Friday, April 22, 2011

Picking Seeds From the Pulp: Gladiator

Gladiator is a pulp novel first published in 1930 by Philip Wylie. Yeah, that Philip Wylie -- the guy who also wrote When Worlds Collide. Gladiator was Wylie's third novel (a drastic revision of his first, Titan, actually)  and came out nearly eight years before Siegel & Shuster invented Ubermensch Superman for National/DC. In 1940 Wylie threatened to sue DC & Siegel for infringing/plagiarizing Gladiator, and even though Siegel had reviewed Gladiator in 1932 for his own fanzine, he claimed to not have been influenced or inspired by Wylie's character in developing Superman. Siegel even signed an affidavit to that effect. Whatever the truth of the matter, the case never went anywhere and Wylie seems to have dropped the matter. Speculation is that he did so because both Siegel & Schuster were in the midst of other lawsuits and in financial straits. Maybe that is so. The whole mess faded from public view fairly quickly. Most people forgot all about the brouhaha. But others haven't. Many believe Wylie's novel to have been the original impetus for Siegel & Schuster's very popular (and very litigious) character. This entry over at the Superman Story site is a quick example of someone still carrying the banner of the Gladiator's lost cause forwards into the modern day. They also have a very quick description of Gladiator's Hugo Danner that'll make it fairly obvious that Superman had a predecessor in print eight years his senior. Just saying...

So who is Hugo Danner? Good question. Philip Wylie was quite a bit ahead of the curve in 1930 (or 1926 when he later claimed to have first written the manuscript for Gladiator...). He had Hugo's papa, the not so mad scientist Professor Abednego Danner of Colorado invent a serum that he then injects into his pregnant wife. Really. It's another bit of science fictional spousal abuse just like in The Inmost Light all over again.

The serum doesn't kill the unborn child, nor the wife. Which is probably a darn good thing as it would have led to an investigation and some serious questions regarding Professor Abednego Danner's sanity and highly unethical methods, to say the least. Fortunately for little Hugo Danner, he is born with the proportional strength of an ant and the leaping ability of a grasshopper. Oh and he's bulletproof the way that Achilles was invulnerable to blades, etc., and that's without getting dipped in any smelly old river, and without the whole vulnerable heel thing either.

At first he seems like a lucky, lucky bastard...

...but in truth Hugo Danner is one morose, depressed and frustrated guy. He lacks confidence, has no real direction in life and to be quite frank, he's a real waste of superpowers. But then that was Wylie's intention. He wasn't interested in the colorful tights nor the super competent crime-fighters like The Shadow, Doc Savage, etc. He was looking at things from a more humanistic angle--how possessing such powers would remove a person from the commonplace in a way that might make it difficult for them to adapt, or to find their place in the world.

When some costumed schmuck starts prattling on and on about how they'd like to lead a normal life--it's partly Wylie's fault, and more importantly unrealistic bullshit bad writing, but it's what the unwashed masses expect, so the same old slop gets tossed out to them by the bucket-full.

Hugo Danner has a few modest adventures, most of which you see revised and made a bit more colorful and exciting or at least interesting in the early run of Superman.

In the end Hugo goes up on a mountain top and asks God in a weirdly snivelly manner for some advice and gets struck dead by a lightning bolt.




What a harsh bit of feedback indeed.

But Gladiator's Hugo Danner hasn't quite gone quietly into the good night. There is a very good website at the  Hugodanner.com domain, devoted to Gladiator essays and seems to be one of the best possible resources for all things Gladiator out there. You can read Wylie's Original Introduction, read Will Murray's thought provoking essay on Gladiator, check out a very cryptic inscription in Wylie's own hand, or view a gallery of Book Covers for Gladiator's various editions. There's an amusing Q&A page as well, but we're not sure if the site is still offering $5 for Gladiator essays. But if you're really interested in doing something along those lines, please do contact them--might as well get a $5 check than not...

You can acquire a free copy of the full text of Gladiator at Many Books or Archive(dot)Org -- it isn't old enough to show up on Gutenberg just yet.

A Few Gladiator Links

Perhaps more ignominious than just being ignored, plagiarized paid uncredited homage to, would be having the text converted into a B-grade comedy. This actually happened to Gladiator. They made a comedy out of the Gladiator novel starring Joe E. Brown in 1938. IMDb can give you some more details, if you're interested. You just can't make this stuff up.

In 1976 Roy Thomas adapted Gladiator for Marvel Comics in Marvel Preview #9 as 'Man God.' Then Thomas developed "Iron Munro" for DC as a Retcon-doppleganger for the editorially-erased Golden Age Superman. Iron Munro was one part the classic Street & Smith character and another part Wylie's Gladiator, but went on to become fairly well ignored as his own character. It turns out that Hugo Danner (Wylies' Gladiator) was Iron Munro's estranged father. Which was a very nice little precedent to be setting...

