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
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
- Hugo Danner has an entry at the nearly always helpful International Catalogue of Superheroes site.
- Duane Spurlock wrote another essay over at Pulprack--Gladiator: Superman with Feet of Clay that is worth reading, if you're at all interested in Gladiator.
- R. J. Carter likewise has written about Gladiator/Hugo Danner as part of his Primer: The Men Before Superman essay.
- Gregory Freeley also wrote an interesting, academically-oriented essay on Gladiator--When World-views Collide: Philip Wylie in the Twenty-first Century. It's partly a review and partly an overview, but at least it's something.
- For a little lighter take on the whole Superman/Gladiator thing, check out Six Famous Characters You Didn't Know Were Shameless Rip-Offs at Cracked.
- There is a rather exhaustive bibliography for Philip Wylie at the Grove Antiquarian Books site.
- You could pay a lot for the University of Nebraska reprint of the Knopf edition of Gladiator, but since they fail to include anything remarkable in terms of some much needed scholarship regarding the origins and influence and impact of Gladiator on the Pulps, comics, and so forth, why not just get the cheaper version sans academic pretensions?
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...