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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Zorro

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Superheroes just want to settle down and get married.

Or at least they used to. Spring-Heeled Jack, Night Wind, Gray Seal, Zorro, Blackshirt, most of the pre-Depression pulp crowd eventually hung up their masks and retired into the domestic oblivion of happily everafter.

Or tried to. Until their readers and publishers and writers demanded sequels. But once you’ve closed the marriage plot, it’s hard to pry it back open. Fortunately the early pulp writers invented a utility belt’s worth of solutions, all still in use:

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1) Poker Night.

Yes, darling, we’re married now, but I still have my manly pastimes.

Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel kept it up for decades. Ditto for Graham Montague Jeffries’ Blackshirt. Just one problem though. No more titillating romantic subplot. The hero is domesticated, all that manly excess bunched neatly into his briefs. For Frederic van Rensselaer Dey’s Night Wind, that meant promising his new bride to stop breaking the arms of police officers who foolishly got in his way. By the second sequel, the speedster superman was barely using any of his mutant powers, and his series quietly petered away.

Domestication has proved equally disastrous for modern heroes. The mid-90’s Lois & Clark: the New Adventures of Superman enjoyed stellar ratings, right up to the wedding episode, after which viewership nosedived and the show was cancelled. Marriage is kryptonite. Even Orczy and Jeffries had to switch to other family members (sons and ancestors) to keep their plots going.

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2) Dial M.

Wife holding you down? No problem. Just kill her.

Thanks so much, Louis Joseph Vance, for introducing this heartless trope in the first of your seven Lone Wolf sequels.  Though his 1914 gentleman thief had happily settled down with the law enforcement agent who lovingly reformed him, Vance dispatches her between books, mentioning her death in passing chapter one dialogue. When Hollywood adapted Robert Ludlum’s first Bourne Identity sequel, they made sure we got to witness the girlfriend’s death (Ludlum, in chivalrous contrast, only sent her off to stay with relatives.)

It’s a grim choice, but one that acknowledges narrative logic. For the superhero to marry, he usually unmasks and retires, and so ending the retirement also ends the marriage. Happily everafter is also a hard place to scrape up plot conflict. In 1973, when Marvel could no longer write around Spider-Man’s eight years of romantic contentment, they shoved his girlfriend off a bridge. Gwen Stacy (and the Silver Age of comics) died with a SNAP! of her too happy neck. Gwen’s 2014 death had a similar effect on the Spider-Man film franchise.

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3) Groundhog Day.

Marriage? What marriage?

Johnston McCulley is responsible for the first superhero reboot. When Douglass Fairbanks donned Zorro’s mask and turned an obscure vigilante hero into an international icon, McCulley simply ignored the ending of his own novel  when he wrote his first sequel. Zorro did not unmask, he did not retire, and he certainly didn’t run off and get married.

This solution remains annoyingly common. After two decades of marital bliss between Peter Parker and Mary Jane, Marvel signed a deal with the devil (Mephisto in the comic) and rebooted an unmarried Spider-Man in 2008. Like Zorro, Peter had also unmasked publicly, an event erased from the minds of all onlookers (but not, alas, all readers). Lois and Clark, who were married (like their short-lived TV counterparts) in 1996, suffered the same fate when DC rebooted their entire, romantically-challenged universe in 2011. In fact, the very idea of the reboot came from the editorial staff’s frustration with the Lane-Kent status quo and how its innate dullness prevented them from cooking up a new Superman love triangle.

However you handle it, marriage is hell on a writer. But the last solution is my favorite:

4) Perpetual Foreplay.

Frank Packard ended his first Gray Seal book with an implied bang. His proto-Batman waltzes off-stage with his superheroine girlfriend, unmasked nuptials to follow. But when bad guys and good sales returned the hero to active duty in 1919, the door to their bedroom bliss slammed shut. Since the Gray Seal’s do-gooding adventures were motivated not by revenge or altruism but superheroic lust for his bride-to-be, Packard needed to stretch out their romance plot. His four sequels offer increasingly frustrating reasons for why the lovers must remain divided.

Awkward as it sounds, Packard’s approach became the strategy of choice among 1930s pulp writers facing the titillating prospect of unlimited sequels.

Starting in 1933, The Spider magazine published a novella every month for a decade. Wealthy socialite Richard Wentworth fights crime as a costumed vigilante while also courting (and putting off) fiancé Nita Van Sloan. Norvell Page (writing under the house name Grant Stockbridge) tells us Wentworth must “sacrifice his hopes of personal happiness” because “the Spider could never marry,” could never “take on the responsibilities of wife and children” while continuing his crime-fighting mission.” Fortunately, Nita, like the Gray Seal’s would-be wife, is endlessly patient.

When William Gibson and Edward Hale Bierstadt adapted Gibson’s The Shadow for radio, they decided the lonely-hearted hero could use a fiancé too. The 1937 premier introduces Lamont Cranston and Margo Lane sipping coffee in his private library, as she begs him to end his career as the Shadow. He’d promised her as much five years ago when their courtship began, but Lamont, like Richard, feels “there is still so much to do” before he can settle down and unmask. “No, Margo,” he explains, “no one must know, no one but you.” And Margo, the ever dutiful (though ever jilted) help-mate, agrees.

