Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Gladiator by Philip Wylie

If Dreiser wrote Superman
Gladiator, a 1930 novel by Philip Wylie, is rumored to be the inspiration for the comic book character Superman. It features a protagonist who is incredibly strong, virtually indestructible, and bears a head of “hair so dark as to be nearly blue.” At one point he even builds his own fortress of solitude. The likeness ends there, however. I approached this book expecting typical pulp fiction fare, but I got much more than I bargained for when it turned out to be a surprisingly profound and intelligent work of literature.

Abednego Danner is a biology professor at a small college in Indian Creek, Colorado. Ridiculed by his academic colleagues, mild-mannered Danner is the last person anyone would expect to make one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time. That’s exactly what happens, however, when he develops a biochemical serum that holds the secret to superhuman strength and invulnerability. Having testing his formula on animals, Danner requires a human test subject. Exercising questionable ethics, he injects his pregnant wife with the serum, thus creating a superhuman son, Hugo.

The opening chapters of Gladiator have a slapstick comedy feel reminiscent of some of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s more humorous tales. Once Hugo Danner grows into a man, however, the tone becomes much more serious, even frightening at times. Far from seeing his powers as a great boon, Hugo views them as a curse. Every public display of his prodigious strength is met with fear, contempt, and hatred. He drifts from place to place, struggling to find a way to put his unique talents to some worthy use, but all his efforts end in destruction and/or ostracism.

Despite its sensationalistic science fiction trappings, Gladiator has some serious philosophical undertones. Hugo Danner is a literary manifestation of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the superman. However, Wylie deliberately contrasts his well-intentioned hero with Nietzsche’s predatory “blonde beast” in order to challenge the inherent authority of might and examine the ethical exercise of power. Hugo has to contend with the fact that he is a god among mere mortals and must face the moral dilemma of whether he has the right to dominate his fellow men. This was at a period in history when fascism was rising and eugenics was taken seriously. Wylie alludes to both as fearful possibilities looming on the horizon.

Hugo’s journey can also be seen as everyman’s struggle to find a meaning to life in the modern world. At times Wylie’s writing resembles a Theodor Dreiser novel in its examination of interwar social conditions. Hugo’s life is a naturalistic reflection of his times. Income inequality, the class struggle, political corruption, labor strife, the First World War, and the Sacco & Vanzetti trial are all thoughtfully scrutinized from Wylie’s liberal perspective. Gladiator is also admirably forward in its frank depiction of sexuality. Though devoid of graphic details, Wylie discusses recreational sex in a matter-of-fact and nonjudgemental manner that’s unusual for its time.

Though never proven, it seems unlikely that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman with no prior knowledge of Wylie’s novel. The similarities are just too glaring. Even so, this pleasant surprise is far superior to any pulp strongman action tale. Gladiator is an excellent work of early 20th-century American literature that deserves to be widely known and respected.
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