May 03, 2005

New stories unmask Zorro's abiding allure

Zorro, the fictional 19th-century masked bandit famous for fighting social injustice and for slashing a "Z" with his sword, is still making his mark on popular culture.

Out this week is Zorro (HarperCollins, $25.95) by acclaimed author Isabel Allende. More books, a movie, toys, games, comics and even a musical also are planned.

John Gertz, president of Zorro Productions, which owns the rights to the character, says he's not surprised by the latest surge in popularity.

"Zorro is a superhero, in a way, but he's extremely human," Gertz says. "He has no super powers. He is Everyman made larger without having been bitten by a spider."

Allende, whose novel imagines the childhood of Don Diego de la Vega and how he became Zorro, is a huge fan. "I am totally in love with Zorro," she says. "I would like to be him. He's romantic, he's athletic, he fights for justice."

Zorro, which is the Spanish word for fox, was created in 1919 by pulp-fiction writer Johnston McCulley, who went on to write 75 novels and short stories about the black-caped hero. On screen, Zorro has been portrayed by the likes of Douglas Fairbanks (in a 1920 silent film), Tyrone Power, Alain Delon and, most recently, Antonio Banderas.

But Zorro gained perhaps his greatest popularity in a 1950s TV series produced by Walt Disney and starring Guy Williams. "Out of the night, when the full moon is bright, comes the horseman known as Zorro" began the then-famous theme song.

On the way:

• A three-part Zorro comics series, Scars, from Papercutz, will come out in May, June and July; a graphic novel version is scheduled for release in October.

The Mark of Zorro, a novel by McCulley, will be reissued by Penguin in August.

The Zorro Television Companion: A Critical Appreciation, by Gerry Dooley, tentatively is set for August publication by McFarland and Co.

• Play sets and action figures, including Zorro and his horse, Tornado, will be in stores in September.

The Legend of Zorro, the film sequel to The Mask of Zorro, starring Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, is due in October.

• Sony Pictures Digital, which has brought other film titles to the mobile gaming market, including Spider-Man and Charlie's Angels, will offer games, wallpaper and ring tones in the fall.

Young Zorro, a children's novel by Jan Adkins, is due from HarperCollins in January.

Zorro, the Musical tentatively is scheduled to premiere in London's West End in February 2006. It will feature original music by the Gypsy Kings.

Zorro meets Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende's interesting career has been marked by three distinct types of fiction. First. there was what used to be called magical realism, as in The House of the Spirits (1985), in which she was roughly to Gabriel Garcia Marquez what Carson McCullers was to William Faulkner. Second came historical fiction, represented by the companion novels Daughters of Fortune (1999) and Portrait in Sepia (2001). Third was smart kid's lit, like last year's Kingdom of The Golden Dragon. All three paths converge in her new Zorro, one of those rare and perfect matches of subject and author.

The character of Zorro -- "fox" in Spanish -- originated not in Mexico or Spain but in the mind of a New York journalist and pulp writer named Johnston McCulley. McCulley moved to southern California in 1908 and picked up something of the color and lore of the provincial times, though nothing at all of its history. No one is sure exactly who the inspirations were for Zorro, though the Baroness Emmuska Orezy's The Scarlet Pimpernel, the masked Englishman who battled French revolutionary fanatics, was a likely candidate. But the Scarlet Pimpernel fought for the aristocracy while Zorro fought against the aristocracy for the common man. He was an outlaw and almost certainly was modeled, at least in part, on the legendary California bandit Joaquin Murieta, whose head was said to be preserved in a jar for more than half a century until it vanished in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. (The screenplay to the 1998 film "The Mask of Zorro" ingeniously turns Zorro into the avenging brother of Joaquin Murieta.)

The Zorro we have come to know and love wasn't a product so much of birth as evolution. McCulley's first Zorro, written for a pulp adventure magazine, was simply a Spanish gentleman in a mask fighting for the rights of the downtrodden Mexican peasants and Indians. In 1920, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. changed all that, turning him into a black-suited daredevil in "The Mark of Zorro." After the success of Fairbanks' film, McCulley revived his hero in Fairbanks' image, one that has been embellished by numerous actors from Tyrone Power to Guy Williams (in the late '50s Walt Disney TV series) and most recently and successfully by Antonio Banderas -- amazingly, the first Hispanic actor ever to play the role, though several Hispanics have been cast as the villains. Along the way, Zorro was the inspiration for dozens of crime fighters. (Bob Kane, Batman's creator, paid homage to him by having Bruce Wayne's parents murdered while coming from a theater where "The Mark of Zorro" was playing.)

Allende has reached into this cultural compost heap of pulp fiction, movies and television and forged a character with a soul and a heritage. Allende (born in Peru, raised in Chile, and in recent years a resident of California) has rooted her story in a re-creation of Latin California and remade Diego de la Vega into the first real All-American hero.

Diego is the result of a volatile union between a liberal Spanish aristocrat and an enigmatic Shoshone Indian who, for love's sake, "tried to renounce her origins and become a Spanish lady" but who "never stopped dreaming in her own language." Diego is, literally, a noble savage, one that Rousseau could not have anticipated, imbued with a romanticist's sense of justice. "Do you truly believe that life is fair, Senor de la Vega?" he is asked. No, is his reply, "but I plan to do everything in my power to make it so."

This Zorro does not spring fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. He stumbles through much of his early life, losing his first love and even an occasional duel; the novel could easily have been titled Becoming Zorro.

Sent to Spain for an education (which includes exposure to the gruesome war drawings of "maestro Goya"), Diego's innate social consciousness is nourished by contact with early 19th century radicalism. Initiated into the art of the saber by a Zen-like Jewish master, he learns acrobatic skills and parlor magic from performing gypsies -- his costume is the all-black outfit, replete with cape and caballero hat.

Fleeing the tyranny of French-occupied Spain, Diego sails for the New World, is abducted near New Orleans by the pirate Jean Lafitte, and returns to Old California to introduce the natives to Western enlightenment and the Spanish dons to Indian-style justice.

Along the way, Allende winks at the reader, weaving bits of actual history with characters and scenes from Zorro movies (Her Diego stuns a foe by slicing a candle in two without disturbing the flame, as Tyrone Power did to Basil Rathbone in "The Mark of Zorro").

A picaresque novel with postmodern flourishes -- the identity of the story's narrator is not revealed until the story's postscript, if you want to cheat -- the sinfully entertaining Zorro is serious fiction masked as a swashbuckler. And with luck Allende can squeeze as many sequels out of the character as Hollywood has.

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