Won’t you return with me once again to an exploration of the many works referenced by Watchmen, at least according to version 2.0 of The Annotated Watchmen? I warn you, though: only come with me if you’re okay with spoilers for both Watchmen itself and Philip Wylie’s 1930 novel Gladiator, because there are spoilers aplenty ahead.
So now that we’re done with Gunga Din, we’re finally able to leave page 5 of Chapter 1 behind, rocketing ahead all the way to… page 9! On this page, we get a glimpse of Hollis Mason’s home, and panel 4 brings us this note:
The statuette was presented to Mason upon his retirement. The books are: Two copies of his autobiography, Under the Hood; Automobile Maintenance; and Gladiator by Philip Wylie (one of the first novels about a superhero, and partial inspiration for Superman). Note the owl items.
So I read Gladiator. Wylie apparently wrote a lot of nutty apocalyptic stuff later on, but I found this book quite enjoyable, even verging on poetic in parts. More to the point, it was remarkably prescient. Not only is much of the modern superhero narrative prefigured in this novel, much of its subsequent deconstruction is as well. And it came out 8 years prior to Action Comics #1, the debut of Superman. So for those of you who haven’t read Gladiator and don’t plan to, here’s a plot summary:
Abednego Danner is an ineffectual but brilliant scientist in a small Colorado town, who discovers a formula for greatly enhancing the density and strength of living tissue. He injects a kitten with the formula, and it subsequently becomes a holy terror that hunts and kills a full-grown cow before Danner decides it’s too dangerous to live, and poisons it. Consumed with curiosity about how the formula would manifest in a human subject, he injects his unborn son without his wife’s knowledge.
From the time the boy, Hugo, is born, he is superhumanly strong and nearly invulnerable. However, he experiences this power as more of a curse than a blessing. His freakish strength sets him apart from other kids, and his refusal to use it (for fear of injuring someone) brands him a coward. He is only able to fully test his strength while deep in the mountains, far away from humanity. He builds himself a fortress there.
Finally, Hugo leaves his hometown and heads to college, where he becomes a football star. In a momentary loss of control, he accidentally kills an opposing player during the final game of the season. Overwhelmed with guilt, he decides he can never return to college, and sets out to find his place in the world. He never quite finds it, though he does go through a long series of varied roles, including circus strongman, fisherman, steelworker, farmhand, and bank teller. He tends to be forced out of each role in one way or another when his superhuman nature manifests. He tries to do good deeds and save lives, to atone for his earlier manslaughter. He also amasses a fortune along the way by diving for pearls far more effectively than any normal human could.
He experiences various relationships with women, sometimes as a dewy-eyed innocent, sometimes as a generous benefactor, sometimes as forbidden fruit to a neglected wife. He makes friends, and tries to act normal around them, concealing his powers. He meets the occasional mentor, who understands his plight but must be left behind for one reason or another.
He also goes to war — World War I. He avoids using his abilities at first, but eventually makes himself known as a dynamo of the battlefield, shrugging off bullets and shredding enemy lines like tissue. When his best friend is killed, he goes berserk, massacring every enemy soldier in every nearby trench barehanded before dropping unconscious from fatigue. He is sent to the hospital, and shortly afterward, the war ends.
Upon hearing the news that his father is dying, Hugo returns to Colorado. When Abednego eagerly inquires as to what impact his boy has made on the world, Hugo cannot bear to tell him the truth, that he never found a way to make his abilities benefit humanity. So he says instead that he stopped the war, and that he’s now going to “right the wrongs of politics and government.” His father is thrilled with this news, and gives Hugo his notebooks with the secret formula. After his father dies, Hugo tries to live up to the lie he told, but his earnest efforts in Washington are soon swallowed by the all-too-human venality, tribalism, and power struggles of those around him.
Finally, Hugo exiles himself again, this time by joining an archaeological expedition, hoping to serve pure science rather than any corrupt human. His powers once again emerge, but this time under the friendly eyes of the expedition’s chief scientist, who exhorts Hugo to undertake a eugenic campaign to make more supermen like himself. Wracked with doubt in the night, Hugo climbs a mountain in a torrential rain and shouts out a challenge to God: “Can I defy You? Can I defy Your world? Is this Your will? Or are You, like all mankind, impotent?” Finally, a bolt of lightning stabs out from the sky, incinerating both Hugo and the notebooks he carries.
For anyone who reads superhero comics, a lot of this should sound very familiar. The alienated childhood and adolescence recalls many a mutant, and the power concealment, while not a secret identity per se, plays out as one for the most part. The power of science and the uneasy tension of science against nature threads through the genre, manifesting prominently in characters like The Hulk and The Thing. Doing good deeds as atonement for a deadly mistake echoes Spider-Man, though Hugo’s samaritan fervor was much more short-lived. And then, of course, there are the clear parallels to Superman — the Fortress Of Solitude, the loneliness, and the powers that match almost identically what Siegel & Shuster initially gave their creation. (In fact, Wylie threatened to sue Siegel for plagiarism in 1940, but never followed through on the threat.)
