Thursday, August 20, 2009

Superman's Uncle....Hugo

Greetings, felicitations, and a hearty “Tally Ho”!

First I’d like to thank Socko and everyone at Comic Book Jones for inviting me to share some of my somewhat random thoughts here. (It also let’s you know who to blame if you get a headache reading this!)

I have had an ongoing love affair with comics since 1961 and the bloom is still on the rose after all these years. Believe it or not comics were not always cool or widely accepted. Shocking isn’t it? Of course today, comics are considered a viable form of literature. Comics influences are felt in film, TV, music, theater and video games. And the fun part is only beginning. The creators of today are wonderfully gifted and innovative. The future of comics is bright indeed.

However, for the next several postings I am going to take a look BACK at the early days of Comics. I will discuss my observations on the Golden, Silver and Bronze Ages of comics. Hopefully it will be fun for the reader. It is certainly fun to look back with an eye towards tomorrow. I hope that all of you will leave comments and suggestions as to future postings. Certainly I would enjoy any questions you may have about the history of the hobby we all love!

Now…. Let’s just say “the game’s afoot”!

Anyone who knows me, knows that I would have to kick this off with SUPERMAN!
Every Superhero character in comics today owes at least some debt to Superman. As the first costumed hero, The Man of Steel set the standard for every book that followed. Secret identities, meta-human powers, colorful costumes and capes, alien origins, all started with the Big Red S. However, Superman was not created out of whole cloth by young Siegel and Shuster. They also had their influences. Zorro, The Scarlet pimpernel, Hercules and Sampson were all clear antecedents to Superman.

Perhaps the single most influential precursor to Superman was Philip Wylie’s 1930 novel “Gladiator”. Wylie was one of the pioneers of Speculative fiction in the early 20th century. He is best known for “When Worlds Collide” which was made into a classic George Pal sci-fi movie in 1951.

The story begins at the turn of the 20th century. Professor Abednego Danner lives in a small, rural town, and has a somewhat unhappy marriage. Obsessed with unlocking genetic potential, Danner experiments with a tadpole (which breaks through the glass tank he's keeping it in), and a pregnant cat, whose kitten displays incredible strength and speed, managing to maul larger animals. When his wife becomes pregnant with their first child, Danner duplicates his experiment on his unknowing wife.

Their child Hugo almost immediately displays incredible strength, and Danner’s wife realizes what her husband has done. Though she hates him, she does not leave him, and they instead raise their son to be respectful of his incredible gift and sternly instruct him never to fight, or otherwise reveal his gifts, lest he be the target of a witch hunt. Hugo grows up being bullied at school, unwilling to fight back. However as he matures, Hugo discovers that in addition to great strength, he is extremely fast, nearly invulnerable and able to leap great distances (in a single bound).

Hugo finds success in High School, becoming a star football player, and receives a college scholarship. He spends summers and free time trying to find uses for his strength, becoming a professional fighter and strongman at a boardwalk. After killing another player during a football game, Hugo quits school.

Danner then joins the French Foreign legion fighting in WW I, where his bulletproof skin comes in handy. Upon returning home, he gets a job at a bank, and when a person gets locked inside the vault, Hugo volunteers to get him out if everyone will leave the room. Hugo rips open the vault door, freeing the man. The banker's response is not gratitude but suspicion. Hugo is accused of being a crafty safecracker who was otherwise waiting for an opportunity to rob the vault. He is fired and threatened with arrest for the destruction of the vault, and he is taken away and tortured. Due to his near invulnerability, this has no effect. Hugo withstands all attempts at getting him to tell how he opened the vault, escapes, and lifts a car into the air (ala Action #1). ( I won’t spoil the ending of the book here. I do recommend it as a great read though. Gladiator is still widely available and a must for any Sci-Fi fan!)

The influences on Superman are clear in Gladiator with Hugo sharing not only abilities but mild mannered temperament with Clark Kent. Hugo differs from Superman in many ways. He does not seek to become a hero or a vigilante. He is a man who is very obviously different, alien if you will, looking to find a place in the world. Hugo has much more in common with Clark. His is introspective, gentle and emotionally sensitive. Like Clark, Hugo feels an acute separation from the rest of humanity. Like Clark, Hugo envies “normal” people and wishes that he could be part of that normalcy.

Coincidence? Siegel and Shuster never actually credited Gladiator as an influence on their work, but it almost certainly had some impact. Consider the facts. Gladiator was published in 1930 and was a very popular book for the balance of the decade. It is highly unlikely that two boys who published a Fanzine entitled “Science Fiction” would have missed this book. It is also common for younger writers to “borrow” story and character elements from the literature that they have been exposed to. It is also just as common to deny those influences.( It was many years before Gene Roddenberry acknowledged Star Trek’s debt to the 1956 MGM classic “Forbidden Planet”.) In fact it is as impossible to ignore the influence of Gladiator on Superman as it is to ignore Superman’s influence on all of the superhero characters that have followed through the years. While Gladiator may not have been Superman’s “father” there is no denying that it was at least a “Dutch Uncle”

Next: “Hal Jordan, The Silver Age and the Right Stuff”

That’s 30!


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