Friday, May 11, 2012

Clark Kent vs. Hugo Danner

When people talk about the origin of Superman--about the ideas and influences on Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster that led them to create the character--they sometimes bring up Philip Wylie's novel Gladiator. It's been in and out of print since it's publication in 1930. I found a copy at the Monroe County Public Library.

It's not a bad novel. It's not great, either. The plot is pretty simple to sum up: a scientist injects his pregnant wife with a serum that will make the boy (Hugo Danner) superhumanly strong. The kid grows up and has a hard time of things because he's different. He has to hide his powers, and the few times he shows them off, he's ostracized. He goes to war, and even that is ultimately unfulfilling for him. Danner does find some minimal acceptance. Unsure of how to live his life, he goes out in a thunderstorm on top of a mountain. There, he has a sort of and questions god. He's struck by lightning and dies. That's it.

Three years later, Jerry Siegel dreams up Superman. Five years after that, Action Comics # 1 debuts and soon Superman is known to everyone in the country. Siegel read Gladiator (he wrote about it in a science fiction magazine he and Shuster brewed up in high school) so the influence is straightforward. I'm not going to worry about that. What I'm interested in is why Superman succeeded where Gladiator, largely, did not.

There are two factors at work here. First, Superman is a comic book character. The pictures and colors appeal to kids. In fact, one of the things that people objected to about comics in the early years were precisely those four colors that kids loved so much (I'm getting that from Hajdu's Ten Cent Plague). Wylie's Gladiator was a novel, with just one black and white picture on the cover. His writing style isn't geared to kids--and it's not even all that great, to tell you the truth. It had far less appeal to kids.

Second, and I think this is more important, Superman is optimistic. Gladiator is pessimistic. Hugo Danner, finds difficulty wherever he goes. He wants to use his powers for good sometimes--he even saves some lives when he's not fighting in the way--but this turns out badly for him. A man is trapped inside a vault at the bank where Danner works. There's no way to get him out before he suffocates. Danner, knowing it's a risk, rips the door off and frees the man. Everyone there is horrified. They can't trust him anymore. Even when he does good, he suffers for it.

Not optimistic--Inspiring

Pictured here: Two Optimists
Superman, in the same sort of situation, is celebrated. Sure, in the early issues he's pursued by the police. And in the recent comics he's not entirely trusted. But he perseveres, and we all know that he's going to win everybody over. Siegel's character is an optimist. He's The Optimist. And I'm positive that's one reason for his enduring popularity.

In the end, pessimism doesn't inspire people. We may love a pessimistic viewpoint; we may see in it great art and the ability to evoke poignant emotional responses. But people aren't going to build their lives around it.

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