I was recently asked by Dover Books to write the foreword to their reissue of Gladiator by Philip Wylie, a book I’ve long had an interest in as both a historian of comics and a general commentator on American culture and history. I find Wylie complicated and interesting to think about, and it was a fun piece to write.
Of all the artistic legacies a person might earn, I think the most bittersweet is to be remembered only for having inspired someone else to do something better known. I imagine Cimabue would have been thrilled to know that art historians would still be talking about him seven centuries after his death, until he realized that they weren’t talking about him as the great painter of his age but only as the guy who may (or may not) have taught Giotto to paint. Would Max Linder, who committed suicide when he thought his movie career was washed up, have been pleased to know that his work would still be shown in occasional film festivals nearly a century later—if he’d had to listen to himself always described as the sadly forgotten comedian who inspired Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd? It’s a legacy that means future generations will still come back in time to look at your work, but they’ll never really see it for what you meant it to be. They’ll always see it through the eyes of some third party—very likely someone you resent for outshining you.
Philip Wylie, in his prime years, would probably never have imagined that he’d be a candidate for such a fate, let alone that he’d be the man mainly responsible for creating it. From the mid-1930s through most of the 1950s, he had a remarkable run as a writer: bestselling books of social commentary, literary novels of decent reputation, science fiction thrillers that got turned into movies, and a constant presence in the Saturday Evening Post and other major magazines. By 1963, however, when he agreed to be interviewed by the science-fiction historian Sam Moskowitz, the world’s attention was already clearly leaving him behind; which may be why he felt moved to complain so bitterly about how the creators of the comic strip Superman had stolen their idea from one of his early novels. He lived only another eight years, but by the time of his death, his own literary reputation was rapidly evaporating as Gladiator’s fame was rising among pop-culture historians in search of the hidden origins of the superhero.
Siegel (and his artistic collaborator Joe Shuster) drew on far more than Wylie’s novel for the idea of Superman: the Doc Savage pulp magazines, a raft of other science fiction and fantasy stories, Douglas Fairbanks movies, Popeye, lots of things. But none of them have held the “missing link” glamor for comics historians that this odd little novel holds. A body of legends has grown up around the relationship between Gladiator and Superman, some spurious and some outright false (and some, to my enduring embarrassment, passed on in my own book, Men of Tomorrow). The truth is that Jerry Siegel never reviewed, or even mentioned, Gladiator in the fanzine he published in high school. If Wylie threatened to sue for plagiarism or Siegel signed affidavits claiming he’d never read the book, there is no record.
What we do know for sure is that Siegel, in his unpublished autobiography, wrote that he “read and enjoyed Philip Wylie’s book Gladiator” and that, along with a great many other pop-culture items, “it influenced me, too.” (Courtesy of Thomas Andrae, author of Creators of the Superheroes.) We also know that there are many details shared by Gladiator and the first several months of Superman stories that are awfully hard to dismiss as coincidence. Most specifically, we know that the physical attributes of Wylie’s Hugo Danner—what we would now call his “superpowers”—were a unique combination at the time, and they were precisely, no more and no less, the same as those of the first incarnation of Superman.
What Wylie did, essentially, was establish the “superhero” as we know it—or at least the superhero’s physical nature. He posited a rogue scientific experiment that gives a man unasked-for physical superiority: great muscular strength, the ability to leap vast distances and heights, tremendous running speed, and skin so tough that nothing less than an artillery shell could pierce it. Popular fiction was full of strongmen, and science fiction featured a few interplanetary characters who could jump high because of gravitational differences. But combining power with speed, creating a hero who could both lift and outrun a locomotive, was something new. We don’t usually see those two as going together (weight lifting isn’t in the decathlon), and the combination created a new template for across-the-board superhumanity. The addition of invulnerable skin cranked the idea up another notch. Hugo Danner was (to quote Will Murray’s excellent Gladiator of Iron, Man of Steel), “A quantum leap forward in the concept of the preternaturally-powerful protagonist.”
Jerry Siegel gave Superman’s powers an extraterrestrial rather than chemical origin, but the powers themselves were the same as Danner’s; it would be a few years yet before Superman could fly instead of leap, longer still before he picked up x-ray vision, super-hearing, and the rest of it. Siegel also followed Wylie’s lead in suggesting that a man of such abilities could never fit in with normal humanity, that the rest of us could only make him an object of fear or curiosity, that many of us would try to find some way to exploit him for profit. But what Siegel chose to do with that realization was drastically different from what Wylie had done—and there opens the greatest difference between the characters, one that says a great deal about Philip Wylie and why his literary fate has been to play a supporting role in someone else’s origin story.
He was born in Massachusetts in 1902, the eldest son of Edmund Melville Wylie, a Presbyterian minister of some renown. His relationship with his father was apparently difficult from early on, and he grew up defining himself in opposition to a certain kind of moral and conventional authority; he usually portrayed his father as intelligent but rigid, overly attached to his own righteousness, trapped in his own doctrine and ultimately hypocritical. Whatever mediating influence his mother might have brought ended with her death when Philip was five. His father remarried, but he didn’t get along with his stepmother.
By his early teens, Philip was already striking dramatic postures of resistance to the worldview his elders were attempting to inculcate in him. “One evening during a thunder storm,” remembered his sister Verona Wylie Slater, Philip “was inspired to make an unholy experiment. He stood on a sloping rock, which jutted out into the lake near our summer home. Holding his face upward, he defied the Almighty to strike him with a bolt of lightning. The skies opened with a terrifying flash, but the bolt flew across the dark waters a mile away. We felt relieved, foolish, and very insignificant.” Wylie reconstructs that scene at a crucial moment in Gladiator, but in such a way that one is left suspecting that he felt less relieved than disappointed at being passed over by the divine wrath.
