Odd John (Olaf Stapledon) novel cover

Odd John


Odd John is an influential, if somewhat obscure, 1935 novel. It mixes a sci-fi tale with philosophical pondering about the nature and motivation of more-than-human characters.

Author Olaf Stapledon was a major voice in sci-fi back then, and among the firsts to write about what would become major themes.

The influence of Odd John is particularly felt by Marvel fans. The term Homo superior originated there, as did several of the themes for mutant books. And I’ve always assumed that Project Wideawake, responsible for the Sentinel killer robots, was named as an homage to Odd John.


  • Real Name: John Wainwright.
  • Marital Status: Single, though he may have considered himself married by the end of his life.
  • Known Relatives: Dr. Thomas “Doc” Wainwright (father), “Pax” (mother), Thomas “Tommy,” Jr. (older brother), Anne (older sister).
  • Group Affiliation: None.
  • Base Of Operations: An Uncharted South Pacific Island.
  • Height: 5’4” Weight: 110lbs. Age: 23 at death.
  • Note: I guessed at the height/weight (I used typical 13-year-old boy numbers).
  • Eyes: Green Hair: White


Powers and Abilities

As Stapledon references it frequently at the earliest stages of John’s story, and as John is in many ways a “magnified” version of Victor, it may be well worth becoming familiar with Victor Stott before proceeding, either through the novel (The Hampdenshire Wonder, or The Wonder, depending on which side of the Atlantic you live) or the Victor Stott character profile.

Like Stott, John was born with no habits or instincts whatsoever – a blank slate. Lacking even the most rudimentary preconceptions, John is able to assimilate knowledge and experience from a purely objective point of view. Thus, by the time he presents a skill, he has, in many cases, mastered it.

Also like Stott, when he found (at a much later age than Victor) his vocabulary in a field limited, he memorized the contents of the Oxford English Dictionary. Plus dictionaries of terms specific to a field. Once assimilated, he could then read pages of text as fast as he could move his gaze across each page.

Mens et manus

However, very unlike the Wonder, John also put himself to practical applications, both in body and in mind. More engineer than philosopher (though with qualities of both), John not only had brilliant ideas. He designed and constructed brilliant devices – some of which, the world was not yet ready to see.

He also rolled a few dollars into fortunes through acquired business acumen.

John also understood people, not only in the sense of predicting their actions, but also in the sense of being able to manipulate them. In his experiments, he seduced women and teenage boys alike (though never consuming such a relationship, feeling our species beneath him) with little trouble. He also could coerce people with far greater (though hardly psychic) agility.

Through his other abilities, John discovered that he could also coerce objects, at times. He was able to control atomic forces at extremely low levels. He used this ability to power his myriad inventions. He would later teach it to the members of his colony, so that they would never want for power or heat.

And, almost accidentally, John was a born leader, and not just of his fellow Homo superior. Once his abilities were known to someone, they naturally deferred to him, and worked far more efficiently with his inspiration guiding a project.

Homo Superior

Once John had determined that he represented an evolutionary advancement beyond mankind, he struck out around the world (both telepathically and physically) in search of others like himself. He called those “Wideawakes”.

With only a few exceptions, “they are either so delicate physically or so unbalanced mentally that they leave no considerable mark on the world.” It is considered that, barring John, himself, Victor Stott (the “Hampdenshire Wonder”) was perhaps the most balanced (and, notably, among the least developed) of Wideawakes.

Thus, in DC Heroes RPG terms a typical Homo superior will have, frankly awful Physical Attributes. Generally no more than 2/1/1, in the best of cases. Their Mystical Attributes will often follow suit, for a variety of reasons. Their Mental Attributes are, of course, their most commonly outstanding features, though many are hampered by low MINDs.

The vast majority were “lunatics, cripples, invalids, and inveterate old vagabonds in whom the superior mentality had been hopelessly distorted by contact with the normal species.” By contrast, the Wideawakes that John recruited for his colonies, are more physically fit (yet still not to the level that John developed), and far more mentally advanced.

