Thursday, 18 June 2009
So who would you say was the first superhero of them all? Most people, if asked that question, would plump for the obvious answer: Our old pal from Krypton, Superman. But he was the first comic book superhero. Before Kal-El, the first comic strip hero was The Phantom. And before The Ghost Who Walks, there were the pulp heroes, like The Shadow & Doc Savage, each with an equally strong claim to the title. And if you want to be really pedantic, you could throw in The Scarlet Pimpernel and even Robin Hood. But I doubt, if asked that all-important question, whether anybody'd come up with name of Hugo Danner.
Man-God was a partial adaptation of Philip Wylie's 1930 novel Gladiator, a book that was a major inspiration to the young Jerry Seigel, and it's one of the oddest comics' ever. Like a strange mix between a Marvel Classics Comic, an early issue of Superman, and a block-busting Marvel superhero book, it pulls in all kinds of directions stylistically, making it a fascinating, if deeply flawed read.
After that beautifully pulpish cover by Earl Norem, we first meet Hugo Danner in a typically Marvelesque action-packed opening, clearly added in by ace scripter Roy Thomas as, on a ship bound for Paris in 1914, the mysterious seaman rescues a small boy who's fallen overboard.
Once ashore, Hugo falls in with fellow traveller Tom Shayne, and while they're merrily getting drunk together, France suddenly declares war on Germany. ( Man, that was a heavy night ), and on a drunken whim, the two men decide to enlist in The Foreign Legion. Tom, basically because he has nothing better to do with his life, but Hugo for more personal reasons. With his incredible strength, war might just be the only place he might fit, where he just might be able to let loose. Later, while on their way to the enlisting office, the two are mugged. But, in a scene I also assume is from the pen of Rascally Roy, this particular bunch of gallic cutpurses have no idea who they're messing with.
Our two adventurers then part, resolving to meet up in the morning, giving Hugo the chance to do some heavy flashbacking. It seems Hugo's dad, who delights in the incredible name of Abednego Danner, thought it might be a kick to inject his pregnant wife with a serum he'd once used to turn the family moggy into an super-powered rabid monster. In a scene strongly reminiscent of Jerry & Joe's original Superman origin, we see the effect said serum had on young Hugo.
After breaking the school bully's arm in several places, dear ol' Dad makes Hugo promise to use his powers only for good, and to hide them from everyday folk. He doesn't make him a costume, though, which might've been a good idea.
Like all subsequent superheroes, Hugo considers his gifts a curse, and as he enrolls in College, his only bright spot is playing on the football team, where he, natch, wins every game, taking care not to be too astounding on the pitch. He also discovers love ( ok, then, sex ) in this screamingly purple passage, obviously taken wholesale from the book.
It's scenes, as well as dialogue, like this that make Man-God a masterpiece of unintentional comedy.
Being the stud of the football field isn't a passport to the good life though, as, when summer vacation rolls around, Hugo suddenly finds his well-to-do pals have vanished back to their expensive homes, leaving him basically on the streets. Trying to survive, he at first considers stealing, ( after all, who could stop him? ), but Dad's conditioning is too strong.
Eventually landing up at Coney Island, he manages to find himself both a job fitting his talents, and a girl. The first great love of his life, Charlotte, a poor kid like him, forced to work as a prostitute.
But, as we know, Hugo's gift is a curse, and soon Charlotte is running into the limp-wristed arms of Valentine the artist. Now, you or I (particularly if we had super-strength) would twist the little weasel into a pretzel. But Hugo, going against every dramatic doctrine in storytelling, forgives them in a soliloquy that makes what's gone before seem like the height of narrative restraint.
Back at school, he at least has his football career to keep him going, until:
Flashback over, we now understand that maybe war is the only place for a modern day barbarian like Hugo, and soon, he and Tom find themselves at the front, belly deep in the mud of the trenches. For the first time in his life, our harried hero briefly feels fear. That is, until The Hun unleash a barrage of shells at him and his buddies. Hugo, it turns out, is indestructible. Unfortunately for them, his pals aren't.
Taking the fight to those sausage eating bastards, Hugo practically wins the battle single handed, and the generals suddenly realise they have a genuine superman on their side.
Alas there are casualties, as poor old Tom goes to comic book limbo in no uncertain terms. (Never be the hero's best friend, that's my advice.)
Hugo is about to make good on his threat, when suddenly the war ends. Our hero walks off into an uncertain sunset, paving the way for part 2, as delineated by this hastily assembled splash page. But there never was a part 2, nor any explanation why not. I know Man-God was a heavily delayed piece, as I remember practically every issue of Preview trumpeting it's appearance before it actually turned up, going through several name changes ( Titan for one ) in the process.
Or maybe the fans just didn't like it very much. It is a ludicrously over-dramatic piece, Rascally Roy simultaneously attempting to adhere to Wylie's overwrought stylings, while trying to write a Marvel comic you can actually read. Truthfully, very few writers could turn a book this badly written into a comic this entertaining & coherent. It's really down to Roy that you care about Hugo at all.
Tony DeZuniga's art, at the peak of his Doc Savage style, is naturally great, and he's smart enough to make Hugo vaguely resemble both Superman & Conan, although his constant lack of backgrounds always used to annoy me. In the final analysis, Man-God can be filed under the 'only in the '70's' file as, although I suspect Roy would've liked further adventures of Hugo Danner after the adaptation, perhaps in a Doc Savage stylee, it really would've taken a lot to make it work.