Today on Project Gutenberg #53

Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

Gladiator by Philip Wylie

I’m cheating a little bit this time around. I selected this title ahead of time rather than stumbling across it at random. Why? Because I’ve read most of it before, and because it fits the themes that have been on my brain recently. That’s right, we’re not done talking about superheroes.

Who is the first recognizable superhero in pop culture? Most people with a casual knowledge of the subject would likely point to 1938, when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the character of Superman. Others might point to the character of Doc Savage, who was created in 1933 and shares several key traits with the Man of Steel. But today, we’re going back to 1930 and taking a look at a little-known novel that has a clear impact on superhero narratives to this day.

Abednego Danner is a brilliant and unscrupulous scientist living in early 1900s Colorado. Fueled by a fascination with genetics (and a dash of resentment toward his ultra-religious wife), he develops a serum that can endow animals with incredible speed and strength. And when his wife becomes pregnant, he replicates the experiments on their unborn child without her knowledge. As a result, Abednego’s son Hugo is born with super strength, bulletproof skin and the power to leap hundreds of feet in the air. Forbidden from telling anybody about his powers, young Hugo grows up fearing society and feeling ostracized. As an adult, he strikes out on his own and tries to find his place in the world. But no matter what he tries, be it soldiering or politics or just working in a bank, his powers will never allow him to live an ordinary life.

From a modern perspective, Gladiator must seem like the most clichéd nonsense ever. A character with the most basic package of superpowers trying to decide what to do with them? Yawn, right? Perhaps, but we need to put things in context. This book may not be great literature, but it still helped establish several key themes and tropes of the superhero genre. And it’s somewhat ahead of its time with its darker and more grounded approach to these ideas.

Hugo Danner is not a superhero as we might define the term. He does not wear a costume, he does not have a secret identity, he does not even fight crime. He’s just a guy who wants to be normal but is prevented from doing so. At best, his powers make him a social outcast and cause others to be suspicious of him for doing unexplainable things. And at worst, his strength accidentally kills people.

For one instant Hugo looked into his eyes. And in that instant the captain saw a dark and flickering fury that filled him with fear. The whistle blew. And then Hugo, to his astonishment, heard his signal. Lefty was disobeying the captain. He felt the ball in his arms. He ran smoothly. Suddenly he saw a dark shadow in the air. The captain hit him on the jaw with all his strength. After that, Hugo did not think lucidly. He was momentarily berserk. He ran into the line raging and upset it like a row of tenpins. He raced into the open. A single man, thirty yards away, stood between him and the goal. The man drew near in an instant. Hugo doubled his arm to slug him. He felt the arm straighten, relented too late, and heard, above the chaos that was loose, a sudden, dreadful snap. The man’s head flew back and he dropped. Hugo ran across the goal. The gun stopped the game. But, before the avalanche fell upon him, Hugo saw his victim lying motionless on the field. What followed was nightmare. The singing and the cheering. The parade. The smashing of the goal posts. The gradual descent of silence. A pause. A shudder. He realized that he had been let down from the shoulders of the students. He saw Woodman, waving his hands, his face a graven mask. The men met in the midst of that turbulence.

“You killed him, Hugo.”

The earth spun and rocked slowly. He was paying his first price for losing his temper. “Killed him?”

“His neck was broken in three places.”

Chapter 9

As you may have gathered from that excerpt, Hugo’s powers are not treated as a great gift or a symbol of some higher calling. Not by the narrative, and definitely not by Hugo himself. If anything, he thinks that his powers make him a worse person and permanently divide him from the rest of humanity:

“Look at me in another light,” Hugo went on. “I’ve tried to give you an inkling of it. You were the first who saw what I could do—glimpsed a fraction of it, rather—and into whose face did not come fear, loathing, even hate. Try to live with a sense of that. I can remember almost back to the cradle that same thing. First it was envy and jealousy. Then, as I grew stronger, it was fear, alarm, and the thing that comes from fear—hatred. That is another and perhaps a greater obstacle. If I found something to do, the whole universe would be against me. These little people! Can you imagine what it is to be me and to look at people? A crowd at a ball game? A parade? Can you?”

Chapter 23

The first person to learn about Hugo’s powers suggests a possible reason for his existence, to find/create other people like himself and raise a master race, but this isn’t presented as good thing. In fact, the narration depicts it almost as a horrible temptation that could possibly doom the whole world. So what is Hugo’s purpose, then? What was he placed on the earth to do? At the end of the story, he finally asks that question to the heavens. And God has an…emphatic response:

A bolt of lightning stabbed earthward. It struck Hugo, outlining him in fire. His hand slipped away from his mouth. His voice was quenched. He fell to the ground.

Chapter 23

You heard it here first, folks. God hates superheroes.

As a whole, the superhero genre took the basic ideas of Gladiator and ran off in a completely different direction with them. The Golden and Silver Ages of Comic Books introduced the silly costumes, the more elaborate powers and a more fun, optimistic view of these characters. But time is a flat circle, and as eras of storytelling come and go, we start to see more of Wylie’s themes reappear in the mainstream. A story like Gladiator wouldn’t be too out of place in the 70s and especially the 80s/90s, when the Dark Age of Comics was in full swing and writers like Frank Miller and Alan Moore were first achieving huge acclaim. A tortured, tragic hero who questions his purpose in the world and the validity of his very existence? That kind of story/protagonist was quite common in the comics of those decades.

These days, the pendulum has begun to swing in the other direction, largely due to the influence of recent comic book movies. But even there, we can still see echoes of Hugo Danner’s story every now and then. The most obvious character to compare him to is Superman, and when writers want to make Superman a little bit darker, they will often go for the “the world is afraid of me and I don’t know what I’m supposed to be” plotline. The DCEU version of Superman is especially prone to this: there are a few scenes in Man of Steel that could have been taken from the pages of Gladiator.

I don’t know if I would call this a genuinely good book. I think it’s more fun to talk about than it is to read. But it can be plenty of fun to talk about! If you have an interest in pulpy, early 20th-century books like this and/or want to know more about the history of the superhero genre, this is worth checking out.

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!

— Dana

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