The Wideawakes

Among the prominent Wideawakes were:

  • James Jones. An asylum inmate who, with his six-fingered hands, produced music entirely alien to humans, but astoundingly beautiful to John and his ilk. This, however, is only feasible in his rare lucid moments. Jones is otherwise completely incoherent.
  • “The Cormorant”. An unnamed son of a crofter in South Uist, Outer Hebrides. Even at the age of 18, his body appeared as a malformed three-year-old, unable to move or speak. Due to his parents’ inability to care for him, he has developed his powers to an uncanny level matched only by his hate for everyone and everything.
    When John contacted him, he concluded that either he or John must die. He dedicated his life to the latter part of the proposition, and perhaps succeeded.
    This character isn’t named in the novel. But “the Cormorant” seems apt, from the text when John encounters him.
  • Jacqueline Castagnet. Born poor in 1765 near Argonne, ran away from home when she was betrothed, and was determined to make her way in a society of halfwits. She initially did this through prostitution. But she eventually fell in with a young artist, fell in love, and was repulsed at the thought of loving an inferior being.
    On his death, she wandered until marrying a Russian prince. When he died, she married a Parisian lawyer named Jean Caze in 1845, and had a daughter, who she befriended shortly before meeting John. She did not join John’s crusade, but supported him morally.
  • Adlan was an Egyptian boatman born in 1512. He died shortly after 1896 with a long and varied career, including stints in both military and political arenas. He contacted John across the decades, and managed to teach John to visit him late in his life.
  • Ng-Gunko. Located for John by Adlan, he came from a more remote spot in southern Africa. He was certainly the closest to physically grotesque. He found, and cared for, “Sambo,” an infant African that he took from the baby’s mildly superior mother.
  • Lo, in contrast to Ng-Gunko, was a pretty young girl from Moscow. Unprepared for her abilities, she had terrible, violent nightmares when she slept. These were a result of the atrocities committed against her family during the Revolution. She, therefore, attempted to sleep as little as possible (and had not for years, by the time John found her).
    In their final days, John and Lo became lovers.
  • Langatse. A wise, blind Tibetan monk of 40 years, whose powers vastly outstripped John’s. He, too, declined to join the colony, feeling that, even as far removed as he was, that Wideawakes could not remove themselves entirely from Homo sapiens. He did, however, locate many Homo superior across Asia, and trained them in the use of their powers.


John’s father (“descended from Spaniards, Moroccans, and Arabs”) was a brilliant doctor, with remarkable cures to his credit. But he had no bedside manner, and was thus unsuccessful. John’s mother (“of Swede, Finn, and Lapp stock”), was quite beautiful and intelligent. But she frequently gave the impression of being a dullard.

Four years the junior to his siblings, John himself was carried by Pax for nearly a full year. At this point, the doctors forced a birth to guarantee the mother’s survival. They pulled out what appeared to be a second-trimester fetus in 1910.

Still surprisingly premature, John spent another year in an incubator. He taught himself to breathe and beat his heart, as he recounted years later. Witnessing this unexpected survival, doctors allowed him his second artificial birth.

What are the odds

From here, it was not for another 18 months before John opened his eyes at all. This is when Pax dubbed him “Odd” John. At this point he jumped into (intelligent-seeming) activity with both limbs and voice. Despite this, it was not until his third year when he attempted to speak—and then with perfect clarity, grammar, and purpose.

Less than a year later, armed with only an abacus (and his mother to give names to numbers and operations), John had all but mastered arithmetic and geometry on his own.

In his sixth year, he learned to read (by having Pax read aloud). He then turned his attention to walking. He spent about a week experimenting, but with no success. When his frustration was more than he could deal with, John sunk into reading for another week. When that week was finished, he got up and began walking unaided.

With success (and triumph) under his belt, John set himself to a regimen of exercise, so that his efforts would not be so hindered in the future. From there, he moved on to becoming a master of combat, more because it seemed an appropriate pursuit than for any other reason.

The whole wide world

By this time, John was sent to school. But his scholastic career lasted barely three weeks. His teachers—never quite acknowledging that they had nothing to offer the young boy—sent him home, declaring him a disruption to classes and better served with “special treatment.”

This Pax pretended to provide, and John’s life and learning continued. At this point, John began to move beyond his relations for his ongoing education.

On many a morning, armed with a children’s magazine, he would spend the day riding the rails. John would subtly interrogate whoever he came across about their field of expertise. So he learned business, among many other fields, as well as how the human mind worked.

From there, John became progressively more independent. He would spend days away from home at a time, sometimes visiting acquaintances made on the trains, sometimes building functional model automobiles or airships, and sometimes quietly reading on a secluded beach.

From there, by the age of ten, John had plied his independence to gain money for his “ambition”…whatever that would turn out to be.

Teenage wasteland

To this end, he embarked on a minor crime spree across his area, which captured his sense of adventure. He stopped only when, to keep his secret, he felt forced to kill a policeman who recognized him.

John’s ill-gotten gains, for the next few years, were multiplied wildly by investment in his own inventions and in companies which met John’s standards. These were all funneled through his faithful family friend, the narrator.

