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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


I speak of Zorro, the fox, who in a real sense is one of the "grandfathers" of the superhero genre, even if many people don't deem him a "superhero" as such.  In this essay I compared this "uncanny" figure to an "atypical" (now called "naturalistic") hero, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and a "marvelous" one, Batman:

In the many iterations of Johnston McCulley’s Zorro, most take place in a world that is essentially like that of the Pimpernel: a world which seems to have no metaphenomenal aspects. Zorro, however, is the exception. Where “Scarlet Pimpernel” is simply a code-name for a mysterious figure, Zorro’s costume confers on him a charisma that provides him with greater narrative charisma. The Zorro narratives, while insisting that Zorro is merely a skilled human, emphasize his presence as a spectre of fear to his opponents, and it is this which gives the black-clad avenger the charisma of “the uncanny.”

I stand by my assertion that Zorro possesses a "greater narrative charisma," if only by virtue of his uncanny costume, than a more mundane type like the Pimpernel. However, I must admit that until last week I'd never got round to reading the original Johnson McCully prose story that birthed Zorro-- or as McCully frequently calls him, "Senor Zorro."  (Thus we see that Roald Dahl was not the first one to write about a "Mister Fox.")

I must admit that McCully doesn't write a lot of florid passages about Zorro's supernal appearance, as pulp authors would for characters like the Shadow and the Spider. As the above illustration shows, the original prose character wears a full face-mask, not the half-mask popularized in the 1920 Douglas Fairbanks adaptation.  Only a small handful of cinematic Zorro-costumes followed the example of the novel's costume, but then, McCully himself reputedly borrowed ideas from the movie-- the tracing of the "Z" in the enemy's flesh, for example-- which were incorporated in later editions of the novel.  The full-mask makes it more logical that no one would be able to connect Zorro and Don Diego.  In contrast, when  the hero wears the half-mask, one feels tempted to speak a line like the one from the 2011 GREEN LANTERN film:

"You don't think I would recognize you because I can't see your cheekbones?"

Compared to some of the great popular fictions of the time, McCully's novel is slight, and probably would have been forgotten had it not been adapted to the film-medium.  A substantial portion of the novel deals with Don Diego's romance with Senorita Lolita Pulido: he romances her in his identity as the mysterious but manly thief Zorro, and then turns around, pretending to be too effete as Diego to bother with details like wooing.  Superman's creators purportedly took strong influence from the Zorro model, but the Diego of the novel projects less weakness (though he does often speak of being fatigued) than the languidness of the bored aristocrat.

One interesting detail is that the novel is resolved when lone hero Zorro is joined in his efforts by The Avengers-- what is what, in just one line, a group of aristocratic young supporters call themselves when they rally to this Spanish Robin Hood.  I haven't checked yet to see if they make it into the best-known film adaptations, though they may be the basis for the serial Zorro's Fighting Legion.

Though McCully doesn't spend a lot of time describing Zorro, toward the novel's end Diego relates an interesting take on how the very identity of Zorro empowered him:

"It is a peculiar thing to explain, senores.  The moment I donnned cloak and mask, the Don Diego part of me fell away.  My body straightened, new blood seemed to course through my veins, my voice grew strong and firm, fire came to me!  And the moment I removed cloak and mask I was the languid Don Diego again.  Is it not a peculiar thing?"

I hardly need point out (though I will) that this is the essence of "uncanny phenomenality," in which no marvelous phenomenon actually takes place but there is some phenomenon that suggests the breaking of reality's borders.  This, more than the practical considerations of the costume, is what makes Zorro a hero of the uncanny.

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