One of the benefits of the internet is that it is easier to find a "kindred spirit" who has the same interests as you or maybe enjoyed the same book as you did when you were a kid. It used to be that one had to hang out at the nearest Star Trek convention and dress up as a Klingon to meet an equal who shared your affection for a subject that wasn't "mainstream". We're not talking about people who flock to the latest "trendy author" book signing or mindlessly fork over $15 for the latest "hot director's" movie without even reading a review. No, we're talking about people who have affection for a novel that was written in the 30's, with "cutting edge" science fiction, that wasn't written by H.G. Welles or Jules Verne and that ended up with the main character being vaporized by a lightning bolt from the heavens. Yes, a narrow subject for specialization or interest but still unforgettable.
The novel GLADIATOR written by Philip Wylie and published in 1930 is about a doctor who is trying to invent a serum that will turn a man into a superman. Don't laugh, the book was written before Superman was invented and is credited for giving Superman's authors Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster the idea for their comic book in the mid-thirties. While still in his mother's womb, Hugo Danner (a unique and cool name) is inoculated with a special formula by his father who is a scientist with a mad dream. Born with inhuman strength and invulnerability like Clark Kent, Hugo must promise his parents to not reveal his incredible powers. This frustration at being different adds to the angst of what a typical teenager would experience.
Although I was a childhood fan of Superman, Batman, The Green Lantern and every other comic book superhero, the idea of a man with super powers and not being able to fit into society was foreign and unbelievable to me. I mean isn't that all any young boy would ever want; to be incredibly strong and invulnerable and to help people against the bad guys? When Hugo, frustrated and confused by his inability to connect with kids his own age and unable to reveal his powers, rampages goes through the forest and begins uprooting enormous trees and hurling them into the air I had an empathy for his rage. Not because I was so frustrated or confused as a teenage boy but because it was so surprising. In a comic book that frustration was never addressed but in GLADIATOR it was taken a step further and translated into a teenager who could kill anything he wanted but was held back by a slim thread of humanity.
One of the most dramatic events I have ever read was when, as a World War I French Foreign Legion soldier, Hugo infiltrates the German lines at night and, with his bare hands, lays waste to an entire enemy unit in hand to hand combat. The idea of one man being able to turn the tide of history to defeat a regime that wanted to enslave the world was incredibly bold and exciting. With his inborn sympathy and respect for humans it was understandable that he would find himself sickened by his actions. Then his amazing plan to fly a plane to the German leader's lair and kill him and his henchmen was dazzling in its nerve and exhilarating in its audacity! That he couldn't follow through on his mission because of the Armistice prevented Wylie's readers from experiencing an event that would have been courageously classic; a hero who is going to save the human race singlehandedly! That was his one shot at glory and if he had been allowed to accomplish that daring mission could he have revealed himself to the human race and if so how would he have been received? A hero or the ultimate villain?
At one point in his life he was incredibly frustrated that the only work he could find was as a circus freak, a strongman who amazed the masses but couldn't help them or protect them or be their savior. All he was ever really good at was being a fighter, a killer, a gladiator who had been hired out as a soldier to stop a madman. He wanted to be so much more and it seemed that the only logical step was to wear a costume, hide his identity and appear monthly in a flimsy magazine that only kids read; but those people didn't exist then and he wouldn't have fit in there because he had too much dignity. Somewhere deep inside of himself he thought that he was special not in a conceited way but in a manner that was beneficial to the real humans who would never accept him. The book ends years later as Hugo, still unable to fit in with normal humans, climbs to the top of a mountain in South America during a raging storm. With his hands stretched over his head he screams to the heavens that if he is not a God then for God to strike him down where he stands. After a moment a lightning bolt rockets from the sky and strikes Hugo dead. Very emotional for a teenage boy.
I read GLADIATOR in the sixties as a teenage boy and unlike the hundreds of books I have read since then it is one of the few for which I have genuine affection and one that I can still remember a series of specific and dramatic events. There are a couple of other books that have also been occupying a special part of my brain for all those years: The Terrible Game by Dan Tyler Moore and The Second Son by Charles Sailor, and I think that these three books are memorable because they all featured memorable heroes. We can talk about those years as being when a young boy is impressionable, vulnerable, excitable, physical etc. etc. etc. but one thing I think that a boy is looking for is a hero. Hugo Danner of GLADIATOR may not have been a superhero but I remember he had some heroic qualities. And granted my recollection of this unique story is hazy and maybe I've glamorized Hugo and his memory but everything you remember as a boy seems bigger; especially your heroes