Ready for the world, John continued to learn about people. eventually, he could concoct a grand plan to which to apply his income and abilities.

One such adventure, as it turns out, did exactly that. A romance at 16, when nearly consummated, assaulted John with the harsh reality that he was unlike typical humans. This caused him to immediately break the relationship with the lovely Europa. It also motivated the lad to find others like himself, so that they could develop without needing to live entirely among, essentially, animals.

He ran off, for several weeks, into the Scottish wilderness. This was as much to come to terms with his life as to prove that, should the occasion arise, he would be able to survive without the framework of society to support him.


When he returned home, John was refreshed. He prepared to seek out others of his kind. After some insufficiently successful outings, John began to strike paydirt. One after another Wideawake came to his attention. While not all agreed with his plan, all lent him one form of support or another such that, by the age of 18, he was ready.

He and his people expanded the search for Homo superior, as well as for a stable location for a home. John found that, at times, he needed to be ruthless, for example killing the crewmen of a capsized ship he saved, to prevent their insistence on publicizing the incident. He compared this to killing apes to preserve or found human society.

He reprised his role as a ruthless imperialist when Providence seemed to have given him a home. Deep in the uncharted South Pacific, John found an island which appeared to have been spit up by geologic disturbance within the last two decades. Perhaps—though no evidence supports this—it was even precisely the same age as John.

It was clear of shipping lanes, and close enough, by Skid, to South America for supplies. The only problem were the people living upon “his” island. These undoubtedly migrated there at about the time the land rose from the sea.

John “solved” this problem by mentally coercing the tribal people to commit mass suicide on a vast funeral pyre. In, perhaps, a fleeting moment of guilt, John could not defend his actions. But he did point out that, eventually, an imperialist power would have found them, taken them over, crushed their spirits, and mourned them only after they died slowly and painfully.

Another nation built on corpses

In any case, with a home and a “tribe,” 18-year-old John and his band of 11 Wideawakes created their settlement. They vanished from humanity for about four years.

Over this span, they created a peaceful and free—though tiny—society. It was dedicated to learning what, exactly Wideawakes were, as well as to exploring themselves and any art they might find of interest.

In 1932, he summoned his old friend to the colony. As a journalist who already knew of these advanced people, he would be able to chronicle the colony objectively, for the benefit of any Homo superior that might rise after they’re (thought to be impending) demise.


The end came within a year. A ship arrived at the colony, and the crew came ashore. John wiped their minds of the ability to relate the experience. But the nebulous reports that reached the captain’s superiors caused them to send further investigators.

After they, too, were turned away, the six Major Powers formed a coalition. This alliance was spurred into existence by a criminally insane Wideawake who sought to destroy John. Its goal was to evict the demonic children who were running naked and uninhibited without supervision.

Here, the Wideawakes’ tactics changed. They threatened to kill themselves if touched. When the officers took hold of the first few, they dropped as promised.

While the great militaries decided how to resolve this, John and his people put all of their effort into completing some incomprehensible-to-humans spiritual task. Then they focused on destroying and sinking the island, right before the eyes of the naval officers and their hired mercenaries.

And so, at 23 years of age, on the 15th of December in 1933, “Odd John” Wainwright, and his Homo superior friends, are assumed to have perished by choice, rather than return to a society that could not handle them.


“He was indeed far more like a boy than a man, though in some moods his youthful face would assume a curiously experienced and even patriarchal expression. Slender, long limbed, and with that unfinished coltish look characteristic of puberty, he had also a curiously finished grace all his own.

“Indeed to those who had come to know him he seemed a creature of ever-novel beauty. But strangers were often revolted by his uncouth proportions. They called him spiderish. His body, they complained, was so insignificant, his legs and arms so long and lithe, his head all eye and brow.

“Like his fellow colonists, John mostly went naked. His maleness, thus revealed, was immature in spite of his 23 years. His skin, burnt by the Polynesian sun, was of a grey, almost a green brown, warming to a ruddier tint in the cheeks.

“His hands were extremely large and sinewy. Somehow they seemed more mature than the rest of his body. ‘Spiderish’ seemed appropriate in this connection also.

“His head was certainly large but not out of proportion to his long limbs. Evidently the unique development of his brain depended more on manifold convolutions than on sheer bulk. All the same his was a much larger head than it looked, for its visible bulk was scarcely at all occupied by the hair, which was but a close skull-cap, a mere superficies of Negroid but almost white wool.

“His nose was small but broad, rather Mongolian perhaps. His lips, large but definite, were always active. They expressed a kind of running commentary on his thoughts and feelings Yet many a time I have seen those lips harden into granitic stubbornness.

