Now here is a fella I’ve wanted to talk about for the better part of a year. Roughly around the time I stared on my tangents about heroes I was already well past the two to three month mark wanting to look up this character and read the original source material rather than online analyses of him.
You see when most people talk about superheroes they basically think of them in terms of two elements; the noble heroic figure which as I’ve already discussed the roots of with my discussion on King Arthur, and the alter ego meant to hide that superhero identity.
Now on that second point a lot of people can easily admit that the dual identity is old hat, especially when the Fantastic Four were considered revolutionary for doing away with that in their origin despite premiering in 1961. And yet, for most of us, the modern incarnates of heroes are all derived from those first few like Superman, Batman, Spiderman, the front runners and first creations of Marvel and DC comics.
So if those heroes aren’t the origin, then who is?
Well, you would assume an earlier pulp hero like The Shadow or The Phantom which are fair precursors but not so easily identifiable as the origin of the dual identity as each of those heroes attempted to put a unique spin on that dual identity. With The Shadow he had at least three identities, if not more when the moment called for it and the Phantom was never shown without his mask off (unless his face was hidden from the reader) to highlight how much more he was The Phantom then his own true identity. I think.
A few more of you would point and easily say Zorro who would moonlight as the Fox and be the wealthy landlord Don Diego De La Vega to evade the law. Sure enough, many heroes are derived from Zorro with the concepts that he put forth. And don’t misunderstand; I plan to do an article doing that character justice.
But between the time sired by Zorro and the era of myth when heroes would disguise themselves for a time to deceive enemies we do have one unique character who, once you read into him, makes you realize just how many superheroes and their dual identities are derived from him. Ladies and gentlemen I speak only of the rouge of Paris: The Scarlet Pimpernel.
By the way, I should issue major spoiler warnings. Despite the book being published in 1905, the identity of the Pimpernel is kept a mystery and is a major plot point of the book. That said, when I read it, I knew who the Pimpernel was and the book actually deliberately hints whom he is within seconds of the character’s appearance. And I mean in a way that’s a lot like the classic iterations of Clark Kent winking at the camera.
Anyway, on to the story itself. The Scarlet Pimpernel was written in 1905 by the Baroness Emma Orczy. This was adapted from a short story (also called The Scarlet Pimpernel) that was also written and produced into a play in 1903 which was wildly successful and helped pave the way for the novel. Now I should highlight that the origin of the dual-identity story was written by a woman at this point in the article just to reinforce a few perspective choices later.
The story itself is set in the time of the French Revolution and to highlight just how innovative this story is it immediately sets about showing us how the wholesale murder of the French aristocracy was a bad thing. Now most of us, when we think of the French Revolution we think of it as a general improvement on France because the poor were being oppressed, right? Equal rights, no upper class, all are equal… these are good things… right?
Well, despite the huge social reforms you have to remember that people and I mean men, women and children; were being pretty much murdered just because they were born noble and no matter how you shake that sentence, indiscriminately persecuting and killing people simply because they are born a certain way becomes kind of a holocaust at that point. Even if that is a social status point.
So enter the Scarlet Pimpernel who performs his heroic deeds saving French nobles from death by sneaking them out of France and into England where they live peacefully. He is backed by his order of nineteen men who help carry out his orders in both France and England though much of the planning and smuggling in desperate situations is conducted by the Scarlet Pimpernel. He is so named by the new French regime because of how he signs his letters to taunt them by drawing that same star shaped English flower to sign his letters.
The story is unique however in that it does not follow the perspective of the Pimpernel, nor any of his followers or one of the people he rescues. In fact, it does follow a Marguerite St. Just (now Blakeney) who, it is revealed, is the wife of the Scarlett Pimpernel.
The novel, after introducing us to the situation in Paris along with the methodology and reputation of the Pimpernel, quickly shifts to Marguerite’s perspective as she lives in a miserable marriage where she verbally teases and mocks her husband Sir, Percy Blakeney who is a dullard by everyone’s standards. Marguerite reveals soon the reason for their situation is that Percy effectively refuses all romantic endeavours by her and she has reduced herself to insulting him to simply attract his attention but to no success. This is because of the revelation that prior to the book’s beginning Marguerite unwittingly initiated a series of events that led to the murder of a family of French nobles. She revealed this to Percy shortly after their marriage and he began their estrangement.
