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Left of Cool abandons the respectable and the popular, and turns its gaze to the odd and wonderful.

From Zorro to Batman: Tracing the transition of the archetypal superhero

bout four months ago, this column had looked at Baroness Emma Orczy's The Old Man in the Corner and mentioned that she was much better known for The Scarlet Pimpernel (and its less famous sequels).

The Scarlet Pimpernel may have been the prototype for comic book superheros. Unlike previous literary secret identities, he did not pretend to be another person, but constructed a larger-than-life identity. His supposedly 'real' identity was also a mask — Sir Percy Blakeney pretends to be far more foppish and dilettantish than he actually is, much as Superman pretends to be mild-mannered Clark Kent, or Bruce Wayne pretends to be a wastrel playboy.

But just as there was an archaeopteryx between the dinosaurs and the birds, there is an evolutionary link between the Scarlet Pimpernel and the comic book superhero — a story by Johnston McCulley called The Curse of Capistrano that was published almost halfway between the first Pimpernel book and the first Superman comic. It was set about forty years after the events of the Pimpernel books, and in California, not France. That story's hero too took a nom de guerre — Mister Fox, or Senor Zorro.

Zorro would go on to inspire Batman's creators (and they worked this into the story — Bruce Wayne's parents are shot while walking home from a night show of The Mark of Zorro). Zorro's mask and cloak became Batman's cowl and cape, and Don Diego Vega's lifeless ennui became Bruce Wayne's millionaire playboy lifestyle.

Zorro’s mask and cloak became Batman’s cowl and cape, and Don Diego Vega’s lifeless ennui became Bruce Wayne’s millionaire playboy lifestyle.

hat of The Curse of Capistrano considered by itself, independent of influences? Like most surviving pulp fiction from that era, it's extraordinarily good and swashbuckling fun without worrying too much about plot holes, or historical or scientific accuracy. That isn't to say that McCulley was a hack — while he followed all the conventions of the genre, he was also able to joke about them in the narrative — the villain talks out loud to himself, 'as evil men often do.'

But although McCulley does joke about tropes, he doesn't subvert them. The Curse of Capistrano sticks to the formula. Everything is larger than life. The hero is brave, the heroine is beautiful and brave, the natives are brutally and convincingly downtrodden, and the villains are very, very dastardly.

Making everything larger than life — if not quite logical — makes for wonderful chase sequences and swordfights, as when Zorro makes sure that only one man at a time takes him on in a swordfight by simultaneously covering his antagonist with a pistol (but not using it), or rides up and down the old mission trail. It gets a little tiring, though, when McCulley is writing about Don Diego playing the listless fop — there's only so much yawning ennui I could tolerate. But that's a small price to pay for the fun of the whole thing. It's a delight in our ironic age to come across a bombastic speech that's written with utter sincerity, as when Zorro demands of Captain Ramon that he slink from a house like the cur he is, lest Zorro soil his blade with Ramon's life's blood.

Time now to return to the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Batman.

The Scarlet Pimpernel and his league were English nobles, and while they were arguably human rights activists in action, rescuing those least deserving of sympathy from unjust executions, their motivation was more the sheer pleasure of cocking a snook at uppity French republicans.

Fast forward to Zorro — who is again a nobleman, but his motivations are both to amuse himself by annoying the governor, and to avenge the oppressed. And then, finally we have Batman — who, as a millionaire with inherited wealth, is as close to a nobleman as twentieth century America allows — but there's no fun for him — just a painful duty. Though a lot stayed the same, a lot changed over three characters in less than thirty years.

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