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Gladiator

Before Spider-Man or Superman, before the invention of the superhero itself, one man fought for truth and justice

*Gladiator
*By Philip Wylie
*Bison Books
*Paperback, April 2004
*ISBN: 0-8032-9840-4
*MSRP: $15.95
*First published in 1930

Review by Claude Lalumière

P rofessor Abednego Danner is a misogynistic, weak-willed, bitter failure married to a domineering and conservative woman. Nevertheless, in his small-town home in Colorado, he secretly engages in unorthodox experiments, with the ultimate goal of enhancing the physical abilities of humans.

Our Pick: A-

His first successful subject is a domestic cat, who becomes strong enough to knock down doors, powerful enough to maul full-grown cows, and invulnerable to bullets. Danner manages to poison his monstrous creation, but, soon after, his wife becomes pregnant. Seeing a perfect opportunity to test his discovery on a human being, he gets her drunk and injects his formula into the fetus. After the child is born, Mrs. Danner soon deduces the truth, as young Hugo manifests abilities similar to the cat's.

Hugo's childhood is lonely. In the wake of several near-discoveries of Hugo's superhuman abilities, and fearing witch hunts, the Danners educate their son to avoid situations that will reveal his tremendous strength and stamina.

In college, Hugo becomes a football star. When he accidentally kills another player on the field, Hugo flees, eventually winding up in Europe and joining the French Army during the First World War. The war offers Hugo the chance to let loose, and he luxuriates in the opportunity to use his powers to the fullest, but he is eventually disgusted by the brutality of the battlefield.

After the war, Hugo finds work in a bank, but his career is cut short when he must use his strength to rescue a man caught in an impenetrable vault. He is arrested and (ineffectually) tortured. He escapes, but everywhere he turns he is faced by fear and intolerance.

This new edition of Gladiator is part of Bison Books' Frontiers of Imagination series, and it includes an introduction by fantasist Janny Wurts.

More powerful than a metaphor

Readers of superhero fiction will find this 1930 novel hauntingly familiar.

Philip Wylie's Gladiator is often cited as the inspiration behind Superman. The parallels are obvious: Both Hugo Danner and Clark Kent grow up in rural small-town America, possessing powers far beyond the common mortal; both are imbued, from an early age, with a profound sense of fairness and justice; and they hide their respective secrets from the world at large. The resemblance is even more obvious when you consider the original 1930s conception of Superman. Their powers are the same: great strength, skin so tough that it can withstand just about anything short of an explosive artillery shell, and the ability to jump so high and so far that it almost gives the impression of flight. And both, despite their superhuman status, espouse a political philosophy that celebrates the common human being over capitalist elites.

In Gladiator, readers will find the roots of other superheroic icons. Hugo Danner's scientific creation and upbringing by a scientist father recall Doc Savage's origins. And rarely mentioned are Gladiator's links to Spider-Man. The prototype for the famous scene in which the fledgling Spider-Man defeats a hulking wrestler to make money is found in Wylie's novel; Hugo's bout in the ring is eerily similar to Spider-Man's as seen in 1962's Amazing Fantasy #15 (a scene later filmed by Sam Raimi in 2002's Spider-Man). Even Spider-Man's famous motto—"With great power comes great responsibility"—is touched upon during Hugo's many ruminations about his place in the world. At one point, in this novel from the pre-superhero era, Hugo even considers using his powers as a vigilante crime fighter!

Gladiator is a brave novel that unflinchingly portrays people at their ugliest and pettiest, all the while reflecting on the better worlds that could be were it not for humanity's relentless failings.

Sadly, this edition of Wylie's classic novel is disappointing package. Atypically for Bison's Frontiers of Imagination series, there's no bibliographical or contextual data whatsoever (the original date of publication isn't even mentioned anywhere), and the very brief introduction by Janny Wurts, despite some last-minute hedging, is mainly disdainful and dismissive of Wylie and his oeuvre, offering no useful insight or information. Gladiator itself, though, is a powerful, visionary work—and it spawned an entire subgenre of fantastic fiction. — Claude

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