Philip attended Princeton University, but in his third year he dropped out because of a conflict with a teacher. For a while he knocked around as a sailor, not the first bright young man who disliked authority to take up that job. Then he tried working in advertising and publishing, including some time on the editorial staff of the young New Yorker magazine, but it never took very long for him either to get fired or resign in frustration. So he staked his future on writing novels.
The literary culture of the early 1920s provided a great deal of reinforcement for a young man with a desire to stand on metaphorical rocks during intellectual lightning storms. Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street was the book of the age. F. Scott Fitzgerald (whose shadow stretched over Princeton when Wylie was there) was being called a voice of the modern generation. D. H. Lawrence and James Branch Cabell were fighting battles with the censors (mainly New England Protestants greatly reminiscent of the Reverend Wylie), cheered on by H. L. Mencken. A young writer was expected to unmask society’s hypocrisy, destroy sentimentality with brutal honesty, fling himself against convention with a “romantic egoism.” He should advocate hard science and reject religion, immerse himself in Freud and know Nietzsche. And he should suffer. He should, as Wylie said of his protagonist in an introduction to one edition of Gladiator, “share the isolation of geniuses and with them…learn the inflexibility of man's slow evolution.”
Gladiator was Wylie’s first novel, written in 1926, when he was twenty-four years old. He submitted it to Alfred A. Knopf, H. L. Mencken’s publisher and a champion of challenging new fiction, who was taken with its author enough to buy it—but also leery enough to lay it on the shelf for a while and ask Wylie to write a more conventional novel to introduce himself to the world first. Ultimately, Gladiator would not be published until 1930, after Wylie had produced two novels based more or less on his own life, Heavy Laden and Babes and Sucklings, and in a rewritten form.
I haven’t been able to discover anything about the original manuscript or how different it may have been from what saw print, but given Wylie’s complaint that Knopf pushed him to rewrite it “against my will and judgment,” I’m inclined to think that he did his best to preserve his original intent. Or let me put it this way: I find Gladiator much easier to appreciate if I read it as the creative eruption of an unpublished twenty-four year seized by a big idea than as the third novel of a twenty-eight year old who should have learned something from working with Alfred Knopf. Its charm is in its newness, its quality of discovery, and its painful, sometimes confusing collision of two very common but very different sorts of young male fantasy: breathtaking feats on the battlefield, the gridiron, and the public arena of crime and justice on the one hand; literary and intellectual acclaim on the other.
In his childhood, Wylie was a great reader of H. G. Welles and other authors of those fantastical stories that would later be classified as “science fiction.” He came up with the idea for Hugo Danner (by his own report) while lamenting the inferiority of the human body to machines. He began speculating on what a man might do with a superhuman body, and if he’d been at a different point either in his own development of that of American fiction, he might have found his way to a fun adventure story, maybe something like one of Welles’s lighter novels, with a touch of social speculation or satire. By the time he reached his thirties, Wylie would demonstrate a comfort with that sort of storytelling, which contributed to his successful career. At twenty-four, however, pumping himself up for the solitary quest of the novelist, the temptation to climb onto that rock in the thunderstorm was just too great. Some years before his fellow Princeton alum, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy,” Wylie concluded that a man like Hugo Danner “would be foredoomed to vulgar fame or to a life of fruitless destruction.” And he spent a book proving it.
Jerry Siegel, born twelve years after Wylie, coming of age after American culture had mostly dismissed its Twenties as an embarrassing youth, comfortable with himself as a lover of pulp science fiction and Hollywood movies, had no interest in writing a tragedy. When he saw that his superman would never be able to function as a normal human being, he also saw the obvious solution: Clark Kent. His hopelessly isolated hero would put on a pair of glasses and wink his way through the great in-joke of pretending to be one of us. Siegel also understood that what most readers would want of such an outlandish hero was an equally outlandish message: that our great problems were simple enough to be solved by a man who could lift a car over his head. For the young Philip Wylie, such a compromise with “the cynical piddling of modern society,” by either the protagonist or the author, would have been the height of the very hypocrisy that he had committed himself to fighting.
In the early 1930s, frustrated by his experiences with Knopf and serious fiction, Wylie turned his energies to making a living off what he called “a bumper crop of crap.” Two of the books from that period would provide still more inspiration to the spinners of fantastical adventures: The Savage Gentleman from 1932 clearly inspired the Doc Savage pulps, which in turn worked some influence on Superman and other comic-book heroes, while When Worlds Collide, cowritten with Edwin Balmer the following year, probably inspired Flash Gordon and perhaps also Superman’s interplanetary origin story. Over the next several years, an entire industry of comic books, comic strips, movie serials, and licensed merchandise grew up around superheroes. Most of those were spun straight out of Superman and probably owed nothing directly to Wylie (although with some of them, like Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Captain America, a man transformed by an experimental serum into a very Danneresque super soldier, one has to wonder), but they all rested, to some degree, on the foundation of Gladiator.
By that time, however, Wylie himself had moved on. He tackled serious fiction again in Finnley Wren, then donned his own heroic garb in an assault on American sentimentality and mediocrity via his 1942 collection of essays called Generation of Vipers. For some years, he was a prominent presence in book stores and magazines, almost a household name. Then he faded, while Superman and his brethren only grew more numerous, more famous, more artistically complex, and more central to our popular culture.
I’m glad we have this opportunity to look back at his contribution to the superheroes—but I also suspect Wylie would appreciate it if we could leave that behind for a moment and read this first novel of his for what it was before Jerry Siegel discovered it: the self-conscious but heartfelt roar of a young man of wild ideas and wilder ambition, climbing onto a rock in the lightning storm of the first decade of the modern world.