“John’s eyes were indeed too big for his face, which acquired thus a strangely cat-like or falcon-like expression. This was emphasized by the low and level eyebrows, but often completely abolished by a thoroughly boyish and even mischievous smile.

“The whites of John’s eyes were almost invisible. The pupils were immense. The oddly green irises were as a rule mere filaments. But in tropical sunshine the pupils narrowed to mere pin-pricks.

“Altogether, his eyes were the most obviously ‘queer’ part of him. His glance, however, had none of that weirdly compelling power recorded in the case of Victor Stott. Or rather, to feel their magic, one needed to have already learnt something of the formidable spirit that used them.

“John’s laugh was strangely disturbing. It was a low, rapid, crisp chuckle,” reminding the narrator “of that whispered crackling prelude which sometimes precedes a really great crash of thunder. But no thunder followed it, only a moment’s silence; and for his hearers and odd tingling of the scalp.”

The narrator calls the laugh inhuman and “ruthless, but never malicious,” and believes it to be central to John’s character—especially seeing as how the laugh would often arise from no apparent source of humor.


John, as might be evident from his nickname, is somewhat peculiar among humans, simply because he is so advanced.

Where others might wonder, John can (and often does) know. Where others might try, John successfully does. Yet, he does all this without arrogance, and certainly does it without false modesty. A local woman, with affection, described him as “a god pretending to be a monkey.”

There is also, because John knows people, a fatalistic side to him. He understands that, because of his abilities, he will not die naturally. He also knows that there are things, even among Wideawakes, that only he can do. He will, therefore, do them, out in the open, often without worrying about the effects of his actions.

This, however, does not mean that he is careless or stupid. For most of his life, he used his reporter friend to cover for his activities, funneling wealth, ideas, and travel plans through him to keep attention away from himself.

From time to time, though, his situation frustrated him. Speaking with unenlightened humans tended to bother him most frequently, but so did times when he felt himself acting more like Homo sapiens than Homo superior.

In such times, rare though intense, he generally felt a need to “create his own rules,” and prove to himself that he was not shackled by the edicts of a society which could not contain him. In that respect, perhaps most oddly, John was a perfectly normal (if hyperable) teenage boy. Even if the manifestations were often a bit more grotesque than the usual.

Marvel Universe History

Odd John’s “Homo superior” would reach near-mythological status among Marvel mutants, as a cautionary tale of what might happen to those members of humanity who are too different.

Moreover, the “community-building” activities of both Xavier and Magneto could be efforts to reach John’s vision of a community where Homo superior can be themselves.

The fact that John’s Homo superior aren’t their Homo superior (maybe with some exceptions) would likely be glossed over or unknown by all.

Also, note that in the Marvel Universe the biggest Sentinels project (before Bastion and Operation Zero Tolerance) was named Project Wideawake. This seems to be a reference to John’s kind of Homo Superior, also eradicated by the best war machines of their day.

DC Universe History

Obviously, in the DCU, the destruction of the island would be a ruse to convince the world that they were gone.

If they indeed survived, John and his people would surely have encountered the All-Star Squadron. In all likelihood, John Wainwright’s Homo superior would have themselves at odds with Hugo Danner’s Sons of the New Dawn, and the All-Stars would have gotten caught in the middle of the little war.

Eventually, they would have forced John and Hugo to realize that they were more alike than different. Both societies would have gone back into hiding, though perhaps each sending a delegate to the Squadron to help in the fight against the Axis (which both groups would despise).

In modern times, like Gorilla City, Atlantis, Badhnesia, and other fictional nations, there might be one or two recurring Wideawake characters (odds favor a renegade). The rest—John among them— would be window dressing when one of the Justice Leaguers (or whoever) brings the renegade home for imprisonment.

It is also possible that John’s Homo superior were the immortal humans which the Guardians of the Universe told that Earth could expect within the next thousand years, when they left the DCU in the wake of Crisis.

Already long-lived and powerful, they perhaps arose a bit before the Oans predicted, and the Millennium event and New Guardians were more or less redundant.


“Our chance is not one in a million.”

“My looks are a rough test of people. If they don’t begin to see me beautiful when they have had a chance to learn, I know they’re dead inside, and dangerous.”

“There’s not much in number, really. Of course, it’s marvelously pretty, but when you’ve done it all—well, that’s that. I’ve finished number. I know all there is in that game. I want another. You can’t suck the same piece of sugar for ever.”

