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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Douglas Fairbanks

Jerry Siegel stole Superman’s 1938 tagline “champion of the oppressed” from Douglas Fairbanks. The silent film star’s 1920 The Mark of Zorro opens with the intertitle: “Oppression—by its very nature—creates the power that crushes it. A champion arises—a champion of the oppressed—whether it be a Cromwell or someone unrecorded, he will be there. He is born.”

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You can quibble with the superheroic logic (is oppression always self-defeating?), but the word that made me pause (literally, I thumbed PAUSE on my remote) is “Cromwell.” As in Oliver Cromwell, the man who chopped off King Charles’ head in 1649 to become Lord Protector of England until his own, kidney-related death a decade later (after which Charles’ restored son dug up his body and chopped off his head too). All perfectly interesting, but what, you may ask, does that have to do with Zorro?

Johnston McCulley doesn’t mention Cromwell in The Curse of Capistrano, the All-Story pulp serial Fairbanks adapted. Some American Fairbanks trace their name back to the Puritan Fayerbankes, proud followers of Cromwell since the 1630s, so maybe Douglas was just carrying on family tradition. Except The Mark of Zorro isn’t the first Cromwell mention in superhero lore.

George Bernard Shaw lauds him in “The Revolutionist’s Handbook,” an appendix to his 1903 Man and Superman, the play that first gave us the English ubermensch. Shaw (or his alter ego John Tanner, the Handbook’s fictional author) declares Cromwell “one of those chance attempts at the Superman which occur from time to time in spite of the interference of Man’s blundering institutions.” A devout eugenicist, Shaw/Tanner longed for a nation of supermen, “an England in which every man is a Cromwell.”

By the time Siegel was copying Fairbanks’ intertitles in the 30s, “Cromwell” and “Superman” were synonyms. Biographer John Buchan (better known for his Hitchcock adapted Thirty-Nine Steps) called him “the one Superman in England who ruled and reigned without a crown.” P. W. Wilson extended the comparison to modern times, ranking England’s Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin “among the supermen,” and likening his overseeing of Edward VIII’s abdication to Cromwell’s regicide.

Alan Moore

Alan Moore extends the superhero connection even further. In a 2007 interview, Moore (like Shaw’s John Tanner) identifies himself as an anarchist (“the only political standpoint that I could possibly adhere to would be an anarchist one”) and so longs for a society with “no leaders” (he’s literally anti “archons”). He traces his inspiration to 17th England when underground religious movements were espousing the heretical view that all men could be priests, “a nation of saints.” And, Moore explains, “it was during the 17th century that, partly fueled by similar ideas, Oliver Cromwell rose up and commenced the British civil war, which eventually led to the beheading of Charles I.”

Guy Fawkes (inspiration for Moore’s V for Vendetta) had tried to kill Charles’ father, King James, a half century earlier, but Guy was no Oliver. Moore revels in the thought of headless monarchs, but Buchan celebrates the executioner, “an iron man of action” with “no parallel in history.” Cromwell ignored his own council of commanders during the civil war and, after making England a republic, he ignored Parliament too. “It was too risky to trust the people,” writes Buchan, “he must trust himself.”

That’s the ubermensch Shaw adores. Not a champion of the oppressed, but a champion of the self. And it’s a quality still central to every superhero, all those iron men of action who trust only themselves, ignoring and sometimes defying law enforcement to maintain their own sense order.  Zorro opposed the colonial regime of a corrupt California governor. Cromwell fought for religious freedom against a tyrant who persecuted anyone who did not conform to the Church of England.

But what happens after oppression is crushed? Fairbanks’ Zorro retires into happy matrimony. McCulley rebooted his Zorro for more oppression-opposing adventures—inspired by Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel, an iron man of action dedicated to rescuing noble necks from the kind of execution blade Cromwell wielded. Once enthroned, the Lord Protector imposed his own, literally Puritanical order on England. He closed taverns, chopped down maypoles, outlawed make-up, fined profanity, and, as a real life Burgermeister Meisterburger, cancelled Christmas.

When Alan Brennert wrote his 1991 graphic novel, Batman: Holy Terror, he kept Cromwell on the throne another decade, creating an alternate universe in which the U.S. is an English commonwealth run by a corrupt theocracy. It seems Supermen in charge are not such a good thing for the common man. Look at Garth Ennis’ The Boys (2006), or Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come (1996), or Mark Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme (1986), or, best yet, Alan Moore’s Marvelman (AKA, Miracleman, but let’s not go into that right now). I bought No. 16 from my college comic shop in 1989, a year after I graduated college. It’s the last issue before Neil Gaiman took over and I stopped reading the series. Gaiman is great, but the story was over. Marvelman has rid the world of nuclear warheads, money, global warming, crime, childbirth pain, and, in some cases, death. He’s not king of the world. He’s its totalitarian god.

