Saturday, June 7th, 2008

Before he devoted an entire work to obscure proto-superhero references, Alan Moore wrote Watchmen, which includes one important proto-superhero reference.

On the shelf of Hollis Mason — the original Nite Owl, turned car mechanic — are three books: his memoirs, Under the Hood; Automobile Maintenance; and Philip Wylie’s 1930 novel, Gladiator, which many argue is the original inspiration for Superman.

I didn’t catch the Gladiator reference in my first, pre-Google reading of Watchmen, decades ago, but my recent re-reading spurred me to move my copy of Gladiator to the front of my reading queue.

Reading Gladiator now, as someone who takes Superman for granted, is an almost disorienting experience; it’s almost as if Siegel and Shuster took Wylie’s work and surgically removed, even inverted, all of its dark, lost generation irony.

In Gladiator, the protagonist, Hugo Danner, is born in a small town in the Midwest — Indian Creek, Colorado — but his parents are a hen-pecked local college biology professor and an obsessively religious shrew of a woman — more backward and small-minded than salt of the earth.

Danner leaps across a river, jumps fifty feet straight up, lifts a cannon overhead with one arm, kills a shark by ripping its jaws apart, fells a charging bull with a fist between the eyes, and lifts a car by its bumper and turns it around in the road. “All of these were, in 1930, fresh and new and very exciting to read about,” Wylie’s biographer notes — but even though Superman goes on to do all of these things, the tone of Wylie’s novel couldn’t be further from a four-color comic book. When Danner joins the French Foreign Legion at the start of the Great War — which certainly sounds romantic, doesn’t it? — he ends up killing German soldiers. Many, many German soldiers. When his friend dies in an artillery barrage that he survives, he goes into a berserk rage and tears apart his enemies with his bare hands. It feels like digging his hands into warm cow manure.

Wylie’s original introduction to the Book League Monthly edition, from March 1930, makes it clear that Danner’s powers aren’t going to save the day:

A temperamental consciousness of material force brought Hugo Danner into being. The frustration of my own muscles by things, and the alarming superiority of machinery started the notion of a man who would be invincible. I gave him a name and planned random deeds for him. I let him tear down Brooklyn Bridge and lift a locomotive. Then I began to speculate about his future and it seemed to me that a human being thus equipped would be foredoomed to vulgar fame or to a life of fruitless destruction. He would share the isolation of geniuses and with them would learn the inflexibility of man’s slow evolution. To that extent Hugo became symbolic and Gladiator a satire. The rest was adventure and perhaps more of the book derives from the unliterary excitement of imagining such a life than from a studious juxtaposition of incidents to a theme.

Previous to the appearance of Gladiator, although not before its conception, I wrote Heavy Laden and Babes and Sucklings. Both ware realistic stories of people and places which I had known. The brief I held for realism convinces me less and less. Space is wide. Man is small. That he exists is romantic. The novelist now usurps the chair of the educator, the pulpit of the preacher, the columns of the journalist. Yet his original purpose of entertaining may have been his highest purpose.

Philip Wylie is a fascinating writer, who didn’t restrict himself to science fiction, but whose science fiction works were highly influential. In addition to Gladiator, which likely inspired Superman, he wrote The Savage Gentleman, which likely inspired Doc Savage, and When Worlds Collide, with Edwin Balmer, which inspired Alex Raymond’s comic strip, Flash Gordon.

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