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COMIC LEGEND: Jerry Siegel reviewed Philip Wylie’s novel, Gladiator, in the pages of his fanzine.
STATUS: I’m Going With False
One of the more controversial aspects of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s creation of Superman is the influence of other works on their creation. Siegel was a voracious reader of science fiction and fantasy, so he obviously was influenced by a number of works. Copyright laws were enforced differently back in the 1930s, though, so writers were a lot more afraid about being seen as basing their character on a character of another writer (DC Comics, after all, managed to be competitive in a copyright lawsuit over Captain Marvel, a suit they would never win nowadays). So Jerry Siegel was extremely coy for years about what influenced Superman, or even outright denying the influence of other works. The most notable example was Philip Wylie’s 1930 novel, Gladiator.
The novel is about a scientist coming up with a serum to essentially mutates his unborn son. His son has the proportionate strength of an ant and the leaping ability of the grasshopper. Both of those examples were exactly what Siegel used in Action Comics #1 eight years later…
Awfully big coincidence, right?
However, not so shocking that it would be impossible for it to actually be just a coincidence.
Beyond that, there’s very little to go on regarding Siegel and Gladiator. Some people have claimed he said he never read it, but I’ve never seen an actual quote to that effect. Siegel HAS been quoted on the influence of seminal pulp fiction works like Doc Savage and John Carter of Mars, but not Gladiator.
That’s why for years it was such a big piece of information that Siegel reviewed the novel in the second issue of his 1932 fanzine, Science Fiction (the same fanzine that featured the first take on Superman, “The Reign of Superman,” in the following issue).
Sadly enough, I have never had a chance to read said issue. However, I am confident enough that I believe that this review never actually appeared in the book.
Famed collector of science fiction memorabilia, Forrest J Ackerman, passed away in 2008. He owned every issue of Science Fiction in his vast collection of science fiction collectibles. Late in Ackerman’s life, he began to auction off pieces of his vast treasure trove of a collection. Jerry Weist was a noted comic book fan and scholar (he passed away in 2011). Bob Beerbohm IS a noted comic book fan and scholar. In 1997, Beerbohm wrote the following update to the Grand Comic Book Database Mailing List:
Just for the record and contrary to previously published reports, Jerry Weist has informed me after flipping through every page of all five issues of Forry Ackerman’s personal copies of Science Fiction that were auctioned off at this summer’s Sotheby’s Comic Art auction, there is no direct review of Philip Wylie’s Gladiator story in Science Fiction.
I trust Beerbohm and Weist, so I think that this is a pretty safe false.
Thanks a lot to Bob Hughes, who does the awesome Who’s Whose site, who found me the citation.
EDITED TO ADD: The always informative Tom Brevoort wrote in to share with me that Jerry Siegel eventually DID concede that he both read Gladiator AND that it was an influence on him. It was just not until a late 1970s autobiography that he conceded it (the autobiography ended up never being published). In the same work, he said that he had never reviewed it, though. Thanks so much for the info, Tom!
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