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Marvel Comics is re-releasing and completing the series in 2014, and, what the hell, I’ll probably pick up where I left off. But my worship of Moore is long over. I considered him the reigning writer of the multiverse for decades, but his rule grew increasingly idiosyncratic and, less forgivable, dull. His last Miracleman, “Olympus,” is a tour of the distopic future. From Hell offers similar tours, literally horse-drawn, which, while aggressively non-dramatic in structure, basically work. But my heart sunk when the third volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman devolved into a balloon ride over yet more of Moore’s meticulously researched esotoria. Yes, the dream-like Blazing World is ripe with 3-D nudity, but this is no way to conclude a plot. When Promethea, my favorite of all Moore creations, plunged down the same rabbit hole, I couldn’t make myself keep reading. Moore was running his own imprint at this point, America’s Best Comics, with no Parliament or War Council left to ignore, and no corrupt tyrant to oppose.

Heroes need oppression. Even Fairbanks’ son, Douglas Jr., knew that. After his father’s death, he wrote, produced, and starred in The Exile, a 1947 swashbuckler about Charles II, the son of the king Cromwell beheaded. He hides out on a Holland farm and falls in love with a flower monger while battling Cromwell’s assassins before Parliament calls him back to his throne. It’s a happy ending made happier by the fact that Fairbanks didn’t follow it with a sequel. After Charles started waging wars and suspending their laws, Parliament regretted their invitation.

Every Cromwell—by his very nature—creates the Cromwell that crushes him.

The-Exile-1

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85th Academy Awards Nominations Announcement

I thought it was going to be 2012.

Remember all that Oscar hype Dark Knight Rises got back in July? Of course that was before it was actually released. If any DC fans were still holding out hopes, Spider-Man sweetheart Gwen Stacy (AKA Emma Stone) and toddler supervillain Stewie Griffin (AKA Seth MacFarlane) dashed them when they announced the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ official nomination list this month. I like to think Marvel fans are a little more reality-based, though I’m sure a few were holding out hopes for Joss Whedon’s The Avengers too.

Dark Knight RisesThe AvengersAmazing Spider-Man

Add The Amazing Spider-Man, and three of the top grossing films of 2012 were dressed in spandex. Together they cashed in more than the GDP of Jamaica or Iceland. And yet both the Oscars and the Golden Globes snub them? Co-hosts Amy Poehler and Tina Fey didn’t even make JOKES about this year’s superhero movies. (Daredevil, AKA Ben Affleck, wins best director, and he can’t even see?!)

Ben Affleck as Matt MurdockBen Affleck as Daredevil

Isn’t it time for some kind of Golden Superhero Oscar Globe Ceremony Banquet Thing? Why doesn’t anyone have a category for Best Superhero Film?

Well, because that would be silly. Not to mention demeaning and/or redundant. Did Heath Ledger win Best Supporting Actor in a Superhero Film in 2009?

Best Supporting Actor 2009 Award

And just look at last year’s winner. The would-be Best Superhero Film of 2011 also won Best Picture of the Year.

ThorCaptain AmericaGreen Lantern

Green HornetX-men First ClassGriff the Invisible

No, I don’t mean Thor or Captain America. Certainly not Green Lantern or Green Hornet. X-Men: First Class was fun but certainly no Oscar contender, and while Australia’s Griff the Invisible deserved lots and lots more attention, Best Picture would be a stretch.

I’m talking about The Russian Affair.

The Russian Affair

The 1927 classic? Never heard of it?

That’s because it’s the opening sequence of 2011’s The Artist, winner of the Least Watched Best Picture of All Time. I’d not even heard of it until after last year’s Awards ceremony, and it still took me months to rent.

Which was stupid of me. Because not only is The Artist a brilliant film, it’s also the perfect history lesson for a superhero movie buff.

The Artist

You probably think of the superhero as a relatively recent invader of the silver screen. The folks over at BoxOfficeMojo.com consider the 1978 Superman the Krypton-like explosion that spawned the genre.

Not so.

Captain American turned to celluloid back in 1944, Batman in 1943, Captain Marvel 1941.

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But, you might argue, those were just serials. Dinky 10-minute installments that aired each week before the main attraction. Like, say, the 1937 The Shadow Strikes, one of the first superhero films of the sound era.

But not the Silent Age.

Unlike all those other upstart film genres, superheroes hit the big screen back when movies were still movies, not talkies. The Russian Affair (as well as glimpses of its equally pretend sequel, The German Affair) features its pretend star George Valentin in tuxedo, top hat, and domino mask—the quintessential costume of the pre-comicbook proto-superhero, the gentleman thief.

Lone Wolf, Gray Seal, Scarlet Pimpernel, they’re all Batman predecessors, all but forgotten. Except for one. Zorro. Which The Artist inserts into the Valentin’s filmography too, replacing the real life film star Douglas Fairbanks. Director Michel Hazanavicius even reshot the best action sequence, dressing The Artist’s Jean Dujardin in Fairbanks’ Zorro costume. When Fairbanks first pulled on that mask, the avenging bandit was an obscure hero from a pulp magazine serial. A year later, Zorro is an international icon. The Mark of Zorro didn’t win Best Picture in 1920 only because the Academy Awards wouldn’t start for another decade.