“Life doesn’t hang together like number. It won’t make a pattern. There’s something wrong with all those books. Of course, I often see they’re stupid, but there must be something deeper wrong too, which I can’t see.”

“Now all you little electrons and protons go to sleep, and don’t wake up till Mummy tells you. The patter, I may say, is for the audience, not for the rabbits in the conjurer’s hat.”

“Say in the biography that I loved you very much.”

Game Stats — DC Heroes RPG

Tell me more about the game stats

Odd John

Dex: 06 Str: 03 Bod: 02 Motivation: Thrill of Adventure
Int: 10 Wil: 12 Min: 11 Occupation: Superhuman, Colonist
Inf: 07 Aur: 09 Spi: 08 Resources {or Wealth}: 030
Init: 031 HP: 035

Bomb: 01, Comprehend Languages: 06, Enhanced Initiative: 06, Hypnosis: 08, Invulnerability: 02, Personality Transfer: 02, Recall: 40, Split: 01, Telepathy: 20, Time Travel: 28

Bonuses and Limitations:

  • Bomb is a learned skill based on John’s other mental abilities. It can also be set to activate at a future time or by mental command (assume that Telepathy may be used to substitute for Range). John uses this ability to power his Gadgets (below).
  • Comprehend Languages needs some time (about 10APs) to become fluent, but also works on the written word.
  • Split is Mental only. Moreover, the “mental” split loses no APs, both being deducted from that of his physical body (and can/should be used with Personality Transfer). There is a perceptible “jerk” to John’s motions when he finally reintegrates the errant portion of his mind.
  • Telepathy can only be used on those with whom John has a strong affinity. Documented cases include other Homo superior and Pax.
  • Time Travel is only usable with Personality Transfer, and John must have a target he knows well to possess in the target time period. This probably makes any forward trips effectively impossible.

Acrobatics: 07, Artist/Musician: 05, Charisma: 08, Gadgetry: 12, Martial Artist*: 06, Scientist: 13, Thief: 08, Vehicles: 07, Weaponry: 05

Attractive, Genius, Gift of Gab, Leadership, Local Hero (Homo superior), Omni-Connection, Scholar (Mathematics).

“Fido,” the faithful family friend [High].

Arch-Enemy (“The Cormorant”), Strange Appearance, Misc: Frame of Reference (see below)


  • SKID [STR 08 BODY 04, Swimming: 07, Hardened Defenses. In general shape, this boat—regarded as more of a caricature than a real ship, despite her seaworthiness—was “ludicrously broad” in the beam, and nearly as shallow. In modern times, it might be described as a hydrofoil, minus the stabilizer.
    It could be handled by a single navigator, though was designed for an optimal crew of nine, and capable of housing 20, including bunks, mess, saloon, and latrine, plus the plane].
  • PLANE [STR 02 BODY 02, Flight: 07. John’s plane was a stub-winged, collapsible aircraft—what the modern world might call “ultralight,” though the term did not yet exist, nor was the body a glider—capable of outperforming anything, in terms of both speed and maneuverability. For the sake of convenience, it was also capable of making both water and land landings and takeoffs].

Frame of Reference

John’s mind (in fact, the minds of all Homo superior) works in ways that are so alien to that of the normal human, that it is often difficult for him to easily communicate “natively” with others. This has many problems, ranging from trivial to crippling.

First, any RAPs gained through use of the Artist Skill, when viewed by a normal human, are reduced by the difference in APs of MIND between John and the viewer, as his art is incomprehensible to most.

Similarly, when he designs a Gadget, the OV/RV of Identify Gadget attempts are increased by a similar amount.

Also, a normal human must roll INT/WILL vs. that same difference as OV/RV to convince himself to use such a bizarre contrivance.

And, finally, John himself must roll INFL/AURA vs. that difference as OV/RV in order to effectively communicate his inner thoughts, ideas, and feelings with others not of his kind.

Typical Homo Superior

Dex: 04 Str: 02 Bod: 02
Int: 12 Wil: 13 Min: 08
Inf: 05 Aur: 05 Spi: 06
Init: 021 HP: 015

Hypnosis: 04, Invulnerability: 02, Recall: 35, Telepathy: 25. Additionally, almost every Homo superior has one or two additional Mental Powers at around 8-10APs each.

Artist: 07

Genius, Scholar (Chosen field of pursuit).

Odd John [High].

Strange Appearance, MPR (Digestive Problems), Misc: Frame of Reference (see above).

By John Colagioia.

Source of Character: Odd John, by Olaf Stapledon.

Helper(s): Sébastien Andrivet, Morgan Champion, KalEl el Vigilante.