Did Superman's Creators Rip Off a Science-Fiction Novel? Part Two of Two
Copyright 2018 by Michael W. Rickard II
Last week I began my analysis of Phillip Wylie's 1930 novel Gladiator and its influence on Superman.
Gladiator was eclipsed by the success of Superman, but Superman’s success would not go unnoticed by author Phillip Wylie. Siegel and Shuster’s work contained far too many similarities for Wylie not to consider it plagiarism. Siegel and Shuster denied Superman was based on Gladiator, but legend has it that Jerry Siegel mentioned Gladiator in his science fiction fanzine. Unfortunately, no evidence of this particular fanzine remains.
In his biography of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Brad Ricca sheds light on the question “Though Gladiator came out in 1930, Jerry claimed early on that he never read it, and there is no way to prove otherwise. But he surely at least read the review, which appeared in the June 1930 issue of Amazing Stories, his favorite magazine” (131). Ricca provides an excerpt of the Amazing Stories review:
"The Gladiator is a book, which starts well, is quite readable, and entertaining throughout, but is, after all, disappointing. It is based on the fact that insects, such as ants and grasshoppers are veritable giants of strength, comparing their size to man…” (qtd. in Ricca 131).
Ultimately, Wylie chose not to sue Siegel and Shuster. Were there enough similarities to prevail at trial? In a 2013 interview, comics historian Gerard Jones weighed in,
“’Siegel was saying the world needs a superior being to save us from what no one else can,"’ Jones said. ‘And Wylie was clearly telling us that the world couldn't handle a superior being’" (German). This matches up with Charles Hatfield’s take on Gladiator, “Wylie had a sour and satirical take on the idea of the superior being. An H. L. Mencken– inspired debunker and skeptic, Wylie posited that any superior being would be thwarted and defeated by the powerful forces of mass stupidity and venality” (4).
While Danner performs occasional heroic actions, his frustration with his powers is far different than Superman, who embraces his powers to help mankind.
Still, there are other elements that suggest Superman’s creators were influenced by Gladiator. Consider Siegel and Shuster’s original Superman story (a prototype that was never published)—in it, a destitute man is injected with a formula that transforms him into a mental giant. He selfishly uses his powers to amass wealth and power, threatening the world until his powers fade without warning. This Superman was unlike Hugo Danner in that he was sinister and his powers were mental rather than physical. However, this Superman was an Earthling and relied on better living through chemistry to gain his powers.
Although Wylie apparently chose not to sue, the book did take advantage of Superman’s popularity. A 1938 comedy film The Gladiator was a loose adaptation of Wylie’s book and while it was released two months after Superman’s debut, I have no information whether it was quickly made to capitalize on the character’s overnight success. The film told the story of a football player who is injected with a serum that bestows superhuman abilities upon him. Gladiator was re-released and did take advantage of Superman’s name value, with promotional art proclaiming, “The Lusty Life of an Uninhibited Superman!”
The more "super" version of Gladiator's cover.
Whatever Gladiator’s influence on Superman, the novel became a part of comic book lore. During the 1970’s, Marvel Comics’ black and white magazine Marvel Preview featured an adaptation of the first half of Wylie’s novel.
Marvel Preview's adaptation of Gladiator
During the 1980’s, Roy Thomas incorporated Hugo Danner’s story when he wrote the comic Young All-Stars, which featured a Superman analogue named Arn Munroe aka “Iron Munroe”. Munroe eventually discovered his father was Hugo Danner from Gladiator. Thomas changed the Gladiator 's ending and had Danner survive, beginning his own race of genetic supermen (and women). In 2005, the comic book company Wildstorm published a limited series adaptation of Wylie’s novel called “Legend,” shifting its protagonist’s wartime adventures from the Great War into Vietnam.
Roy Thomas incorporated Hugo Danner into his 1980's comic, The Young All-Stars.
While Hugo Danner and Superman both shared amazing abilities, their characters were much different. Hugo Danner was a flawed human being with super powers who did not know how to deal with them. Kal-El is a superhuman whose learned humanity allows him to use his powers for the less fortunate. Danner is an interesting character, but Superman stands the test of time because he is a hero with many admirable qualities. I would argue Siegel and Shuster likely read Gladiator, but it was just part of the ongoing creative process that culminated in their creation, Superman.
German, Erik. “The Real Original Superman.” Esquire. 21 June 2013. https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/a23203/original-superman. Accessed 6 Apr. 2018.
Jones, Gerard. “Men of Tomorrow.” The Superhero Reader, edited by Charles Hatfield, et al., University Press of Mississippi, 2013, pp. 16-22.
Ricca, Brad. Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster--the Creators of Superman. St. Martin’s Press, 2013.
Daniels, Les. Superman: The Complete History: The Life and Times of the Man of Steel. Chronicle Books, 1998.
DelMar, Gary. “The Lost History of Superman.” The American Vision. 10 Apr. 2009.
https://americanvision.org/2942/the-lost-history-of-superman. Accessed 6 Apr. 2018.
The Superhero Reader, edited by Charles Hatfield, et al., University Press of Mississippi, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/buffalostate/detail.action?docID=1113445.
Shuster, Joseph & Jerry Siegel. “Superman.” Action Comics. New York: National Comics Publications, 1938. Print.
Wikipedia contributors. "Gladiator (novel)." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 16 Mar. 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gladiator_(novel). Accessed 7 Apr. 2018.