But these women aren’t dupes either. They keep their own keys to the batcave. Nita is the Spider’s “best alley in the battle against crime,” “the one woman in the world who knew his secrets.” And Lamont calls the good accomplished by the Shadow “our activities.” Without Margo’s leg work, half of Gibson’s radio plots would stall.

But what other shared “activities” are these couple up to?

Page seems straight-forward enough: “Greatly they loved.” Nita and Richard (would you believe she calls him “Dick”?) share “pleasurable moments together,” though of course “all too brief.” How pleasurable? Page never penned a sex scene, but it’s clear Nina has access to Richard’s bedroom when she leaves him notes while he’s sleeping off a night of adventuring. As far as the Shadow, Alan Moore says it best in Watchmen: “I’d never been entirely sure what Lamont Cranston was up to with Margo Lane, but I’d bet it wasn’t near as innocent and wholesome as Clark Kent’s relationship with her namesake Lois.”

Since unmasking is the climax of the superhero romance plot, these lovers know each other in every sense. The marriage plots never technically closes, but pulp readers knew what was happening between the covers.

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The 2015 bombardment of superhero films is over. It was a relatively light year, just Avengers 2, Ant-Man, and the franchise-flopping Fantastic Four. But Warner Bros. and Marvel Entertainment have twenty superhero films in various states of production, all of them due in theaters by 2020.

Back in 1978 superheroes were so rare in Hollywood, the first Superman included the subtitle The Movie. So you may think of costumed do-gooders as relatively recent invaders of the silver screen, but they leaped to theaters long before landing in comics. 2016 promises Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America 3, and X-Men: Apocalypse, but 1916 saw three rounds too.

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In Arthur Stringer’s The Iron Claw, Creighton Hale plays “an easing going idiot” working as a millionaire’s personal secretary by day, but at night he dons the guise of the mysterious Laughing Mask. By the end, he’s wooed his boss’s daughter and thwarted the nefarious Iron Claw.

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 and so-called Queen of the Apaches, the first celluloid superheroine. She leaves her purple mask as a calling card.

But the first most influential superhero film award goes to Louis Feuillade’ Judex—a partial reversal of The Iron Claw since Judex begins as a vengeance-seeking blackmailer disguised as a personal secretary before falling for his boss’s daughter. I like to show my class the original unmasking scene, Yvette Andréyor creeping into the hero’s batcave of a bedroom and discovering his make-up kit. Nowhere nearly as dramatic as the Phantom of the Opera unmasking, but shot a decade earlier.

My favorite superhero silent film, the 1927 classic The Russian Affair, won Best Picture in 2011.

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That’s because it exists only in the opening sequence of director Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist. But the invented film shows how popular masked heroes were in the early 20th century. The Russian Affair—as well as glimpses of its equally pretend sequel, The German Affair—features the fictional silent star George Valentin in tuxedo, top hat, and domino mask—the quintessential costume of the pre-comic book superhero. Raffles, Tarzan, Robin Hood, Night Wind, Gray Seal, Lone Wolf, they all transformed themselves into silent superheroes, most unheard now. Except for Zorro, which The Artist inserts into Valentin’s fictional filmography, replacing the very real Douglas Fairbanks.

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Judex had barely exited American theaters before Fairbanks was skimming issues of All-Story for his own pulp hero to adapt. A year later, the Judex-inspired Zorro was an international icon. Hazanavicius even reshoots the best action sequence, dressing The Artist’s Jean Dujardin in Fairbanks’ Zorro wardrobe. The Mark of Zorro didn’t win Best Picture in 1920 only because the Academy Awards didn’t exist for another decade.

The 1928 Alias Jimmie Valentine was going to be a silent adaptation of O. Henry’s gentleman thief tale, but MGM called the stars back to record the studio’s first talkie instead. Fairbanks’s 1929 Three Musketeers sequel included his spoken prologue, but his talking Taming of the Shrew flopped later that year, as did his final Private Life of Don Juan. Hazanavicius’s gives his alter ego a tap-dancing afterlife, a superpower not in Fairbanks’ repertoire, so the real Fairbanks was replaced by a new breed of action heroes, some of them actual supermen.

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Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller took his last gold medal in 1928, Buster Crabbe in 1932. Both went on to play Tarzan. I watched Weissmuller on my aunts’ TV, one of those crate-sized machines that flickered as the cathode ray tubes heated. I’m thankful my aunts didn’t keep the battle scenes I doodled on scrap paper, all those blowdart-blowing savages gunned down by white hunters. All Hollywood sandpits, I surmised, were seven feet deep, designed to swallow everything but a victim’s groping fingers.

MGM did the same to Fairbanks and every other ex-star unable to adapt.Not that the superhero sound era was an easy transition for Hollywood either. MGM only started their talking Tarzan franchise because they had the footage.

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Trader Horn, the first big budget film shot on location, was a disaster. The production team returned from Africa with scene after scene of inaudible dialogue, a star infected with malaria, and the suitcases of crew members devoured by crocodiles and trampled by rhinos. They also had miles of jungle footage, way more than could ever fit into a single movie. Trader Horn came and went in 1931, but to capitalize on all that location shooting they’d already paid for, MGM rolled out Tarzan the Ape Man the following year. It was a cheap hit that spawned five low-budget sequels that returned Burroughs’ superman to the pop culture spotlight.

