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  • Yehoshua Paul

1930 - The Gladiator

1930. The Great Depression is rocking the world. At the beginning of the year 4 million Americans are unemployed. That number will eventually increase to 15 million, a quarter of the American workforce. The country's industrial production drops by half. Bread lines, soup kitchens and rising numbers of homeless people are becoming more and more common in America’s towns and cities. There are also several waves of banking panics as investors lose confidence and demand to receive their deposits back in cash, and thousands of banks end up collapsing.

President Hoover believes the primary cause of the Depression is lack of confidence in the financial system, and his government tries to support failing banks and businesses with government loans. Direct relief to the unemployed is not offered though. Hoover does not believe this is the responsibility of the federal government, and that help should be offered by local governments and wealthy individuals (and he also engages in personal philanthropy). At the same time, Prohibition becomes even more of a thing – enforcement is strengthened and moved to the Justice Department. America is in a bad place at the moment, many are wondering if there is any purpose to their lives, and if their actions are capable of making any difference. These include Hugo Danner, the first man of steel, and super-powered protagonist of Philip Wylie's Gladiator; a book which is considered by many to be the probable inspiration for Superman (although Shuster and Siegel denied any connection).

Philip J. Wylie (1902-1971), was an American Author whose influence and output were considerable. He wrote hundreds of articles, novels, serials, and newspaper columns in a wide range of categories: science fiction, mystery, social criticism, satire, ecology and the threat of nuclear holocaust. These influenced many of the great science fiction and comic book characters created later in the twentieth century, such as Superman (who I already mentioned), Flash Gordon and Doc Savage. His impact is also felt in many great story ideas. For example, Wylie wrote The Disappearance (1951), a novel in which one day everyone wakes up to discover that all members of the opposite sex are missing, and we as readers get to witness how two separate realities develop.

His writing is characterized by broad use of engineering principles and the scientific method, and often contains critical of humanity and society, and Wylie frequently expresses these criticisms in Gladiator.

Dust jacket of the first edition

The protagonist of the book is Hugo Danner a man born with superhuman strength, speed and invulnerability. Hugo was born with these abilities because his henpecked scientist father got his pregnant wife drunk and injected her with a serum (in the name of science!). Most of the book focuses on Hugo’s quest to discover his purpose in life. He knows he was born for greatness, but he absolutely has no idea how to bring it about, or what to do with his great strength that has any real meaning. He tries his hand at playing college football, being a professional strongman, pearl hunter, soldier, steel miner, banker, politician, farm hand. Nothing he does ever seems to satisfy him, and every time he tries to apply his powers regular humanity comes along and either denies it happened, tries to manipulate him, thwart him, or demonstrate why he was never really needed in the first place.

The book is a pretty easy read. In some places the reading is fascinating, such as the opening chapters on Hugo’s origin story where we get to meet his parents and learn how and why his father gave Hugo his superhuman abilities, and what it was like for him growing up while having to conceal his powers. In other places the writing is tedious. As a reader I kept on looking for Hugo to finally get a win, but either he or the portions of humanity he encounters just kept on disappointing, and each disappointment ends up being felt in later chapters, not just in the story but also in the writing itself which more and more felt like a grind as I progressed with the book.

I felt the book was a good reflection of the era in which it was written. Wylie was living in an era in which humanity had so much potential. New discoveries and advances were being made all the time, so why were so many people poor and out of work? Humanity was given the seeds for greatness. Why wasn’t it manifesting? In many ways Hugo’s struggle was the American people’s struggle trying to figure there way out of the depression, and one of the reasons I thought book was so powerful.

The Omer today is courage in grandeur. Hugo Danner is a powerful representation of this idea, a man born with immense strength looking for a way to attain the grandeur that he feels is his due by birthright. His quest is humanity’s eternal quest towards greatness. However, his lack of progress and the depression it caused are the wrong conclusion to take away from today. Those who try will eventually succeed. Sometimes a little help is required (FDR is on his way), but success is always possible for those who try.

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