It was also very cool of Roy Thomas to have Iron Munro encounter Georgia Challenger in the course of his efforts to locate and learn what happened to his father, the ill-fated, whiny and supposedly lightning-blasted Gladiator, Hugo Danner. That's right. Arn, Iron Munro, meets a living, breathing, beautiful and butt-kicking grand-daughter of Professor Edward Challenger while investigating a secret government project (like one of those other projects all those scientists might have been working on in the secret underground complex featured in The Time Tunnel perhaps?)

Roy Thomas is so much fun.

Howard Chaykin and Russ Heath teamed-up to revise/adapt Wylie's Gladiator in the Wildstorm comics 4-part miniseries which might still be available at eBay for around $10. There isn't much available on this series, even with Chaykin & Heath having been attached to it. The mini-series just seemed to drain away into obscurity, which is very strange given the major talent involved in its creation.

Hugo Danner, the Gladiator, is a flawed, bungled and botched mess of a guy who just happens to have gained superpowers because his daddy was an unethical prick who injected his mother with an untested, experimental serum while he was still in the womb. The guy is a walking victim and a real sob sack, despite being invulnerable. He joined the French Foreign Legion and didn't really gain much in the way of honors or recognition, despite serving in WWI. You'd think that a guy who is bullet-proof, super strong and able to outrun a train just might have found himself making an impact on the battlefields of Europe in 1917. At least you'd think he might. But not this guy. Nope. He's conflicted, emotionally constipated and totally at a loss for what to do with himself.

It's a good thing that he gets blasted with a lightning bolt at the end of the novel.

But then maybe he survives the thunderbolt and goes off to reinvent himself. He was part of the whole Lost Generation, which really, really begs the question, at least for me, why the hell didn't a guy like Wylie who was one of the founders of The New Yorker write a more Upton Sinclair or F. Scott Fitzgerald sort of novel out of this stuff? Hugo Danner could have been a cross between Odd John and The Great Gatsby--and that would have been infinitely cooler than what we were given...

Maybe someone needs to really go back over this stuff and write a sort of pseudo-Regencypunk revision of Gladiator that merges it with Stapledon and Fitzgerald. That would be very, very cool...with or without flying monkeys...or vampires...


  1. It's funny, but the only things by Wylie I've read are non-fiction: The Magic Animal and Generation of Vipers. Except *maybe* I've read Gladiator, but I'm not sure. I had an old double-book -- the kind you flip to read a different novel. One of the novels may have been Gladiator. The other was a novel about man-made giants being used as pro athletes.

  2. Ha, found the book I had, and no, Gladiator wasn't one of the stories, so I haven't read it.


    The story I was talking about was the James Blish story, Giants in the Earth. Not sure if I read the Silverberg story or not.

  3. @Talysman: Wylies' Gladiator is interesting more from the standpoint of where it could lead than what it actually delivers. Blish and Silverberg in one of those ACE doubles? That sounds cool. We'll have to look for the Giants in the Earth story...

  4. Al Shroeder (in his Wold-Newton inspired speculations) developed a sort of biography of Superman based on the idea that Hugo Danner and Clark Kent were actually the same person, and both fictional portrayals were only telling part of the story. Tragically, his essays don't seem to be online any longer.

  5. @Trey: We'd love to see those essays! That's a very intriguing line of speculation that we'd dearly like to see more supporting evidence for...maybe his work will show up again, like at Win Eckert's excellent PJF/WNU site...

  6. http://www.pjfarmer.com/secret/marvelous/superman.htm
    I'm thinking of doing something a bit along this lines but with a touch of Khan thrown in.

  7. Those are Dennis Powers articles, which are good, but don't quite have the meticulousness of Schroeder's nor the sort of biographical development. I believe Powers also holds to a separate Superman and Gladiator theory.

    What can I say, I was involved in the WNU email groups back in the day. ;)

  8. Here we are, Schroeder's Speculations courtesy of the Wayback Machine.

  9. @Needles & Trey: Thank you both for the links & clarification. As much fun as it is to conflate the two, it is even more fun to have them running in tandem/parallel. Hugo Danning is more or less just a stud for genetically-enhanced offspring as Wylie left him. Rehabilitating him would take a lot more work than it might be worth. Coming up with a third alternative character who is similar, but neither of the other two ubermenschen...that is where it gets even more intriguing. Loads of opportunities there to be mined or exploited...just have to find that syringe full of radioactive bug gland extract...


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