After Christopher Reeve retired his cape following 1987’s catastrophic Superman IV, Tim Burton rebounded with Batman, but otherwise the 90s are a 1930s reboot. Warren Beatty in Dick Tracy. Billy Zane in The Phantom. Alec Baldwin in The Shadow. It’s hard to remember a time when the Marvel pantheon wasn’t pounding box offices, but Hollywood once preferred retro-heroes. Disney’s The Rocketeer sported 30s curves, even though the character debuted in comics in 1982. That’s why Jim Carey threw on a yellow zoot suit along with the 1987 The Mask comic book. When Sam Raimi of later Spider-Man fame couldn’t get the rights to the Shadow, he cast Liam Neeson as a modern master-of-disguise instead. Darkman isn’t any good, but it does show how much comic book superheroes were a mutation of their pulp predecessors, an evolutionary process repeated in film.

It took a couple of decades, but the double flop of Seth Rogen’s 2011 The Green Hornet and Disney’s 2013 Lone Ranger and Tonto may have finally closed the theater doors on the 1930s. According to that math, are Warner Bros. and Marvel Entertainment being over optimistic with their 2020 projections? If the 30s are finally over, how long can DC’s early 40s and Marvel’s early 60s continue to last?

 

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So here’s my favorite gay superhero sex scene:

“I . . . placed my hands on his face. . . With one palm over his forehead and the other palm over his nose and mouth, I looked into those deep, dark pupils and saw the way he used to look at me when he was Dark Hero, when I didn’t know. Goran took my hand off his mouth and held it. He raised it to his mouth, placed his warm lips in the middle of my palm and kissed it. . . . I reached my arms around Goran, pulled him in, and our lips met.”

I know, pretty tame stuff, definitely not a passage from Unmasked: Erotic Tales of Gay Superheroes. It’s from Perry Moore’s 2007 Hero, and look how it echoes Zorro from one of the first superhero novels ever written:

“He grasped one of her hands, and before she guessed his intention, had bent forward, raised the bottom of his mask, and pressed his lips to its pink, moist palm.”

Johnston McCulley tells us Zorro is motivated by government persecution of monks and natives, but he and his alter ego Don Diego spends more effort seducing his future wife. Moore’s hero masturbates to online porn of wide-nippled Uberman (the one page I mumbled over when reading aloud to my kids), but he doesn’t find real intimacy until he and the better half of his dynamic duo have shared secret identities. The novel’s most touching scene takes place not in bed but during a picnic lunch in a public park, with both heroes fully clothed but unmasked. Zorro, however, likes to keep his mask on:

“The moment I donned cloak and mask . . . 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.”

That’s my favorite passage from all of superhero literature. It’s also one of the most thinly veiled descriptions of a penis I’ve ever read. For McCulley’s Zorro, a mask is a fetish. It literally makes him hard. Without it, he’s limp. It has a similar effect on women. Senorita Lolita is bored by the unmanly Don Diego, but she is titillated by his masked outlaw:

“And suddenly she was awakened by a touch on her arm, and sat up quickly, and then would have screamed except that a hand was crushed against her lips to prevent her. Before her stood a man whose body was enveloped in a long cloak, and whose face was covered with a black mask so that she could see nothing of his features except his glittering eyes.”

This is the erotic subtext to a surprising range of superhero tales. The hero dons his manly disguise not fight crime and uphold justice, but to woo the girl.

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Before McCulley published The Curse of Capistrano in 1919 (it was renamed The Mark of Zorro after the Douglass Fairbanks film adaptation the following year), Zorro’s predecessors (Spring-Heeled Jack, Scarlet Pimpernel, Gray Seal) established unmasking as the ultimate act of intimacy between a superhero and his love interest. Though those earlier writers wedded the mask and the marriage bed, McCulley takes the striptease to new extremes. Zorro “tore off his mask” only after he gets Lolita to reveal “her true heart” and agree to “have offspring.” Don Diego’s seduction is complete. Although Lolita “would rather have you Senor Zorro than the old Don Diego,” she now loves “both of them.” Don Diego can retire both his mask and his “languid ways.” People “will say marriage made a man of me!”

This all sounds quaintly old-fashioned, but the same plot turns today’s superheroes. Alan Moore (no relation to Perry) makes Don Diego’s languid impotence explicit in Watchmen. Daniel Dreiberg can’t keep himself strong and hard (“Oh Laurie, I’m so sorry, it isn’t you, it’s just . . .”) until he’s dressed as Nite Owl (“Did the costumes make it good?”).

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Or take a more recent look at the 2010 film Kick-Ass. (Forgive me, Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr., but I’ve not read your 2008 comic book yet.) Dave, the mild-mannered hero, can’t get the girl.  Why? Because she thinks he’s gay. Fairbanks played the effeminate Don Diego to similar effect. Katie, however, thinks this new superhero Kick-Ass is pretty damn sexy. Where does Dave reveal himself to her? Her bedroom. What happens afterwards? The obvious. In fact, now Katie can’t keep her hands off Dave, and next they’re fornicating in back alleys too.

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McCulley might have blushed at the R-rated sequence, but his Lolita had similar adventures in mind for her boy wonder. Like Don Diego, Dave and Dan are nothing without their masks. That’s why I prefer Moore’s hero, a gay man who never hides in his closet. Dark Hero’s alter ego is no languid Clark Kent either. By making the hero and his love interest gay, Moore unmasks the homophobic subtext and sets the superhero genre straight.