Hugo does just about everything but put on a cape and fight crime. It’s hardly surprising that he avoids becoming a professional do-gooder, though — almost every time Hugo uses his powers for good, he suffers bad consequences. As Marvel would explore thirty-odd years later, humanity does not react well to an unknown power in its presence. For example, during Hugo’s tenure as a bank teller, a crisis arises: a man is trapped in the vault! The lock is jammed, and the air is running out! It’s an utterly familiar scenario in superhero comics, and what Clark Kent would do is slip away, suit up, show up as Superman, and save the day. Hugo, having no such alter ego, must rely on clumsier methods. He arrives on the scene and tells the bank president that he can save the trapped man, but only if everybody leaves the room for five minutes. In desperation, the bank employees agree, and Hugo rips open the vault. The freed man thanks him, and the bank president demands to know how Hugo opened the safe. When Hugo refuses to tell, the president has him arrested.
After all, a man who can open the bank’s vault by mysterious means constitutes a threat to its security, and therefore to the security of the nation itself! “Society,” the bank president explains, “cannot afford to permit a man like you to go at large until it has a thoroughly effective defense against you. Society must disregard your momentary sacrifice, momentary nobleness. Your process, unknown by us, constitutes a great social danger.” The bank president and his cronies lock Hugo up and torture him. They can’t hurt him physically, but they can starve him, strip him, scream at him, and feed him castor oil. He allows it, for fear of hurting them in an attempt to fight back or break free. Such is his reward for altruism.
In the New Comics interview, Dave Gibbons speaks of drawing “a world deformed by super-heroes.” One of the themes Watchmen explores is just how the world feels about being deformed in such a way. We see it in the graffiti, the Keene Act, and most keenly in the ending text to Chapter 4, “Dr. Manhattan: Super-powers And The Superpowers.” In speaking of the emergence of Dr. Manhattan, the author writes, “The Gods now walk amongst us, affecting the lives of every man, woman and child on the planet in a direct way rather than through mythology and the reassurances of faith. The safety of a whole world rests in the hands of a being far beyond what we understand to be human.”
Like Hugo, Dr. Manhattan exists alongside humanity, but apart from it. Manhattan’s difference is more obvious, and his power more godlike, but each of them are aware of the incredible destruction they could wreak, should they so choose. Also like Hugo, Dr. Manhattan is made into a weapon of war, with his uneasy consent, and the result is a wholesale human slaughter. And like Hugo, Dr. Manhattan finally removes himself from the whole nasty human mess.
So Wylie’s work was prescient, foreshadowing not only the metahuman, but his struggle against the ordinary world, a struggle which the early DC tales conveniently elided. The difference makes me wonder whether one of Superman’s less-noticed powers was his super-branding. When the guy standing next to you suddenly demonstrates otherworldly abilities, you might be justified in freaking out a little, feeling your sudden vulnerability and inferiority. However, when those otherworldly abilities arrive in a bright shiny package of reassuring primary colors, complete with a friendly name and symbol, perhaps you might not feel the threat so directly. Superman’s welcome was altogether different from Hugo Danner’s, in part because the early stories chose to ignore reflexive human fear and ignorance, but also because Superman harnessed the tricks of marketing to create a safe and appealing image, one easily swallowed by the masses.
Once that image succeeded, the floodgates were opened, and the brightly colored heroes came pouring in. In Watchmen‘s world, those heroes inspired real-life counterparts, albeit ones lacking in metahuman abilities. Indeed, though we see Gladiator on Nite Owl’s shelf, it’s Action Comics #1 that truly inspires him, as he writes in Under The Hood. The Superman story within “presented the basic morality of [pulp adventure fiction stories] without all their darkness and ambiguity.” And from that inspiration, Nite Owl is born.
Darkness and ambiguity, however, are never held at bay for long, the darkness arriving in the form of The Comedian, and the ambiguity coming with Dr. Manhattan. True superpowers, as Mason writes, “would make the terms ‘masked hero’ and ‘costumed adventurer’ as obsolete as the persons they described.” Dr. Manhattan didn’t need to create an image, and in fact rejects the world’s attempts to give him one. He does not market himself, but rather lets the world react to him.
Hugo Danner lacks Dr. Manhattan’s omniscient qualities, and was so lost and desperate in his attempts to fit in that perhaps he might have become a superhero, had the idea occurred to him. But it would likely not have reassured any bank presidents, and it certainly wouldn’t have answered the questions Hugo shouts to God atop a Yucatan mountain. Gladiator never comes right out and says so, but it strongly suggests that God strikes down this aberration at last. In Watchmen, we see no evidence of a Christian God to do any such thing. Instead, the closest thing there is to God decides instead to leave this galaxy, for one less complicated.