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Secret Origin of the Superhero: On Philip Wylie's 'Gladiator'

Gregory L. Reece

If you have ever wondered what a superhero novel written by Ernest Hemingway would have been like, then Gladiator is your answer.

In 1953 George Reeves, TV’s gray-and-brown Superman, saved Leave it to Beaver’s Dad, Hugh Beaumont, from a locked furrier’s vault. Time was of the essence; the vault was filled with a deadly gas meant to keep moths away from the expensive furs. Superman, of course, arrived in the nick of time; he always arrived in the nick of time. He was greeted knowingly by the worried furrier, almost as if he had expected the hero to burst through the window and save the day. In the television Metropolis of 1953 this was a safe expectation; Superman always saved the day. Two gentle tugs and the door was off its hinges. Ward was free to go home to June, Wally and the Beaver. The formerly impenetrable door was left leaning against the wall, impenetrable no more. Superman made a wise-ass joke about a wearing a gas-mask and then left the way he came, through the open window.

This image is iconic: Superman, the Man of Steel, shatters vault doors that no human could crack, not to commit crime, not to steal the money or the jewels or the furs within but to save the lost, to liberate the captive, to right the wrong. He did it on the January, 1940 cover of Action, in what was only his eighth cover appearance. Last summer, seventy-five years after he burst onto the scene holding that green sedan over his head, he did it again; the first image released of Henry Cavill as Superman in the movie Man of Steel was of the actor as superhero standing in the ruins of a bank vault.

It is what Superman has always done, what he will always do.

But he was not the first.

Superman may have been the first super-powered costumed hero to appear in comicbooks, but he was clearly not the first super-powered hero. Before Superman there were the gods, like Hercules, who worked their wonders on earth as in heaven. Before Superman there was John Carter of Mars and Tarzan, heroes who leapt from the imagination of Edgar Rice Burroughs and then leapt from treetop to treetop and across the wilds of Barsoom. Before Superman there was Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze, fighting injustice from his 86th floor command-post and his fortress at the top of the world.

Before Superman there was Hugo Danner.

Danner is the super-powered protagonist of Philip Wylie’s 1930 novel, Gladiator. Like Superman, he possesses incredible strength, can leap great distances in a single bound, can run at amazing speed, and is invulnerable to bullets. Like Superman, there is little that can stand between him and where he wants to go, including a locked vault door:

He walked to the safe and rapped on it tentatively with his knuckles. He removed his coat and vest. He planted his feet against the steel sill under the door. He caught hold of the two handles, fidgeted with his elbows, drew a deep breath, and pulled. There was a resonant, metallic sound. Something gave. The edge of the seven-foot door moved outward and a miasma steamed through the aperture. Hugo changed his stance and took the door itself in his hands. His back bent. He pulled again. With a reverberating clang and a falling of broken steel it swung out. Hugo dragged the man who lay on the floor to a window that gave on a grated pit. He broke the glass with his fist. The clerk’s chest heaved violently; he panted, opened his eyes, and closed them tremblingly.

I don’t know whether or not Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, read Wylie’s novel; from what I understand, the historical evidence is uncertain. But the influence seems clear. This scene might as well have featured the Last Son of Krypton; it might as well have starred Christopher Reeve. This is what Superman does, with a reverberating clang and a falling of broken steel.

Wylie is probably best known for co-writing with Edwin Balmer the novel When Worlds Collide. When Worlds Collide was famously adapted for the big screen by George Pal in 1951. It is one of those classic sci-fi movies that I know I should have seen, yet never have. That novel’s story of approaching planetary calamity was an important influence on Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon and, perhaps, on Siegel and Shuster and their story of lost Krypton. Gladiator is less well-known but perhaps even more provocatively influential on popular culture, especially on the comicbook superhero.

I recently read Wylie’s novel for the first time. I knew going in that Hugo Danner is often mentioned as a precursor to Superman and as a possible influence on the young Siegel and Shuster. I had no idea that I was going to find so much more. Indeed, while I began reading this book with an eye towards similarities with Superman, before I was finished it was clear that much more was going on here. It is not just Superman that is contained within the pages of this novel, but the superhero itself.

This is the secret origin of the superhero.

There is plenty of Superman in these pages, of course. As the infant Man of Tomorrow wreaked havoc on his crib and nursery furnishings in Siegel’s and Shuster’s origin story, so does young super-powered Hugo Danner; he destroys a crib and two playpens and vaults out a second-story window. As the young Clark Kent learned that he could hurdle skyscrapers and leap an eighth of a mile, so the young Hugo learns that he can run and jump as no human ever could. Discovering his powers, Hugo confides in his father in the way that young Clark would confide in Pa Kent: “I can do things, dad. It kind of scares me. I can jump higher’n a house. I can run faster’n a train. I can pull big trees an’ push ‘em over.”

As a grown man, Hugo does feats fitting of Superman: he bends gun barrels, he stands unharmed before a hail of bullets, he builds a solitary fortress in the wilderness.

But while there is plenty of Superman in Hugo Danner, there is much more.