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Guest writer, Brittany Lloyd

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In their works, Ana Kai Tangata and Zorro, Scott Nicolay and Isabel Allende use subterranean features, specifically caves, as a mirror to their male character’s relationship with females. Although Nicolay and Allende have vastly different writing styles and storylines, their main characters are strikingly similar in one major aspect: All of the men in Nicolay and Allende’s works have flawed relationships with females. However, despite external similarities, Nicolay and Allende portray their male characters in different lights. For Nicolay, the relationships his male characters form with women are unacceptable. These relationships isolate the men enough to leave them vulnerable to the “weird.” On the other hand, Allende rewards and romanticizes her male character’s interactions with the feminine. Paralleling caves with the female body in Nicolay and Allende’s stories allows the reader further insight into gender relations in the universe of Ana Kai Tangata and Zorro. In Allende’s universe, the caves are sacred, a place where Diego seeks solace. However, they also clearly belong to Diego and his group of followers. Conversely, the caves in Nicolay’s works are grotesque in nature and clearly the realm of powerful, albeit terrifying, female characters. Ultimately, how Nicolay and Allende write about caves depicts the morally accepted roles of masculine characters within their created universes.

To begin this discussion of cave symbolism in Nicolay and Allende’s works, it is necessary to explore the concept of ecofeminism. As one scholar defines it, “Ecofeminism argues that there are important connections between the domination and oppression of women and domination and exploitation of nature by masculinist methods and attitudes” (Kaur). Ecofeminism has gained credence and popularity in the last few years, as it seeks to understand not only the relationship between the female body and the earth, but also how this relationship either empowers or disempowers women. In literary works, especially, Nature is often linked to the feminine form, while Reason/Logic are linked to the masculine (Gaard 118). Indeed, the figure of the Great Mother Earth is one of the most famous Jungian archetype, standing directly opposite to Logical Man. This dichotomous relationship between Nature and Logic mirrors the binaristic mode so common in patriarchal cultures. It assumes the mind is inherently separate from the body, thus creating a centralized “One” and an ostracized “Other.” The field of ecofeminism connects the “othered” Nature with the “othered” female and attempts to reconcile their place on the outside. Furthermore, ecofeminism is “committed to exposing the ways in which certain groups maintain their superior status through the subordination and domination of women” (Mallory 177). In other words, the ways in which men interact with the Earth are not only symbolically, but also literally, mirrors of how they are expected to treat women within their culture.

In the case of Ana Kai Tangata and Zorro, the most representative natural feature of the female body is the cave. Although extensive analysis has not been conducted on cave symbolism in literature, there is a long anthropological and oral history linking caves to the womb. As Doris Heyden writes in her commentary on cave symbolism, “In all cultures and in almost all epochs the cave has been the symbol of creation, the place of emergence of celestial bodies, of ethnic groups and individuals. It is the great womb of earth and sky, a symbol of life” (Heyden). Furthermore, caves share many of the same physical attributes as the womb: Dark, wet, round, hidden within, etc. They also act as literal entrances and exits from the earth, suggesting both the reception of the penis during sex as well as the expulsion of the child during birth. In analyzing the male characters in Nicolay and Allende’s books through an ecofeminist lens, it is important to realize the potent symbolic and literal relations between the caves and the female body.

Before delving into literary analysis of Ana Kai Tangata and Zorro, one must clarify the types of relationships Nicolay and Allende’s male characters have with females. Allende writes about her main character, “Thanks to his natural charm – which is more than a little – and his awesome good luck, he has been loved by dozens of women, usually without inviting it” (168). However, while Diego de la Vega participates in various sexual escapades, he never develops an emotional attachment to these women. The only exception would be Amalia, the gypsy woman, who acts as both a Mother figure as well as a sexual partner to Diego. However, Allende reminds her reader that Diego’s “emotions were compartmentalized, parallel lines that never crossed” (168). In other words, love and lust never overlap in Diego’s world. While he cares for Amalia as a mother figure, he does not love her in a romantic way, therefore making sex with her possible. Indeed, as Isabel reveals at the end of the novel, “I realized in time that our hero is capable of loving only women who do not love him back” (390). For Diego, the elevated concept of love exists separate from and above the physical female body. The romance he creates in his head is entirely separate from the female’s physical form, allowing him to objectify women while still maintaining the aura of a romantic gentleman.

On the other hand, Nicolay’s characters are not romanticized in any way. In “Phragmites,” Austin Becenti continuously recalls his relationship with Sam, stating, “He more likely would’ve laughed had he foreseen how far south this relationship would go and how fast it would go there” (Nicolay 122). Their rocky relationship haunts him throughout the entirety of the text, culminating in the revelation that Austin is actually Sam’s half-brother. Although Austin’s story is less sexual than many of the others in Ana Kai Tangata, his failed relationship with Sam is still a prevalent trope throughout “Phragmites.” In “Tuckahoe,” Donny Cantu is a much more sexualized character, though he also has a significant association with Alyssa Campion. Their relationship is highly sexualized, as witnessed by their first “date,” in which “Donny looked her up and down without apology now, tits and hips and smooth creamy skin. Hair short and shiny and black as a crow’s back” (288). Their sexual chemistry extends further when Donny recalls, “She’d gotten her rocks off a bunch of times but Donny just couldn’t come … still had all his cookies as Martina used to say although when she said it she said it for herself – and to critique his performance” (292). Not only does this statement suggest the sexual nature of his relationship with Alyssa, it also suggests the existence of past sexual lovers. Presumably, he did not share a sturdy relationship with these other women either. Unlike in Allende’s works, these troubled relationships between Austin and Donny and their female counterparts are representative of their failed masculinity.

