What if I told you that there was a superhero who could go toe to toe with the man of steel? Or that this hero's teenage years were filled with enough angst to make Spider-Man's adolescence appear well-adjusted? What if this hero possessed the speed of the Flash, the Hulk's rage, Batman's fortune and grim vision, could stride the battlefield like Captain America, master the denizens of the deep like Aquaman and be feared and mistrusted by society like the X-Men?
You would be intrigued. You'd wonder where this hero came from and risk several dozen paper cuts flipping through your Overstreet trying to track him down.
And if I told you this hero was named Hugo Danner, odds are you never heard of him.
And his creator? Siegel and Shuster? Stan Lee? Bob Kane? Will Eisner?
In 1930, one year before The Shadow, three years before Doc Savage, six years prior to The Phantom, eight before Superman, the superhero was created by one man, author Philip Wylie. His creation, Hugo Danner, did not blast across the pages of a comic book but rather a novel (and not a graphic novel) called Gladiator, which tells the story of Danner's journey as the strongest man alive.
Danner grows up in rural farm country. Sound familiar?
He can bend steel, leap forty feet in the air, is impervious to all harm except an artillery shell, fights as WWI's first and only super soldier. Sound familiar?
Danner must hide his strength from a mistrustful society. Sound familiar?
Has his teenage years marred by a tragedy he caused. Sound familiar?
And dedicates himself to fighting for truth and justice. Sound familiar?
Gladiator is all of these things and so much more. This novel, which should be required reading for anyone who has thrilled to the exploits of caped crusaders, not only single-handedly creates the superhero, it somehow manages to encapsulate the themes and motifs of just about every comic ever printed since. All in one slim novel with no costumes and no eye-catching artwork. This is a staggering achievement. Gladiator is the mythical nutshell.
Listen to Danner's inner musings, years before comics' Golden Age, and see the creation of an industry:
"What would you do if you were the strongest man in the world, the strongest thing in the world, mightier than the machine?" He made himself guess answers to that rhetorical query. "I would -- I would have won the war. But I did not. I would run the universe single-handed. Literally single-handed. I would scorn the universe and turn it to my own ends. I would be a criminal. I would rip open banks and gut them. I would kill and destroy. I would be a secret and invisible blight. I would set out to stamp crime off the earth; I would be a super-detective, following and summarily punishing every criminal until no one dared to commit a felony. What would I do? What would I do?"
And there it is, the blueprint of a genre, springing from the mind of one man. The birth of the superhero and the supervillain. Siegel and Shuster have claimed that Gladiator was the inspiration for Superman and, reading Wylie's masterpiece, it is not hard to see the truth of that claim.
Gladiator has never been adapted to comics, has never appeared on the silver screen in a multi-million dollar movie franchise, nor on television in an animated series or prime time. There are no merchandising lines or theme parks. And I can't help but wonder if this is because Wylie's vision became a self-fulfilling prophecy, so uncannily predicting everything that followed that comic creators shied away from it lest the be considered plagiarists.
What Edgar Allan Poe did for the mystery story and H.G. Wells for science-fiction, Wylie did for superheroes. Gladiator reads like a comic book, a great comic book, on par with the original Superman, Batman, Stan Lee's best, Watchmen, Sin City, Dark Knight and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
It has all the drama, daring, heartbreak and adventure comic readers could ever want. The novel's place in the history of the genre is unquestionable, but it is important to note that the story stands on its own as one heck of a superhero ride.
The novel is currently available from University of Nebraska Press and simply must not be missed. The writing is edgy, crisp and fast-paced, with surprising disregard for the conventions and morals of the '30's. Hugo Danner is no squaky-clean Superman but rather comes across as gritty as Frank Miller with a world view that would make The Punisher smile, coupled with a compulsion to do the right thing that would put Peter Parker to shame.
As an exciting superhero story, Gladiator delivers. As a piece of history, the novel rises above and beyond all expectation.
Here is another excerpt from the latter part of the novel when Danner is still agonizing over how to best use his gifts for the betterment of mankind. His newfound mentor offers a suggestion, the clarity of which sends chills up and down the reader's spine:
Hugo gasped -- "You mean -- other men like me?" "Exactly. Not one or two. Scores, hundreds. And women. Perfect bodies, intellectual minds, your strength. Don't you see? You are not the reformer of the old world. You are the beginning of the new. The New Titans! Then -- slowly -- you dominate the world. Conquer and stamp all these things to which you and I and all men of intelligence object. In the end -- you are alone and supreme."
In the end, Gladiator stands alone and supreme as an unparalleled work of speculative fiction and Hugo Danner and Philip Wylie deserve a place of honour in the great pantheon of those who came after.