Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Book Review: GLADIATOR

For forty years, I heard that Superman, the template for all modern superheroes, was inspired by Philip Wylie’s 1930 pulp sci-fi classic Gladiator. I’ve been a comic book fan since age six and grew up watching the old George Reeves Adventures of Superman TV episodes over and over, so you’d think I’d have read Wylie’s novel long ago. Well, I finally read it last week.

The comparisons to Superman are striking. Gladiator’s Hugo Danner, like Clark Kent, grows up in a rural town. He has great strength, can leap tall buildings in a single bound, and appears invulnerable to bullets, missiles, and the like. He believes, like Superman, in truth, justice, and the American Way. However, unlike Superman, Hugo isn’t from another planet but is the product of his scientist-father’s eugenics experiments (recalling another pulp hero, Doc Savage).

Where Gladiator differs most from the Superman saga is in its grimness. Hugo keeps his powers a secret, like Clark Kent, because he wants to “fit in” and lead a “normal” life. But there the similarity ends. Whereas Clark quickly discovers his purpose in life — to fight injustice, criminality, and cosmic cataclysms — Hugo never does. As a college football star, Hugo unintentionally kills a fellow player with his abnormal strength. He hides in Europe from friends and family, eventually serving in the French army, where his powers can be used more indiscriminately during World War I. But he despairs over mankind’s violent nature and his inability to affect the world positively. Throughout the novel, Hugo is plagued by discrimination and fear, and his story ends tragically.

Gladiator is, I think, more “realistic” than the Superman saga. As a kid, I used to dream of having super powers and using them to save lives and impress my friends. I imagined that everyone would admire me and desire my friendship, because I was, well, super. Now, forty years later, the tragic life of Hugo Danner seems more probable than the exciting life of Clark Kent. After all, in the real world, those who aspire to live outside the box and accomplish great things are most often resented, shunned, or forced to “fit in.”

I enjoyed Philip Wylie’s novel, and I admire it as an early sci-fi landmark. But I won’t embrace the book’s message of heartbreak and personal destruction, no matter how realistic it seems. Give me, instead, the improbable optimism of the Superman mythos, where heroes pursue their destinies largely undeterred.

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At 11:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For some classic "Old School" heroes you can never go past E.E.(Doc) Smith and his 'Lensman' series! That and 'Carter on Mars' by Burroughs:-)

At 11:11 AM, Blogger Wally Conger said...

Hey, Grinna!

Have never read the Lensman stuff but probably should. John Carter is aces with me, as I've written before on this blog. Tarzan rules, though.

At 1:18 PM, Blogger Matt Hiebert said...

Cool. A Gladiator post. Mind if I link to it from my site?

I, too, have a few doubts about the influence Gladiator had on Superman. There may have been some, but it's not the knock off that myth supports.


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