Perhaps one of the most important means of discussing masculine power in Ana Kai Tangata and Zorro is the way in which the male characters inhabit the female space of the cave. In “Phragmites,” Dennison pushes his cousin into the cave. Thus, Austin enters the inner space of the cave against his will. Afterwards, he lies incapacitated on the floor of the cave, broken and battered. Nicolay describes the scene aptly, writing:

He couldn’t tell for how long, knew only that he came to aware all at once of a gap and of his battle for breath. A weight compressed his chest and what little wisps of air he could manage rasped in his throat. He tried to scream as panic swept him but squeezed out only a whispered croak (162).

From the time he enters the cave until the moment of his untimely death, Austin is a prisoner of the cave. Even in the face of his own death, he is helpless, unable to escape the advance of the Spider Woman. In this way, the cave strips Austin of his masculine power, both physically and mentally. Not only is his body destroyed – “His torso though was become an arena of blunt agony and his right leg had caught beneath itself and bent with a crack … He was fucked up enough already. He could tell that much” – but he is also left mentally devastated. After his fall into the cave, Austin denies the hopelessness of his situation for quite some time. He continues to go through the steps leading to his rescue in his head, including, “Dennison calling for help, walking back down the mountain if he had to. A chopper. Airlift. ER.Surgery … Whatever it took. Put him back together again” (162). Despite the fact his cousin knowingly and willingly destroyed their only means of transport back down the mountain, in addition to purposely pushing him into the cave, Austin believes he will escape with his life. He only understands the true nature of his situation when he hears Sam’s cell phone ringing somewhere inside the cave. At this point, “A depthless sob racked his torso and he gasped in anguish and agony … He began to cry for real then” (166-167). Although he appeared to have been holding it together prior to this realization, Austin loses control of his mental facilities entirely when he is confronted by the dead body of his ex-lover. Ultimately, both Austin’s physical and mental capacities are broken down, leaving him in the control of the cave. Thus, the cave actively works towards destroying the masculine entity in its physical and mental form.

Similarly to Austin, Donny in “Tuckahoe” enters the cave unwillingly. In this story, Nicolay makes a very blatant comparison between the cave and the vagina, stating, “Donny leveled the 9 at the tall man’s chest just as the ground split beneath his feet and sucked him in quick and smooth as Alyssa’s snatch had swallowed his cock the night before” (Nicolay 327). Before being swallowed by the earth, Donny attempts to confront Storch with his gun, not realizing until too late “bullets won’t do much good on them” (335). Taking the gun as a phallic symbol, Donny’s masculinity fails him at the moment he most needs it. He also goes through a similar process of denial as Austin, thinking through in his head an escape plan:

Donny calculated how he could clear a path with just two rounds left, make his route out, how to get to a main road and a radio. Most of all a radio or a phone. Maybe that neighbor with the chainsaw if he was still around. Then backup. Lots of backup. National fucking Guard backup (327).

Despite his best efforts, however, Donny falls victim to the cave. During his time there, “He hung in the open, no wall behind him, wrists wrapped in some thick cords, ankles also bound” (Nicolay 329). The scratches on his back, given to him by Alyssa during their sexual tryst, appear to be supporting him, or at least keeping him alive. Like Austin, the cave drains Donny of both his physical and mental prowess, though the process takes somewhat longer for Donny. And, while Donny does endure a great deal of physical torment, the focus on his loss of mental abilities is more pronounced than in “Phragmites” After some time hanging in the cave, Donny realizes “what thoughts he managed were muzzy and no longer his own … He drifted in a daze now, no division between waking and dream, nightmare long since his life as much as his dreams” (330). Indeed, even after his physical death, Donny’s mental anguish remains present. At the end of the story he watches a very pregnant Alyssa pick up his own brain. In this scene, Nicolay simultaneously reinforces a resemblance between Alyssa and the womb-like cave and also suggests the control they both have over Donny’s body and brain.

In contrast to the male characters in Nicolay’s work, Allende’s main character moves through the caves much more freely. Diego/Zorro enters/exits the caves whenever he pleases. Indeed, sometimes, such as in the case of the tunnels at the old prison, they seem to appear to him like magic. However, the most telling sign of Diego’s power over the caves occurs shortly after his grandmother introduces him and Bernardo to the sacred caves around their house. Here, “Diego, who was slimmer and more agile, crawled inside and discovered a tunnel that quickly opened up enough for him to stand. The boys returned with candles and picks and shovels, and in the following weeks worked at widening the passageway” (38). Not only does Diego use the caves at his whim, he also takes the liberty of physically altering them when it suits his needs. Allende’s character’s “remodeling” of the cave could be quite harmful to the natural balance of the underground world. Even if the widening did not harm the cave itself, the fact that Diego exerts power over the caves in both a physical and mental way is in stark contrast to Austin in “Phragmites” and Donny in “Tuckahoe.” Additionally, Diego houses all of his Zorro possessions, including his mask and whip, inside the caves. After Zorro’s heist at the prison, he also finds in the cave “a wineskin, bread, cheese, and honey to help him recover from his recent bad treatment,” courtesy of Bernardo (375). Here, the caves literally nurture Diego and provide him with a safe space to store his costume and other Zorro possessions. These tokens are closely tied with Diego’s manhood, suggesting his masculine presence in the caves at all times. Thus, he constantly inhabits, in an active manner, the most intimate part of the female body. In doing so, he also shows subconscious control over the women in his life.

