nature from those around him. He refuses to explain what he is to his commanders and they quietly accept his secrecy, not wanting to lose what he can do. It is yet another tragedy in Hugo’s life that he is most accepted when he loses himself in the worst slaughter the world had ever faced.
After the war he returns to America and resumes his search, alternately for a way to fit in and a way to achieve greatness. He finds a job as a banker, but a man becomes trapped in a vault and Hugo has to rip it apart to save him. Instead of thanks, the bank manager has him arrested as a security risk, and crooked police officers try to torture his secret out of him. He goes to Washington where he tries to control politics from the shadows by scaring off politicians who oppose the causes he believes are right and just, but for every person he scares off another fills the vacuum in power. He embraces the cause of communism, believing in its claims to fight for the common man, but quickly learns they care more for money and power than human lives, just like all the others. These patterns repeat themselves over and over until they reach a powerful and tragic conclusion at the end of the book.
Gladiator is not a superhero story, it’s a story about alienation and struggle. It’s about the conflict that everyone feels, between wanting to find a quiet place to fit in and the desire to do something significant, magnified by the lens of superhuman ability. Ultimately it is also about how even the most powerful single person in the world is nothing compared to the weight of the entire human race.
You can purchase Gladiator from Amazon.com.