Philip Wylie: The Unsung Hero of Super-Heroes

How one prolific Post contributor shaped super-heroes, science fiction, and more.

Man takes off his business suit, not unlike Superman

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The annals of history overflow with the overlooked. Some people were incredibly famous in their time, but have faded from view even as their influence abides. Philip Wylie might be one such person. A prolific writer of novels, nonfiction, screenplays, essays, and articles (many of which were for The Saturday Evening Post), Wylie may be most famous for his 1943 book, Generation of Vipers, which essentially attacked every American institution from religion to government to mothers. In genre fiction circles, he’s most well-known and remembered for his novels like Gladiator, The Savage Gentleman, and When Worlds Collide. Those books left an indelible mark in their field and planted seeds that would become the avatar of America’s popular mythology: the super-hero.

Wylie’s life as a writer is hard to categorize. His work covered a broad area, touching many disciplines and topics. Whereas some working writers find their genre and stick to it (with occasional divergences into other styles), Wylie wrote just about everything. Born in 1902 to a minister father and a writing mother who died when he was five, Wylie had a keen interest in science and philosophy as well as literature.

The interest in science would be applied regularly to his writing, particularly, and unsurprisingly, to his science fiction work. His first two novels, Heavy Laden (1928) and Babes and Sucklings (1929), were both described as comedies of manners, with the first leaning heavily on details from his own life (one of the main characters has a minister father). 1930’s Gladiator leaned all the way into the science fiction genre. The main character is Hugo Danner, a man who is born with enhanced strength, speed, and invulnerability after his scientist father injects his pregnant mother with an experimental serum. Danner uses his strength for money-making endeavors, but eventually joins the French Foreign Legion to fight against Germany in World War I. The book has stayed in print over the decades; Marvel Comics adaptated the first half of the novel in Marvel Preview #9 in 1976, with legendary comics writer Roy Thomas handling the writing duties.

Roy Thomas’s manager, John Cimino, arranged for the venerable writer to discuss Wylie and why Thomas wanted to adapt the story. Thomas says, “The fact that it was such a seminal influence, I felt, on the concept of the super-hero… even though it in turn was probably influenced by the likes Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars novels and John Campbell’s story/novel The Mightiest Machine… made me want to adapt it at Marvel, even though I only got the chance to adapt the first half of it before I left Marvel for a time in 1980.”

On the broader subject of Hugo Danner as an influence on Superman, who didn’t appear in Action Comics #1 until 1938, Thomas says, “I know that [Superman co-creator] Jerry Siegel never admitted to a direct inspiration from Gladiator, but I have always pretty much discounted that as being said for legal reasons. After all, Jerry was a prominent and wide-reading SF fan in the 1920s and ’30s.” Thomas went on to say that some occurances in the novel were very similar to scenes from the novel, with both seeing the leads avenging wrongs and pushing back against bad businesspeople.Thomas says, “I can accept the general idea that the similarities may have been a coincidence, but I find it impossible to believe myself.”

Thomas would later get the chance to take advantage of Gladiator’s public domain status and incorporate Hugo Danner into his Young All-Stars comic at DC in the 1980s. One of the lead characters was young super-strongman Iron Munro, and Thomas canonized Hugo Danner as Munro’s father. Thomas says, “I knew that Arn Munro had been the super-human hero of Campbell’s novel/story The Mightiest Machine in Astounding Stories . . . an Earthman raised on Jupiter and thus gaining great strength and leaping abilities when he returned to his native Earth… Clearly, here was another possible inspiration for Superman, though it came later than Gladiator… so I decided that Arn Munro should be the son of Hugo Danner.”

Philip Wylie and his wife, Frederica
Philip Wylie and his wife, Frederica (SEPS)

Thomas pretty clearly sets a line of lineage from early science fiction novels through Gladiator and onward to Superman. But Gladiator wasn’t Wylie’s only novel to have a huge impact on comic and pulp heroes. His 1932 novel, The Savage Gentleman, sports more than a few similarities to a hero that would debut a year later in his self-titled magazine, Doc Savage. In The Savage Gentleman, Henry Stone is raised on an island by his father and two of his father’s servants and returns to a 1930s New York an incredible physical specimen with a fortune waiting for him; his hair is even described as “bronze.” Doc Savage, nicknamed “The Man of Bronze,” was an Olympic-level athlete and an expert at everything after being trained by men chosen by his father. As Thomas says, “[I]t was amusing to learn later that Wylie had also written a book titled The Savage Gentleman, who some see as influential on Doc Savage… who in turn was called a ‘Superman’ in ads before DC’s comic hero emerged… and was known as ‘the Man of Bronze,’ where Superman became first the ‘Man of Tomorrow,’ but soon the ‘Man of Steel.’”