Another key factor in analyzing these characters’ relationships with females is through the feminine characters that inhabit the caves alongside the male main characters. In the example of “Phragmites,” one of the most significant feminine characters is Na’ashjeii Asdzaa. The Spider Woman, who eventually kills Austin at the end of the story, maintains a great deal of agency over the caves. Before Dennison and Austin reach the cave, Dennison stresses, “You understand? It’s her cave” (139). Earlier in the story, he also explains “her home was a scary place and the Twins had to think hard about going down there. So scary it was the great moment of decision on their journey. Bones all over. Stink of death” (138-139). In that same story, the Spider Woman gives the Twins eagle feathers, one of the most powerful and sacred symbols in Navajo tradition. Indeed, she helps the two boys who journey to her cave, suggesting she is not an inherently evil force. However, as Austin sees her, the Spider Woman is presented as “the dreadful immensity emerging from the shadowed depths … filling the passage with its bulk” (167). Due to Austin’s terrified description of the Spider Woman, it can be assumed she did not help Austin at the end of the story. Rather, the Spider Woman is almost goddess-like in her ability to both reward and punish men depending on their moral character.

Indeed, in both “Phragmites” and “Tuckahoe,” major female characters appear to be otherworldly or superior to humans. In Tuckahoe, the most omnipresent female figure is Mother Storch, who is mentioned several times throughout the story before the reader is finally introduced to her in a physical form. The way Donny treats Mother Storch at first is careful, as evidenced when he “entered the chamber with slow and deliberate steps and advanced until his light at last began to shine on the base of the immensity direct in his path” (Nicolay 338). The bulk blocks Donny’s path to the exit, literally taking up an entire room within the underground tunnel system. Donny notes, “It was not as high as the haystack from before but reached all the way to the low vaulted roof where it extended out in one vast and slowly pulsing mass” (339).  Not long after Donny’s initial encounter with the mass, he finally realizes its true identity: the old Mother Storch, or Mother Leed as she prefers to be called. The monster/ fertility goddess speaks directly to Donny in this story, stating, “You men are great deceivers you are. You only want to push us full of babes and make us do the work. But you always hurt, hurt, hurt” (Nicolay 341). In this passage, Mother Storch addresses the issue of male dominance directly. At the same time, she acts as a powerful female figure, cutting Donny off from the outside world and eventually aiding in his death.

For Allende, the main female character involved with the caves is Isabel. Unlike many of the other females in both Ana Kai Tangata and even Zorro, Isabel is a strictly nonsexual character. Although Allende reveals she has been sexually active by the end of the novel, throughout the majority of the text Isabel is described as someone no man would desire in a sexual context. Indeed, only one man in the entire story calls her beautiful, and that man ends up marrying her older sister. One of the reasons Isabel is desexualized is because of her “masculine” nature. Isabel is described as a very masculine female, especially after their pilgrimage to escape from Barcelona. Alledende writes:

Isabel, strong and slender, was the one who suffered least from the journey. Her features sharpened, and she acquired a long, sure stride that made her appear boyish. She had never been happier; she was born for freedom. ‘Curses! Why wasn’t I born a man?’ (Allende 257).

Furthermore, when Isabel is within the caves, she is actually portrayed as a male. Originally, Diego believes Bernardo, his milk brother, is the only other Zorro. However, after he escapes from Moncada with the help of Zorro and returns to the caves, he realizes Isabel is also Zorro. Although Diego is grateful for Isabel’s assistance, he originally suggests she cannot be Zorro, because she is a female. Although he changes his mind, it is important to note Isabel is not a feminine Zorro. Instead, she is a biological female donning the costume of the very masculine Zorro. Allende introduces Isabel as Zorro by writing, “There he stood, flesh and blood, lighted by several dozen wax candles and two torches, proud, elegant, unmistakable (383). Thus, Isabel should not be read as a strong, independent woman, but rather a woman who is forced to become a male in mind and form in order to enter into the sacred context of the caves. In this way, despite the presence of a female character, the caves are still entirely under the control of the masculine.

