And Then I Read: GLADIATOR by Philip Wylie


I’ve long known of this book because it is said to have inspired Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in the creation of Superman, and is often cited as inspiration for superheroes in general. I read a comics adaptation of it by Howard Chaykin and Russ Heath published in 2005, but until now I had never read the original novel.

Professor Abednego Danner teaches in a small college town in Colorado, but his obsession is his work to develop a serum to create animals with much greater strength and toughness than normal, proportionally as strong as ants and other insects. He succeeds, and after experimenting with animals he injects his pregnant wife, unknown to her. Their son Hugo Danner begins exhibiting great strength as an infant, but he is also a good and reasonable child that they are able to train and teach. At first Hugo’s parents hide him from the world, but once they have taught him the dangers of his abilities, and the importance of keeping them secret, he’s allowed to go to school. Hugo soon finds out that being different will ostracize him from other kids, and aside from a few mistakes, he’s able to get through school without too much trouble, but his strength and his secret are already making him feel alone in the world.

At college, Hugo is determined to fit and and get a fresh start. He reluctantly agrees to join the football team, even though the coach soon finds out at least some of his powers, but his teammates accept him and come to rely on him to win games. For his final game, he decides to sit out to give the rest of the team a chance to win on their own, but they’re unable to do so, and Hugo has to get in and take over. He gets angry at an opponent and accidentally kills the player from the other team, ending his college life and football career.

Hugo spends some time in New York City, and finds a girl there he likes, but he always feels unsatisfied. He wants some way to use his abilities that will seem worthwhile and perhaps make him a hero, but nothing seems to work out. He becomes a sailor for a while, and ends up in France at the beginning of World War One. Hugo knows he would make a nearly invincible soldier, and the cause seems just. While he’d rather do something creative, becoming an unbeatably destructive soldier seems to offer him a chance to finally realize his full heritage.

Hugo’s wartime exploits are covered in detail, as are the grim and gory realities of war, and it’s probably the most depressing part of the book, as Hugo finds even his great powers cannot save his friends or turn then tide, try as he might. In despair, he’s about to fly to Germany alone to take on the war leaders when the war is declared over.

Back in the United States, Hugo has more adventures, but finds little satisfaction, and is always in danger of his secret abilities making him an outcast. At last he heads to South America with a team of explorers hoping new adventures there will bring him satisfaction.

That’s probably too much of the plot, but there’s plenty more in the book. I enjoyed reading this even though it tends to become depressing and tragic. If this was an inspiration for Superman (never confirmed), one can see young Siegel and Shuster stayed well away from the grim realities of being super-strong as depicted so well in this novel. The writing and characters are vivid and smart, not as pulplish as I was expecting, and the portrait of America and humanity is thoughtful and insightful. Well worth your time.


2 thoughts on “And Then I Read: GLADIATOR by Philip Wylie

  1. Bob Cosgrove

    I read this a few years ago, like you, prompted by my reading of the Chaykin-Heath adaptation, which I think, in retrospect, was very well done. As I recall there was also an earlier, Marvel adaptation of a portion of the novel, in magazine format, probably by Roy Thomas, with art by Buscema and Dezuniga. I don’t know if the cover scan you posted represents your copy of the book, but if so, you obviously got a spiffier copy than I did, I’m not sure “a lusty life of an uninhibited Superman,” and the general look of the cover, is fair advertisement of the contents of the book, but I guess that’s in the best pulp tradition.

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