There are hints here of Captain America, super soldier. The serum injected into Hugo’s pregnant mother by his scientist father makes him the ultimate fighting machine; when he joins the French Foreign Legion to battle the Germans in World War I, Hugo, like Captain America, is a force to be reckoned with, a single soldier that could turn the tide of any battle. (For that matter, Hugo’s berserker rage in the heat of battle is reminiscent of another Marvel hero, the Hulk.) One scene in the novel is remarkably similar to a crowd-pleasing scene in the recent film Captain America: the Winter Solider. In the movie, Steve Rogers runs laps around Sam Wilson calling out to him each time he passes. In Gladiator, Hugo does the same to a college track star.

Nelson, one of the best sprinters Webster (College) had had for years, dashed forward. He had covered thirty feet when he heard a voice almost in his ear. “Faster, old man.” Nelson increased. “Faster, boy, I’m passing you.” The words were spoken quietly, calmly. A rage filled Nelson. He let every ounce of his strength into his limbs and skimmed the canvas. Half a lap. Hugo ran at his side and Nelson could not lead him. The remaining half was not a race. Hugo finished thirty feet in the lead.

Hugo Danner is also, in many ways, reminiscent of Spider-Man. Professor Danner’s experiments are meant to give his subjects the proportional strength of insects, in this case not spiders but grasshoppers and ants. This is how Professor Danner describes Hugo’s powers to his son:

Did you ever watch an ant carry many times its weight? Or see a grasshopper jump fifty times its length? The insects have better muscles and nerves than we have. And I improved your body till it was relatively that strong.

There are other similarities to Spider-Man. Young Hugo must be careful when he uses his powers to confront school bullies, in much the way Peter Parker had to manage his conflicts with Flash Thompson. Hugo uses his powers to earn money in the boxing ring in a way that is reminiscent of Peter’s foray into wrestling. Hugo, like Peter, feels responsible for a death and is driven by that sense of guilt and responsibility to try to make atonement. In Hugo’s case, he accidently slays an opposing player in a college football game, an incident that sends him out into the world to seek his fate.

All of this makes reading the novel an odd experience for someone raised on Superman, Spider-Man and Captain America. As I read the novel, I was forced to keep reminding myself that Gladiator preceded the comicbook superhero. Hugo’s powers, his marvelous deeds and feats of strength, are now the stock-in-trade of comicbook writers. Reading it today, after seventy-five years of Superman and fifty years of Spider-Man, it is hard to shake the sense that this novel is a recent invention, written intentionally as a superhero novel. And, as superhero novels go, a genre of fiction that I usually despise, this is a pretty good one.

As a matter of fact, because Wylie’s story is filled with sex, prostitution, lots of alcohol, and heavy helpings of moral ambiguity, Gladiator comes off as a thoroughly modern and adult superhero story. Indeed, when the story was adapted for comics in 1976 by Roy Thomas and Earl Norem, it was published by Marvel in their adult-oriented black-and-white magazine Marvel Preview. Hugo is twice as conflicted as a Stan Lee superhero. He is directly, not just indirectly, responsible for the death of an innocent. He considers both a life of crime and a life of heroism, and chooses, or stumbles into, something decidedly in-between. He wanders from place to place, from situation to situation, never coming to terms with who he is and the power that he possesses. All of the pathos that Zack Snyder tried to summon up in Man of Steel seems lifted right from these pages. Hugo grows a beard and goes to sea. He drinks, and screws, and goes to war. Gladiator reminds me of a mid-eighties DC graphic novel written in prose, everything is dark and conflicted, erotic and bloody.

If you have ever wondered what a superhero novel written by Ernest Hemingway would have been like, then Gladiator is your answer. (I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence.)

Wylie’s book, mostly un-credited, is the secret source of much of the four-color pulp heroics that generations have grown up with. Though I read Gladiator for the first time just weeks ago, as it turns out it is the source of so many of my childhood fantasies and my adult obsessions. If, as some have argued, the superhero story is a modern myth and the comicbook a kind of sacred text for a secular-age, then Gladiator is the urtext from which everything was borrowed. Reading it, for me, was like reading the epic of Gilgamesh for the first time, like discovering that before the story of Noah there was the story of Utnapishtim and the flood. It is like discovering the lost Gospel of Q.

Before Siegel and Shuster, before Simon and Kirby, before Kirby and Lee, there was Wylie. Before Superman, before Captain America, before Spider-Man, there was Hugo Danner, there was the Gladiator.

For seventy-five years, for all of my life and long before, Superman has saved the day. For almost as long, Captain America has battled the forces of tyranny with the power given to him by science. For fifty years, Spider-Man has used the proportionate strength of a spider to keep his neighborhood safe. During World War II, superheroes inspired kids at home and soldiers on the battlefield. They have taught generations of readers important lessons about power and responsibility. They have filled the pages of comicbooks, whether printed on pulp paper or digitized on shiny screens. They have entertained us on Saturday morning television. They have thrilled us on IMAX movie screens. They have made us laugh and cry. For so many, including this writer, they have been a source of inspiration.

They have done what superheroes have always done, what they will always do. They have saved the day countless times, always arriving in the nick of time. But they were not the first.

Before them all was the Gladiator.

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