WHETHER HE WAS stopping a speeding trolly car with his bare hands, or wielding a full-size cannon as though it were a pistol, the friendly colossus known as Hugo Hercules was pulling off superhero-type feats long before anybody even thought to use the word.
The word superhero, that is, which didn’t come into existence until 1917 according to Webster’s Dictionary. Hugo Hercules was doing his thing way back in 1902, every Sunday in the funny pages of The Chicago Tribune—saving damsels in distress; effortlessly hoisting an elephant; turning the tables on armed robbers. For 5 short months, anyway. As it turned out, what Hugo had in strength he lacked in timing. Apparently, America’s readers weren’t ready for a hand-drawn, super-powered individual in 1902. They would be three decades later, after World War I and the Great Depression created a need for escapism. But by the time the U.S. comic book industry was born, in 1933, Hugo Hercules was long gone.
HUGO WAS THE creation of a 23-year-old Tribune artist named Wilhelm Heinrich Detlev Körner, who left newspapers after just a few years to study fine art. At one point he was under the instruction of George Bridgman, who also taught illustrator Norman Rockwell and comics pioneer Will Eisner (The Spirit). The instruction must have been wonderful, because Körner went on to become one of the century’s most renowned painters of Old West scenes. In fact, his 1916 masterpiece, A Charge to Keep, was displayed prominently in George W. Bush’s Oval Office throughout his presidency.
I’M ALWAYS interested in knowing the context in which a character was created, and though I haven’t come across anything that might suggest what inspired Körner to create Hugo Hercules—a strapping, larger-than-life everyman with great power and a can-do spirit—I’d be willing to bet it might have had something to do with the man who occupied the presidency during the year Hugo appeared: Theodore Roosevelt, the reigning figure of the era in America; a fitness nut, man’s man, self-proclaimed “bull moose,” and extremely active president.
It’s just a guess. But really not a stretch considering Roosevelt’s high profile at the time. He probably loved Hugo.
Alan Moore certainly loves him. The master comic writer (Watchmen) included Hugo as a character in his 2015 League of Extraordinary Gentlemen spinoff Nemo: River of Ghosts (below).
MANY COMIC historians identify Lee Falk’s Mandrake the Magician (1934) as the comics’ first superhero, but that’s probably because Mandrake was a huge hit some 32 years after Hugo Hercules came and went. There’s no disputing that Hugo was the first American comic strip character to exhibit superhuman ability, however, and whether or not he had anything to do with the flood of masks and capes that eventually arrived, his place in history is firmly established.
It is interesting to note, though, that in one of his strips—Hugo Hercules Obliges Beauty in Distress—he refers to himself as “the boy wonder.”
For more Hugo, check out the fantastic gallery of strips at Barnacle Press.