Zorro

But Fairbanks wasn’t the first masked movie star. He and his alter ego Dujardin/Valentin were just catching the wave started in 1916, the first year of the movie superhero.

Like 2012, 1916 saw three rounds of masked do-gooders. In The Iron Claw, Creighton Hale played a mild-mannered assistant by day, the mysterious Laughing Mask by night. By the end he’s wooed his boss’s daughter and thwarted the nefarious Iron Claw.

Laughingmask

Francis Ford joined Hale as the similarly clad Sphinx in The Purple Mask, only this time the masked hero has a masked anti-heroine to woo too, Grace Cunard’s lady thief Queen of the Apaches, arguably the first superheroine in celluloid. She leaves her purple mask as a calling card.

The Purple Mask

But Best Superhero Film of 1916 goes to Louis Feuillade’ classic Judex. The 1930’s Shadow would borrow his cloak and slouch hat, but the master-of-disguise Judex sought revenge against a corrupt banker, while falling in love with and so of course protecting his daughter from villains. I like to show my class the original unmasking scene, Yvette Andréyor creeping into the hero’s bedroom (think Batcave) and discovering his make-up kit. (Nowhere nearly as dramatic as the big Phantom of the Opera scene, but this was shot a decade earlier.)

Judez

So when Hazanavicius is ready to shoot a sequel, The Artist II: The First Affair, he’ll have plenty more material to plunder.

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Rumor has it there’s a new Zorro film in development. Not another Banderas and Zeta-Jones sequel, but something based on Isabel Allende’s recent rewrite of the legend.

Though “rewrite” might not be the right word. Allende claims she gave no thought to her character’s previous incarnations and invented at will. And yet her final product, an extended coming-of-age secret origin tale, painstakingly adheres not only to the original 1919 Johnston McCulley novel but a multitude of its short story, film and TV adaptations and sequels.

This is a good thing. It stages a literary treasure hunt for fans-in-the-know (which, okay, I guess that includes me), while giving new readers an unfettered romp through a world of pirates, Gypsies, secret societies, and the Spanish Inquisition.

So on one hand, we have a respectful prequel, not a reboot at all. Ms. Allende just fills in the blanks. And I don’t mean the sex scenes. Her narrator (also conveniently named Isabel) offers a quick striptease and moonlit tussle with Light-in-the-Night, but otherwise reports that “spicy pages” and “carnal love” are aspects “of Zorro’s legend that he has not authorized me to divulge.” This despite an allusion to numerous women with otherwise “virtuous reputations” inviting “him to climb their balcony at questionable hours of the night.”

So, no, this is not a bodice ripper. And neither is McCulley’s novel. All that virile red blood he keeps thumping through his hero’s body finds action in his rapier not his, well, rapier. Though his story maintains a barely masked panic about masculinity and the horror of effeminate men.

McCulley is equally obsessed with blue blood. The Mark of Zorro (renamed after the Douglas Fairbanks film) is an entertainingly incompetent argument for the supremacy of European bloodlines. It was written from the bowels of the eugenics movement, an all but forgotten (AKA suppressed) era of American culture.

It was once common knowledge, from Presidents to pulp writers, that “well born” blood had to be protected from mixing with the unfit. The future of civilization was at stake. The unfit included Indians (those victims of oppression Zorro both protects and paradoxically reviles), Asians, Blacks, Eastern Europeans, Jews, the poor, the promiscuous, criminals, invalids, and the feeble-minded.

The list is actually quite longer, but you get the idea. In the first quarter of the 20th century, even social manners were an inheritable trait, and Zorro and his aristocratic pals held a monopoly.

Allende will have none of this. Her Zorro, while an apparent clone of his McCulley parent, reverses his core DNA. Rather than protecting his fellow aristocrats (particularly the family of the senorita he seeks to procreate with), Allende’s Zorro recognizes the fundamental injustice of the class system and vows to right it.

Or at least he starts to. He’s no Robin Hood, but he’s also no pure blood prince. Allende thoroughly mixes his blood, turning the “mestizo” stigma into the source of his superpowers. The novel is a sequence of romping, episodic adventures, each tossing a new trinket into the melting pot of his character. A Gypsy sword, a pirate’s wardrobe, a Jewish fencing mentor, a cross-dressing Indian mother, they all coalesce in the aggressively anti-eugenics swashbuckling amalgam of a 21st century Zorro.

I’d love to see Allende’s novel adapted into a TV series. But I’ll settle for a film. Or possibly two, since both Sony and Fox are working on reboots. The Fox version, Zorro Reborn, would be set in a post-apocalyptic future, some sort of Zorro on The Road. Which, okay, I guess that’s one direction to go. And not even the strangest. I also hear there’s a musical hoofing its way toward Broadway.

One way or another, McCulley’s descendants will continue to spread his bloodline.

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