She is forced by a French government agent to try and determine the identity of the Pimpernel (due to her eyes and ears among England’s social elite) or else the official will have her brother murdered. After several attempts and countless threats she manages to earn some information for the official but becomes so distraught with the situation that she goes to Percy for help stating that her brother is in danger (though not revealing her deeds up until this point). Percy consents and shortly after a search of his private rooms brought on by curiosity to learn more of her husband learns that he is in fact the Pimpernel.
Caught in the situation of having potentially betrayed her husband to save her brother Marguerite enlists one of her husband’s followers to help her to Paris to warn him and failing that share his fate.
What follows is an outright awesome game of cat and mouse leading to a happy ending to be had for all.
Now some may find that the depiction of Marguerite towards the end of the book causes her to lose a lot of strength as she spends as much time trying to figure a way out of the situation as she does mooning over her husband and how much more she loves him now, though I chalk that up to her being in an extreme situation as the book does paint it having found herself in physical danger for the first time in her life and risking her life several times during the moment. It is a bit of a shame that we really don’t get a scene between Percy and Marguerite really opening up to one another after the conflict resolves. Though if Percy’s conduct prior is any indication there was some freaky make-up sex. He freaking kisses the places where her feet tread when she leaves a room!
The thing that gets me most about this book is that it was written in 1908 and yet the relationship between Percy and Marguerite is considerably more mature and finds complete resolution in a rekindled romance (in which we assume Marguerite came to work with her husband shortly after) that completely surpasses most superhero relationships. It’s told from a perspective other than that of the hero and offers a differencing perspective on a historical event and it was written by a woman (when the realm of heroic writing is stereotypically set as man’s work) THIRTY YEARS before the golden age of comics.
And yet, so many comics use the conventions set here. Percy acts like a complete moron half the time, outright snoring in plain sight so that his enemies underestimate him. And yet when the moment comes he’s shown to be incredibly quick witted and capable of adapting to situations with a speed that would put to shame several long running superheroes. And I mean guys like Batman and Wolverine. That and because the story is not burdened by the conventions it itself would set forth it is capable of evolving beyond them.
Sometime before the current iteration of this journal I spoke about the unpublished Superman story The K-Metal from Krypton during which Superman was forced to reveal his identity to Lois Lane and a new powerful partnership emerged from their relationship. It was only recently revealed and restored by archivists and I encourage you to read the comic and the ensuing article here (not mine). As I’ve stated before, the shelving of this story probably did more to hinder the development of superheroes by forcing a necessity to maintain the status quo which has now become the stuff of parody.
Then we have situations like the infamous Spider-Man story One More Day created because Joe Quesada couldn’t figure out how to make a relationship work in the long term. Can we make this a meme where we have a picture of Quesada whining about making superhero relationships work only to have Baroness Orczy call him a little bitch?
It’s just pure tragedy that the dual identity element of a hero has degenerated from its origins. This mythical stigma around maintaining a secret identity now only survives with heroes passing out the blasé response of “My loved ones might be in danger from my enemies.” This is despite the fact that this argument is made usually during the origin story long before the hero has an established arch rival. Never mind the raw logic that you have an example of a real world crime fighting force that doesn’t hide its identity: the police!
Don’t misunderstand me; there are heroes for whom the secret identity is completely justified such as with Batman and the extreme measures he uses that no sane person would allow. But I’m honestly surprised that over the years the Daily Planet didn’t simply become a front for a co-ordinated warning system to get Superman out in the field faster. Granted that’s kind of moot with the super-hearing but I think you know the spirit with which I say that.
It’s a shame that such stigma exists around developing relationships in comic books among writers. I can’t imagine that many of them are unmarried or not capable of sustaining a relationship so how hard is it to find a woman’s insight into making a relationship work then meshing it with their own to create two compelling characters. Is it a fear that the relationship will dominate the remainder of the themes one attempts to present in the story? Is it really so impossible to develop characters like this beyond the traditional coming-of-age paradigm?
I make this plea to comic creators to take the superhero genre and not subvert it and make it more edgy as has been the trend, but rather at long last have evolving storylines and growth. There is still a grand chance to be made in the online era for such publications to rocket forward and find purchase within an audience’s heart and create a revolution within the industry.
So too does this work exist.