In 1933, Wylie turned his attention to the stars for one of his best-remembered novels, When Worlds Collide. The story, co-written with Edwin Balmer, deals with a scientist discovering that two rogue planets may destroy Earth and the steps taken to try to save the population. As explained in the 1990 book, Flash Gordon: Mongo, the Planet of Doom, the novel was a direct influence on Alex Raymond, who took central plot elements of Wylie’s and created and drew the newspaper comic strip Flash Gordon the following year. The lineage of When Worlds Collide resonates through many branches of pop culture, as George Lucas has repeatedly identified Flash Gordon as an immediate influence on Star Wars.

The trailer for When Worlds Collide (Uploaded to YouTube by YouTube Movies)

Wylie’s work in those three novels formed the foundation for thousands of super-hero characters that come after them. Hugo Danner is the science fiction super-human, like Superman. Henry Stone is the pulp hero, a product of training backed by wealth, like Doc Savage and, later, Batman (who himself owes debts to Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel). The leads of Collide are the space heroes, like Flash Gordon, the Hal Jordan Green Lantern, and the Fantastic Four. Those are the starting points for a remarkable number of characters that would follow in four-color comics just a few years later.

As he worked on those novels, Wylie also worked in Hollywood, writing the screenplay for the adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, 1932’s The Island of Lost Souls. He also did uncredited work on the 1933 film version of Wells’s The Invisible Man, which borrowed as much from Wylie’s own novel, 1931’s The Murderer Invisible, as it did from Wells. He also had various other novels adapted into film, like 1949’s Night Unto Night, starring Ronald Reagan.

Over the following years, Wylie would continue to write, well, everything. A past director of the Lerner Marine Laboratory, he wrote dozens of short stories about fishermen Crunch and Des, many of which ran in The Saturday Evening Post, and were packaged in eight collections over time; the stories became a short-lived TV series in the 1950s. The first and most famous of his nonfiction books, Generation of Vipers, landed in 1942, and was (and is) controversial. Amid his attacks on Christianity and Washington, D.C., Wylie put down the lionization of the role of mothers in culture, calling it “momism.” Wylie both supported and walked back various statements from the book over the years, and critics have vacillated between calling that attitude misogynistic or taking a stance others wouldn’t. A Washington Post reassessment from 2005 notes that the book feels more like Wylie was attacking things just because they were there.

Wylie’s fiction continued to draw attention in occasionally surprising ways. His scrupulously researched writing on nuclear weapons (as in The Smuggled Atomic Bomb) was so knowledgeable and precise that he was questioned by the authorities. Ironically, that knowledge base would also earn him a place as an advisor to the Joint Congressional Committee for Atomic Energy. He also had progressive notes in his fiction.  In the 1951 novel, The Disappearance, he speculates on what would happen if men and women were suddenly cosmically separated. After a “blink” splits the world into two versions, one of only men and one of only women, Wylie examines how the men-only world begins to decline while the women-only world thrives. He also manages to approach homosexuality, a huge taboo at the time, in light of what happens when there’s only one gender remaining in the world.

At The Saturday Evening Post, in addition to Crunch and Des, Wylie’s pieces covered a predictably huge range of subject matter. He wrote on student performance in college, doctors in Bimini, and surviving hurricanes, among other topics. Portions of his novel, Triumph, about the after-effects of a nuclear war, were serialized in the Post. For other outlets, he wrote about medievalism, career women, UFOs, missile defense, censorship, and the work of Mickey Spillane.

Philip Wylie died in 1971, but his work continues to resonate. His fiction shaped comic books, science fiction, film horror, and more. His nonfiction forced people to reexamine their own opinions. The majority of his work is still in print, even if it’s overlooked by the general public. Aficionados of genre fiction remember him, but the sheer breadth of his contributions isn’t always recognized.  At least for now, Philip Wylie remains the unsung hero of super-heroes.

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Click to read “How to Live Through a Hurricane” by Philip Wylie, from the December 30, 1950, issue of the PostSubscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

 

Comics Legend Roy Thomas on the Wylie Influence

When The Saturday Evening Post reached out to Roy Thomas through his manager, John Cimino, it was expected that he’d have great insight into the work of Philip Wylie. However, Thomas’s answers were so thorough and thoughtful that we wanted to share the complete interview.

Thomas is a living legend in the field of comic books. The first editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics after Stan Lee, Thomas has created and co-created hundreds of characters that you know, including (deep breath): Wolverine, Carol Danvers (aka Captain Marvel), Ultron, Ghost Rider, Morbius, Valkyrie, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Red Sonja, Adam Warlock, Red Guardian, the Black Knight, Yellowjacket, Banshee, Havok, Sunfire, and many, many more. His resume for Marvel and DC is almost a book of its own. Here are his comments on Wylie and incorporating Wylie into comics.

