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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Of Heroes And Secret Identities

Recently, I read The Curse Of Capistrano, the serialised novel on which every Zorro movie ever made was based. It was going free on one of the public domain web sites my sister has discovered since we worked out how to put books on her e-reader. It was published in All-Story Weekly in 1919. I remember thinking, when I saw the Zorro silent movie, that the scene in which he rode into his house through a trap door in the garden was a lot like Batman driving into the Bat Cave - and no wonder. The creator of Batman later said he was inspired by Zorro.

You can see the connection - wealthy playboy type has a secret identity as a hero who wears black and a mask and saves the oppressed. Batman has a connection with the police, who know they can contact him when he's needed, but Zorro is alone, till late in the book, when he acquires a group of followers, although even they don't know his identity. Actually, he doesn't reveal himself till the last scene, probably necessary in a serial; you do want readers to come bak for next week's chapter! Like Batman, he has a manservant, Bernardo, but Bernardo is a deaf-mute. He has a wonderful horse, not named in the book, so the name Tornado must have come later, perhaps in the movies. A few years ago, Isabel Allende was commissioned to do a novel about the very beginning of Zorro's career, from his childhood on(see the review on this web site) and a delightful book it was, too. She has also done some children's books about young Zorro. 
Guy Williams, my favourite Zorro!
 Is it a coincidence that there was a film about Batman's beginnings? Perhaps. But it's interesting to compare.

 And if Batman is inspired by Zorro, Zorro is, I believe, inspired by a novel that came out a few years before that one. "We seek him here, we seek him there, those Frenchies seek him everywhere..." If you haven't heard that quote, you must have been living under a rock! I am, of course,speaking of Baroness Orczy's Sir Percy Blakeney, aka the Scarlet Pimpernel. Sir Percy is charming, witty and foppish. Everyone likes him, but would probably roll around on the floor laughing at the very idea of his being the dashing Pimpernel.

Don Diego Vega is very like Sir Percy. He likes his clothes and his lazy lifestyle and complains no one gives him time to enjoy his poetry, but is secretly the dashing El Zorro, the Fox! Señorita Lolita is disgusted with Don Diego, in love with Zorro, but later quite likes Diego, though she does explain that, once in love, she stays in love and won't change men.

 Poor Percy has to keep his secret even from his wife; he has reasons for feeling he can't trust her. Later he learns he can. Like Zorro, he has a group of followers, the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, but some of them know his secret; Zorro's young caballeros don't.

 The comics are full of superheroes with secret identities, but what the abovementioned three have in common is that none of them has superpowers. Zorro and Sir Percy both have skill with a blade, quick wits and wonderful acting skills - in Percy's case, also a skill in disguise. Batman aka Bruce Wayne has technology.
Christopher Reeve as a wonderful, bumbling Clark Kent and gorgeous Superman!
 Superman has acting ability, playing "mild mannered reporter" Clark Kent well enough that no one seems to notice that he's got a lot of muscles under that suit and that apart from his glasses he looks an awful lot like that Kryptonian hero. But he doesn't have to be great with a weapon or a well-trained horse; his body is his weapon and he can fly. He has his own Señorita Lolita in the form of Lois Lane, but at least Lolita has a mask as her excuse; Lois only has to see behind a pair of specs and doesn't.

 What's the purpose of heroes with secret identities? Within the context of the stories, it helps the hero to do his or her job and makes them less of a target, but outside of the story, I rather like to think it gives us hope. We can always pretend that maybe there is someone out there, maybe a neighbour or friend, who is more than they seem - much more!


alberridge said...

Great post. I'm a huge Zorro fan - though my favourite Tyrone Power could fence RINGS round your Guy Williams...

I think you're spot on with your idea of 'hope' in the secret identity, but wonder if it's really our neighbours we're thinking of. Isn't there an element of fantasy in which we ourselves could also be superheroes, and this dull/fat/ugly exterior we're forced to inhabit is really only a disguise for the super-power that lurks within?

Not remotely thinking of myself, of course. No, no.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I must admit I, too, am a Tyrone Power fan. And the movie was delightful. Like the scene where Diego's father asks Lolita, "Do you want to marry my son?" and when she says yes, he asks plaintively,"Why?" Yes, I agree that we have fantasies about ourselves. We need them!