Copyright 2018 by Michael W. Rickard II
While Superman was an innovative creation in comic books, the character of a superhuman living among mortals can be found in myths dating back to Gilgamesh, Hercules, and many other cultures. As scholars such as Joseph Campbell have observed, myths often share similar elements. Whether this is due to cultures appropriating the myths of others or the idea of archetypes in a collective unconsciousness, rare is the original story or character. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this as many a myth or story has been borrowed from another and turned into something even better. Siegel and Shuster’s creation Superman shares similarities with the Hugo Danner character in Phillip Wylie’s novel Gladiator. As I’ll show, the Superman character owes a debt to Gladiator, which Siegel and Shuster used to lay a foundation and build on. However, how much did Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster base Superman on Gladiator and was Superman a thinly-veiled rip-off on this novel?
Phillip Wylie’ (left) wrote his 1930 novel Gladiator, which told the story of Hugo Danner, a young man who was injected with a formula by his father Abednego Danner while he was still in his mother’s womb. This incredible formula transformed him into a superman capable of superhuman strength, speed, and a skin so tough it could deflect bullets. The concept behind Abednego’s formula:
Look at the insects—the ants. Strength a hundred times our own. An ant can carry a large spider—yet an ant is tissue and fiber, like a man. If a man could be given the same sinews—he could walk off with his own house. (Wylie)
Abednego follows up by saying:
“Make a man as strong as a grasshopper—and he'll be able to leap over a church. I tell you, there is something that determines the quality of every muscle and nerve. Find it—transplant it—and you have the solution."
Compare this to early accounts of the basis behind Superman’s origins as told in Action Comics #1:
A scientific explanation of Clark Kent’s amazing strength
Kent had come from a planet whose inhabitants’ physical structure was millions of years advanced of our own. Upon reaching maturity, the people of his race became gifted with titanic strength! Incredible? No! For even today on our world exist creatures with super-strength! The lowly ant can support weights hundreds of times its own. The grasshopper leaps what to man would be the space of several city blocks. (1)
The famous explanation of Clark Kent's powers from Action Comics #1.
The novel dealt with Danner’s coming of age as he wrestles not only with the normal questions of adulthood, but how (and if) to use the incredible power at his command. Danner eventually finds himself in the Great War and decides to take matters into his own hands. However, Danner grapples with the powers he has been given, rarely finding any meaning to his life. When he encounters a scientist who has witnessed his powers, Danner opens up to him:
"Look at me in another light," Hugo went on. "I've tried to give you an inkling of it. You were the first who saw what I could do—glimpsed a fraction of it, rather—and into whose face did not come fear, loathing, even hate. Try to live with a sense of that. I can remember almost back to the cradle that same thing. First it was envy and jealousy. Then, as I grew stronger, it was fear, alarm, and the thing that comes from fear—hatred. That is another and perhaps a greater obstacle. If I found something to do, the whole universe would be against me. These little people! Can you imagine what it is to be me and to look at people? A crowd at a ball game? A parade? Can you?" (Wylie)
Eventually, Hardin persuades Danner he should be the beginning of a superior race modeled after him. However, Danner wanders off, musing to the Almighty:
"Now—God—oh, God—if there be a God—tell me! Can I defy You? Can I defy Your world? Is this Your will? Or are You, like all mankind, impotent? Oh, God!" He put his hand to his mouth and called God like a name into the tumult above. Madness was upon him and the bitter irony with which his blood ran black was within him.” (Wylie)
Hugo Danner eventually showed up in comic books.
Superman’s science fiction elements are indisputable, which makes an analysis of Gladiator’s genre important. While some claim Wylie’s Gladiator was a science-fiction story, Gerard Jones disagrees:
Wylie’s use of biological fantasy would later lead science fiction fans to claim Gladiator as a product of their beloved genre, but his models were not Hugo Gernsback’s pulp stories. Wylie mocked junk culture, mocked yellow journalism and Bernarr MacFadden and narcissistic bodybuilders, and he’d surely have mocked Amazing Stories if he’d bothered to notice it. He lifted tricks from the satirical parades of Henry Fielding and William Thackeray, pulled themes from the intellectual allegories of H. G. Wells and Friedrich Nietzsche (17)
Regardless of Jones’ assertion, Gladiator has been ensconced in the ranks of science fiction novels. Wylie’s subsequent science fiction works such as When Worlds Collide, After Worlds Collide, and The Disappearance suggest Gladiator belonged in the same category.
 Siegel and Shuster have acknowledged other inspirations such as Popeye the Sailor, but this blog only concerns the possible influence of Gladiator.
Jones, Gerard. “Men of Tomorrow.” The Superhero Reader, edited by Charles Hatfield, et al., University Press of Mississippi, 2013, pp. 16-22.
Shuster, Joseph & Jerry Siegel. “Superman.” Action Comics. New York: National Comics Publications, 1938. Print.
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.
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.
German, Erik. “The Real Original Superman.” Esquire. 21 June 2013. https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/a23203/original-superman. Accessed 6 Apr. 2018.
Ricca, Brad. Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster--the Creators of Superman. St. Martin’s Press, 2013.
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.