The relationship between the female body and the earth is a long-standing literary tradition, dating back to the Greeks in written history, and well before their time in oral cultures around the world. However, as Donald McAndrew points out, “this romantic and ideal view of nature – ‘Mother Earth,’ ‘Mother Gaia,’ the pure, all giving woman – in much of contemporary ecological theory and comes to the conclusion that behind this romantic posture is a nastier side that desires control and power” (McAndrew 376). Thus, writing about the earth in a romantic manner, as Allende demonstrates in Zorro, may initially appear to be flattering to the female form. However, underlying the outwardly praise runs a deep-seated current of male dominance. In writing about the Earth as only a gentle, nurturing figure, Allende creates a very one-sided feminine world. Furthermore, in her portrayal of Diego as both a womanizer and a romantic, she empowers the concept of masculine domination over the feminine. On the other hand, Nicolay presents his readers with a much more three-dimensional portrait of the feminine earth. The caves in “Phragmites” and “Tuckahoe” empower the feminine through the destruction of the male main characters. By reading Nicolay and Allende’s texts through the lens of ecofeminism, the differences in treatment of the male characters by these two authors become clear. While Nicolay punishes and alienates his male characters for their misogyny, Allende creates a world in which misogynist tendencies are either ignored or blatantly rewarded. Thus, the relationships these men have the earth, specifically caves, illustrates the balance (or imbalance) of masculine and feminine power within the world of Ana Kai Tangata and Zorro.

Works Cited

Allende, Isabel, and Margaret Sayers. Peden. Zorro: A Novel. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. Print.

Gaard, Greta. “Toward a Queer Ecofeminism.” Hypatia 12.1 (1997): 114-37. Web.

Heyden, Doris. “Caves.” Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 3. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 1468-1473. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.

Kaur, Gurreet. “An Exegesis of Postcolonial Ecofeminism in Contemporary Literature.” GSTF Journal of Law and Social Sciences (JLSS) 2.1 (2012): 188-95. ProQuest. Web.

Mallory, Chaone. “Locating Ecofeminism in Encounters with Food and Place.” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 26.1 (2013): 171-89. Web.

McAndrew, Donald A. “Ecofeminism and the Teaching of Literacy.” National Council of Teachers of English 47.3 (1996): 367-82. JSTOR. Web.

Nicolay, Scott. Ana Kai Tangata: Tales of the Outer the Other the Damned and the Doomed. Nampa, ID: Fedogan & Bremer, 2014. Print.

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(Brittany Lloyd is a senior English and Anthropology Major at Washington and Lee University. Her interests include Native American literature, 21st century American literature, Queer Theory, Postcolonial Theory and Ecofeminism. She will be graduating in May of 2015 and hopefully interning in publishing before applying for Ph.D Programs in English. She wrote “’As if the earth under our feet were an excrement of some sky:;” An Ecofeminist Reading of Cave Symbolism in Scott Nicolay’s Ana Kai Tangata and Isabel Allende’s Zorro” in Professor Gavaler’s course 21st Century North American Fiction.)

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Guest writer, Naphtali Rivkin:

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Junot Diaz, in The Brief and Wondrous life of Oscar Wao, and Isabella Allende, in her rendition of Zorro, both interweave a bildungsroman with questions of ethnic identity.  Both novelists seem to indicate that coming to terms with one’s ethnic identity, however complicated, is a necessary part of growing up.  The novelists’ claims seem to hold water even beyond the realm of literature, where real studies of “young adolescents of color” and children of immigrants in Spain have demonstrated that developing a sense of ethnicity is vital to healthy human growth, especially to children living in a culture where their ethnicity is not the normative ethnicity.  But while both novelists claim coming-of-age and ethnic identity is inextricably connected, they might disagree with each other about the best method for coming to terms with complicated ethnic identities.  Diaz’s Oscar Wao transcends his internal and external ethnic conflicts by actively embracing his ethnicity, while Allende’s titular Zorro escapes his identity conflicts altogether by crafting a non-ethnic masked persona.  Diego grows up to become Zorro the Superhero, whose origin story serves to rid him of his humanity and ethnicities, while Oscar evolves into the far more complex, relatable, and admirable super hero, whose brief and wondrous life transforms him into an adult.

Allende and Diaz both seem to reflect scientific realities of ethnicity’s role in a young man’s coming-of-age through their psychologically real narratives.  In so doing, they both would agree that, in their bildungsroman novels, “ethnicity is…a factor in identity formation, which it is not in the (older) European bildungsroman” (Iversen 197).  James Hardin, in his compendium Reflection and Action, attempts to define the 17th century German term bildungsroman, but it seems the only consensus his contributors come to is that “Bildung [in its oldest, original connotation] is a verbal noun meaning ‘formation,’ transferring the formation of external features to the features of the personality as a whole” (Hardin xi).  By defining a bildungsroman as a coming-of-age story where a character is formed through the influence of his surroundings, it can be said that the current scientific studies about ethnicity and identity formation resonate with a 300-year-old literary genre in the works of Allende and Diaz.

Studies have shown that ethnicity matters, particularly to children who grow up in a society where their ethnicity is not the normative one.  Diaz’s Oscar struggles to understand the hyper-masculine expectations associated with his Dominican heritage in the context of his upbringing as an overweight New Jersey “nerd.”  Diego, the boy who becomes Allende’s Zorro, faces the perhaps more complicated task of reconciling his mixed Native-American and Spanish colonial birth while studying in traditional Spain under the occupation of Napoleonic France and traveling with gypsies and creole pirates.  Diego and Oscar’s struggles with ethnic identity reflect the psychologically real process that boys in alien societies must confront in order to come of age.

