Philip Wylie, Sean Gilbert
(Independently published, April 9, 2018)
Hugo Danner was the pulp prototype of the modern superman. He was stronger than the mythic heroes of old and nigh invulnerable. He had superhuman speed and he could leap like a grasshopper. He was a circus strongman who put his god-like powers to the task of helping others, which began as an attempt to win wars for his country, but was later focused on holding our corrupt leaders to account for their dismissal of the common man’s struggle. In many ways that description is fitting of the original Superman, but while Hugo Danner arose at the dawn of the age of the superhero, he actually predates all of them. Hugo was introduced in Philip Wylie’s GLADIATOR, a pulp novel published in 1930, eight years before the introduction of his comic book counterparts. Hugo Danner’s origins are much more grounded than Superman’s. He is not sent from the Heavens to protect us and his powers are not naturally gifted by the sun. He actually owes his origins to a much more modern and terrestrial myth: Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN. Like the monster created by the titular character of Shelley’s novel, Hugo Danner’s powers are the product of science. His father vaccinated his pregnant mother with a formula derived from Alkaline Radicals so that their child would be born with preternatural powers. Hugo’s quest to put his power to purpose drives him to join the French Foreign Legion and fight in World War I, but even his strength proves insufficient to mitigate the horrors of war. In what is likely his greatest similarity to the Golden Age Superman, Hugo decides to direct his efforts toward social issues. This runs him afoul of crooked politicians and freedom fighters who are more concerned with their causes than they are with the people those causes are meant to support. GLADIATOR predicts the coming of the superhero by envisioning Hugo as a circus strongman in tights. Though Danner never dons the costume of a circus performer in his exploits, the imagery exists in the book as a subtle proof of concept. In the end, the tragedy of Frankenstein’s monster predicts Hugo Danner’s fate. He travels in search of answers and ultimately succumbs to his own despair. On the one hand, Hugo is faced with the prospect of perpetual personal loneliness and isolation. On the other, he must consider the potential horror of a world where other creatures such as himself are brought into existence. Unlike Superman, whose never-ending battle inspires scores of super-powered imitators who share his passion for two-fisted justice, Hugo has seen how difficult it can be to do good even when you have all the greatest power and all the noblest intentions. GLADIATOR leaves us with the question of how the world might benefit from the coming of a superman. It also gives us room to doubt if such a man could ever be happy here.