Oh yeah. This is the guy I’ve wanted to talk about for a very long time. Probably back around the time I started talking about King Arthur, The Scarlet Pimpernel and hell, the Hero’s Journey as a whole, he’s been the big point I’ve lead up to.
And the shame is that not a lot of historians of heroes and superheroes give this guy his due.
I mean, I get that some comic hero creators never heard of the Scarlett Pimpernel. EVERYONE has heard of Zorro. The Fox, protector of the weak and the terror of the Los Angeles law long before it became a gang thing.
Such a bad ass!
I went back and read the original Zorro story The Curse of Capistrano (published in 1919 by author Johnston McCulley) since… well that seems to be a thing I do to be more authentic but to be honest Zorro is one of those heroes who unlike Conan or… any comic book hero who went through the 90s has remained relatively intact as people perceive him. The only major difference between what you automatically think of when you think of Zorro is the fact that in the book Zorro wears a full face mask to hide his identity.
The majority of Zorro’s costume was altered from the original novel in a movie called The Mark of Zorro where Douglas Fairbanks played the hero. This is a lot close to the outfit of Zorro we know today. I think that Zorro’s costume was supposed to be more colourful based on posters but since the film was black and white and it made a lot of sense for a bandit hero to wear black… it stuck.
And really that’s just a cosmetic thing at best. Zorro is from his first appearance is exactly what you remember him to be: a brash and energetic hero iconic of the early swashbuckling archetype. He carries a gun instead of a whip as his standard secondary weapon but he still uses a whip anyway. He is Don Diego Vega (later changed to de la Vega) wealthy Spanish landlord in Los Angeles before its annex by the United States. The local government is corrupt and abuses the hardworking populace and Don Diego is so moved by the plight of the people that he decides to take action and assume a masked identity as Zorro. This is so that he can move within the ranks of the government and their soldiers as a foppish friend without being suspected and get ahead of their plans. At the same time it allows him to practice his ideals without any risk to his estate or aged father.
By the novel’s end the evil governor is brought to justice, Zorro reveals his identity and he marries a spirited young woman whom he courted both as Zorro and Don Diego. Though, for some reason later stories (by the original author) completely ignore that the first story effectively ended Zorro’s story. I suspect this is because the film came out and was wildly successful and the author was smart enough to know a success when he saw it.
I enjoyed the Curse of Capistrano a bit more than The Scarlett Pimpernel simply because I got to see more of Zorro in action though as a trade off his romantic interest really doesn’t get fleshed out beyond her archetype as a rebellious and passionate woman. She rages, she faints, typical pulp female character. The pulp treatment extends to the other characters who are each relatively simple archetypes though I do like how Zorro’s chief physical rival Captain Ramon, reveals his sinister nature a respectable piece after his introduction showing a bit of a dual nature as a soldier and as a sadist when provoked. He is not constantly a simple villain but rather has his own unique code of civility but expects to be obeyed. That may be the reason why his death in the first novel is largely ignored in subsequent works.
It’s in looking at Zorro that you realize just how many superheroes are based off of him. Zorro is the fusion of the twin concepts of a hero hiding his identity and of a noble knight protecting the people. I argued before that The Scarlett Pimpernel was the first dual identity hero and I maintain that but it was still a novel and while he is the titular character in an adventure story it’s a lot more even about its hero as a character that has to share space with other characters and their development. Zorro is that concept refined to its point. He is the primary focus of the novel and much of the characters exist in reaction to what he does either as Zorro or as Don Diego. In fact, in the finale of the book he discusses the personality change that occurred when he donned the costume and how pronounced it became as time wore on; a point I’ve seen repeated in countless books that analyze superheroes.
It’s actually quite amazing that Zorro has survived with so little alterations to his core character over the years. He’s had countless movies, books, TV shows, cartoons, comics all dedicated to him and few really have the courage to reinvent him. Other heroes can’t pass into the hands of a new author without some exploration, satire or alteration done. I think the reason is that the logic behind Zorro’s dual identity is remarkably solid, more so then with other superheroes. To their detriment. It explains why, in most stories, Zorro operates alone with few allies (the occasional kind friar who hides him) because of the sheer fact that he is an outlaw under an oppressive regime. It adds a considerable level of challenge for a hero to be in an environment where the dominant authority will kill him at the first chance they get. Not arrest him, not try to stop him and use lethal force if necessary, but kill. I’ll point out that while characters like Batman and Spiderman have storylines where the police actively hunt them down; those are usually just single storylines to heighten tension and not an ongoing thing. And consider the difference in skills between those heroes and Zorro. Zorro has neither super powers nor equipment to allow him to be superior to the law; just his training. In addition, he doesn’t even have differing training to give him a greater edge, he is a fencing swordfighter as are the police; his only advantage is that he’s a better swordfighter. Granted a considerably better swordfighter, but just that. That escalates the tension to incredible degrees.
Thus Zorro’s triumph, even if it’s an easy one, still feels rewarding and has value. Superman beats up an everyday mugger, that’s a prelude to the start of his adventure at best. At worst it becomes the subject of parody like in Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog. When Zorro easily beats a soldier who is trying to collect a dead or alive bounty on his head you feel good for him that he won because the stakes are always that high. That is, in fact, the lowest they can get! God help Zorro if they bring in something more considerable! Even then, it isn’t hard to find something considerable: A cannon, a herd of wild horses, or a freaking sprain! Because Zorro is only skilled and not powerful virtually anything can become a challenge for him to overcome that creates real tension and then creates real satisfaction when he wins!
That is the triumph of the character and it’s often overlooked for, honestly, simple flash. The superhero story is on a decline save for stories that are translated to movies not all of which are successful at that and this is a real problem. Look at The Avengers where they needed to have an entire alien race attack Earth with Loki to escalate the challenge to a point where assembling the team was needed. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. That problem will be covered in next week’s entry where I take a look at what I think needs to be done to revive superheroes.
I think that the reason why Zorro is overlooked is typically because most writers don’t know how to show how high the stakes are for him during every day combat. Instead they rush right to the high stakes opponent. Though sometimes that quick escalation works such as with the case of the comic where Zorro fought Dracula. Now I know that sounds silly but this was actually the Dracula from the original novel, the badass monster and the two had a couple of amazing fights culminating in an amazing final battle.
As I’ve said, I don’t believe that the father of the modern superheroes has really received his just due. It’s possible that the concept of the cavalier hero is just not en vogue at the moment which is a disservice to the genre. As it is, superheroes have become more and more grim and overly emotional, able to contest against any physical challenge but are unable to overcome personal ones. Even if that isn’t the reality it’s clearly the stigma and when everyone is doing it, not everyone is doing it right. I think we need a nice return to a cavalier hero and who better to lead the way then the Fox himself?
And so too does this work exist.