 

THE SATURDAY EVENING POST: When did you first become aware of Philip Wylie’s work, and what prompted you to adapt Gladiator for Marvel Preview?

ROY THOMAS: I had read previously of Wylie’s prominence as an essayist, in particular his work Generation of Vipers. I’m not sure when I first became aware of Wylie’s late-1920s novel Gladiator. Sometime in the 1960s, I believe. I may have read about it first in a science fiction fanzine or book article, maybe one by SF historian Sam Moskowitz. By the late 1960s, I believe, it came out in paperback… it was out of copyright by then, apparently… and I bought a copy and devoured it. The fact that it was such a seminal influence, I felt, on the concept of the super-hero… even though it in turn was probably influenced by the likes Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars novels and John Campbell’s story/novel The Mightiest Machine … made me want to adapt it at Marvel, even though I only got the chance to adapt the first half of it before I left Marvel for a time in 1980. It was part and parcel with my work on the black-&-white SF comic magazine Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction, and might well have appeared in that magazine if it had lasted long enough.

I recall that I contacted what seemed to be Wylie’s agent . . . and was informed that what I’d heard was correct, and Gladiator was indeed in the public domain. So we didn’t have to pay anything to adapt the novel. However, the agent I deal with told me that Wylie’s widow “could use the money,” so I arranged for Marvel to pay her the hundred or two that we would have offered for the rights, since that was about as high as I’d have been authorized to go under my current arrangement with Stan and Marvel. One of my main frustrations was that I never seemed to run across a photo of Wylie except an older man, after he’d won fame as an essayist, when I wanted a picture of him as a younger man, when he wrote Gladiator.

The book is so straightforwardly and directly written as to be almost an outline for a novel rather than a novel itself in places, but it carried me along with the sheer power of its ideas. I long toyed with the idea of rewriting it as a longer book and copyrighting it in both our names… but I decided that was pure hubris on my part. I, or even more likely someone else, could have added a bit of polish and flowery language, etc., but we couldn’t have improved, really, on what was there.

 

SEP:  Some suggest that Hugo Danner was a direct inspiration for Superman, while others suggest that it’s more of a case of passing similarity or “ideaspace.” Do you have a particular view on the subject?

RT: I know that Jerry Siegel never admitted to a direct inspiration from Gladiator, but I have always pretty much discounted that as being said for legal reasons. After all, Jerry was a prominent and wide-reading SF fan in the 1920s and ’30s. Certainly there were other inspirations for Jerry’s first “Superman,” who was an evil scientist… but when he and Joe Shuster developed the second one, the physically powerful “Superman,” it smacked of Hugo Danner and Gladiator. There are even some similar episodes in the early comics to some in the novel, and Hugo and Superman both acted as independent avenging agents, righting wrongs and intimidating the so-called masters of malice in business and industry. I can accept the general idea that the similarities may have been a coincidence, but I find it impossible to believe myself.

 

SEP: When you were writing Young All-Stars, you made direct use of Hugo Danner for the origin of Iron Munro. How did that come about?

RT: I knew that Arn Munro had been the super-human hero of Campbell’s novel/story The Mightiest Machine, in Astounding Stories . . . Earthman raised on Jupiter and thus gaining great strength and leaping abilities when he returned to his native Earth. I have never actually read much of “Machine,” though I keep meaning to. Clearly, here was another possible inspiration for Superman, though it came later than Gladiator… so I decided that Arn Munro should be the son of Hugo Danner. I also knew by then that Arn Munro, changed considerably, had become the star of a minor comicbook feature under the title “Iron Munro, the Astounding Man.” I don’t know if the “Iron Munro” name is used at all in Campbell’s story, but I felt that naming the Young All-Stars hero Arnold Munro, Arn for short, and “Iron” as a nickname, would be a perfect homage, so I did it. I’ve no idea if, in The Mightiest Machine, “Arn” is short for Arnold or not. (Or was it ever spelled “Aarn”? I recall toying with that for a while.)

 

SEP:  What are your thoughts on the genre influence of Wylie as a whole?

RT: It is considerable, since I consider Hugo Danner and the entire book an influence on Superman, who in turn has been an influence on virtually everything that came afterward, even on Batman and non-super-powered heroes who also are descended from Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel. In addition, it was amusing to learn later that Wylie had also written a book titled The Savage Gentleman, who some see as influential on Doc Savage… who in turn was called a “Superman” in ads before DC’s comic hero emerged… and was known as “the Man of Bronze,” where Superman became first the “Man of Tomorrow” but soon the “Man of Steel.” Wylie’s reputation, such as remains of it (he’s largely a forgotten figure in today’s literary world, with his “Momism” and all), rests on Generation of Vipers… but he was really most important and influential on American and world culture as the author of Gladiator. If he’d written nothing else ever, he would be worthy of a place in the real pantheon of heroic fiction authors.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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