We’re going historic for this review. There is a scene in the final issue of Alan Moore’s Supreme run, V2 #6, where Supreme meets the giant disembodied floating head of Jack Kirby. Yes, this actually happened. This was a fantastic end to a spectacular run, which is my pick for both best Creative Turn Around and Best Ret-Con/Reboot. In this scene Kirby describes Supreme as a “Wylie” since he is a basic Superman archetype. He also states that Dark detectives are “Gibson’s” and warrior princesses are “Moulton’s”. Hopefully none of you need the links to figure out why these two are the listed character type creators. But I had never heard of Wylie and set out to remedy that lapse.
Gladiator, written by Phillip Wylie was originally published in 1930 by Knopf Publishing, 8 years before the first issue of Action Comics. This is the 332 page story of Hugo Danner, modified in the womb by his scientist father using “Alkaline Radicals” to improve the human body giving it the proportional strength of an ant and the jumping ability of a grasshopper. Since this story is 84 years old, I’m going to go ahead and spoil most of it. Feel free to read it yourself if you want to immerse yourself in the proto-Superman, but here’s the basic synopsis.
Hugo’s father tests his radical theories about the human body, first on tadpoles, then a cat. After killing these successful experiments for fear of them turning against their creator, he decides to change his unborn child as well, hoping to create a better man. Hugo’s childhood is rough, with all of his classmates either teasing him for his strength or scared of him because of it. While trying to keep his super strength hidden, he grows up, eventually goes to college, and excels at sports and school because he also has an advanced intellect. After killing a guy while playing football, he eventually gets bored with school, runs out of money, and begins to work as a strongman on Coney Island. Eventually becoming bored with this as well, he skips the rest of school and hops on a boat bound for the Orient taking odd jobs. During this time, because of intellect, he makes intelligent investments and earns a ton of money. He then hears about Germany making efforts to attack France, and joins the Foreign Legion to fight against them. After destroying whole divisions single-handedly due to his super-strength and bullet-proof skin, he eventually decides to make a suicide run to kill the German high command to end the war. Of course this decision happens on the day of the armistice and he doesn’t actually do it. War over, he goes back home and after hearing that his money was quadrupled by his bankers through war profiteering, he gives it all away to his parents in disgust. A stupid idea since the next few chapters are spent trying to find work in a depression and nearly starving to death. Eventually he makes it home for his Dad’s death and takes back the money. He then tries to correct the corrupt nature of the US government. After finding it can’t be solved by hitting or threatening it, he gives up and goes on an expedition to South America to work on a new anthropological dig, where he is eventually struck by lightning and killed. The End.
This book is clearly a product of its time. There is a lot in here about the inherent nature of certain men over others, particularly in gentlemanly character. There’s also a little racism and a lot of sexism. Hugo’s father is EXTREMELY worried about the possibility that his unborn child might be a woman when trying to decide to make the change in utero.
There was another danger. If the child was female and became like his wife [mean and strong-willed], then the effect of such strength would be awful indeed. He envisioned a militant reformer, an iron-bound Calvinist, remodeling the world single-handed. A Scotch Lilith, a matronly Gabriel, a she-Hercules. He shuddered.
There’s some religion mentioned in the book particularly in the beginning where other scientists mention how Hugo’s father will be punished by God for daring to tamper with God’s creation. Undaunted he goes ahead anyway of course. God doesn’t factor in again until the climax, which I’ll mention below. Most of these antiquated ideas and attitudes don’t bother me because I can acknowledge the time period when they were written. Even the prose, which is overly descriptive in places and lacking in other areas is reminiscent of similar books from that time. But some of the antique nature of the novel is really annoying. There’s Hugo’s boredom and his inability to think of something to do with his ability until someone else tells him what to do. There’s his attitude toward money, which he then flip-flops on without any internal reasoning: It’s unimportant until he runs out of it, and then it’s worthless if ill-gotten, which leads to him almost dying from starvation until he gets it back. There’s the Professor he goes on his SA dig with, who upon discovering Hugo’s strength and learning his history, decided that since Hugo is so special and since he choose to come on this dig, then that means that it represents the epitome of scientific discovery and is the most important event occurring at that time. It has to be true, Hugo’s here! So after a long night of storytelling with the Professor, Hugo confesses to his boredom about the future. The Professor suggests building a new colony of people with his abilities and slowly taking over the world and making it better. (I’m not kidding, this is the actual plan). Hugo, excited but uncertain about this idea, takes the only copy of his father’s research to the jungle and climbs a mountain to confront God and decide a course of action. After deciding to go through with it, he’s struck by lightning and the research is burned up with him. Thanks, God. Afterward, the professor searches for his body and upon finding it, shrugs his shoulders and basically says “Oh well” before heading back to the dig, as if it’s no big deal that the most powerful being in the universe didn’t just die. He’s supposed to be a scientist!
I’m mostly annoyed by a lack of imagination follow-through. I can’t say lack of imagination because this is a Proto-Superman story after all and he did predict WW2 10 years before it actually happened. But it’s the author’s inability to imagine what someone with these powers would actually do and how it would actually affect society. In most cases when someone finds out the level of Hugo’s strength, they simply pretend it’s normal. It takes a while before Hugo after learning that he’s pretty much indestructible, to decide to end the war alone, and even then he doesn’t even do anything about it. Maybe Wylie, simply felt that if he went for a full extrapolation then people would think it was too unrealistic, I don’t know.
In any case, there is some interesting stuff in here and some annoying stuff as well. While we can’t be sure Siegel and Shuster used this book as their inspiration for Superman, there are a lot of similarities. Though they took it much further and with better skill far surpassing this novel, it is still an important piece in comic book history and well worthy of review.
Rating: 3 stars – Andrew liked it.
It’s really a two-star book (It was OK) but I gave it a bump due to historical context.
Andrew McBride is no longer the newest THN Love Slave. This makes him sad.