In her study on “Teaching Young Adolescents of Color,” Geneva Gay defines what we mean by ethnic identity in the context of coming of age.  It is

the dimension of a person’s social identity and self-concept that derives from knowledge, values, attitudes, the sense of belonging, and the emotional significance associated with membership in a particular ethnic group. Whether and how it is achieved affect many other dimensions of students’ personal, social, and academic attitudes and behaviors. A clarified ethnic identity is central to the psycho-social well-being and educational success of youth of color (Gay 151)

Diaz’s Oscar Wao, a “youth of color” growing up outside of his element, struggles to find that sense of belonging with his ethnic group that Gay claims is vital to psycho-social well-being.  While it is sadly routine for people of one race to treat the other poorly, it is downright tragic when Oscar must convince even his own people that “I am Dominican, I am” (Diaz 180).  Oscar struggles with depression to the point of attempting suicide largely because he feels like he does not share the knowledge, values, or attitudes of either his own ethnicity of the normative white ethnicity in New Jersey. Dominicans question Oscar’s virility and ethnicity simultaneously because Oscar does not seem to know how to get women to sleep with him, seems to value fantasy and the pursuit of writing more than a Dominican “should,” and speaks with a literary vocabulary, reflecting an attitude that the Dominicans around him find wholly contrived and off-putting.  Growing up in an alien society of New Jersey, where White is the normative ethnicity, Oscar cannot even rely on the comfort of his own ethnic family (or literal family) to shepherd him through his coming-of-age.

Allende’s Diego similarly faces complex ethnic boundaries to his coming-of-age, but his ethnic issues differ from Oscar’s.  Diego can soundly rely on the support of an almost unrealistic variety of ethnic representatives.  His Native-American heritage grants him powerful tools, friends, and pseudo-mystical powers; his colonial Californian father gives him money and a proud lineage; his Spanish hosts educate him; their French conquerors incite his indignity; the gypsies shelter and develop his physical prowess, while the creole pirates sharpen Diego’s indispensible savvy and worldliness.  Diego, unlike Oscar, is spoiled for choice in the ethnicity department, which begs the question, who is Diego?

Diego’s case reflects the current, real problem of immigrants “coming of age in Spain,” which The British Journal of Sociology attempts to address.

On its part, self-esteem has been consistently associated with positive academic outcomes and is influenced, in turn, by the quality of relations with parents and by past experiences of acceptance or rejection in the host society.  Our analysis reveals an initially anomalous result: the majority of children of immigrants in Spain neither identify with the country nor intend to live there as adults. (From Article chapter “Conclusion”)

It seems that since Diego checks all of the journal’s boxes for a positive self-perception considering his legendary “good luck” and a knack for fitting in wherever he goes, it’s no wonder Diego does not ultimately associate with any particular country or ethnicity in the same way that the successful children of Spanish immigrants do not identify with the country where they came-of-age.

But while both stories include elements typical of a bildungsroman, I think that the end result of Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao fits the bildungsroman mold better than Allende’s Zorro.  In fact, while both Diaz’s and Allende’s novels can be read as a coming-of-age story guided by the scientific realities of ethnicity in identity formation, Allende’s novel can be read as a superhero origin story, which differs from a bildungsroman in its end result.  A superhero origin story, according to Peter Coogan, creates a superhero, who is something other-than-human, and therefore, by definition, without ethnicity.

Diego, in Allende’s novel, may have many ethnicities, but with each of those ethnicities come special powers or privileges that transform Diego into Zorro, who is a superhero.  Zorro meets Coogan’s three criteria for superhero status: namely, a mission, powers, and identity (Coogan 39).  Zorro’s “pro-social mission” is “to seek justice, nourish the hungry, clothe the naked, protect widows and orphans, give shelter to the stranger, and never spill innocent blood” (Allende 154).  Just in case the reader may begin to consider Oscar as a superhero as well, I will point out here that Oscar’s mission, in contrast, is, at worst, to get laid, and at best, to find love.  Zorro also meets Coogan’s “powers” criterion for superheroes.  He’s an unmatched fencer, intelligent, lucky, possesses unique tools like his grandmother’s sleep potion; he can pick locks, jump like an acrobat and can see very well.  Even if we left aside his potentially magical link to Bernardo and the Fox (since Oscar too has supernatural experiences with a small mammal), Zorro has abilities which make others perceive him as superhuman, like when the pirates aboard his ship took him for a ghost or when Moncada’s men thought Zorro was in two places at once.

Finally, and most importantly, Zorro meets Coogan’s criterion for a superhero identity.  By becoming a symbol through his costume and iconic “Z” sign, Zorro transcends human characteristics and therefore escapes the human need for an ethnic identity.  The ultimate proof to this is that literally anyone who puts on Zorro’s costume can be Zorro, regardless of his or her ethnic identity— a small Spanish girl, an adult Native-American man, or Diego.  Conversely, there is no way to become Oscar without going through Oscar’s unique combination of ethnic self-identification and coming-of-age.

By growing up into the superhero Zorro, Diego sheds his ethnic identities whenever he is in Zorro costume.

Diego realized that, without planning it, he was playing the part of two different persons, determined by the circumstances and the clothing he was wearing…He supposed that his true character lay somewhere in between, but he didn’t know who he was: neither of the two nor the sum of both…He would assume that he was two persons and turn that to his advantage (Allende 232)

By definition, the bildungsroman cannot end in a conflict of identities.  It implies the forming of a holistic person, who “comes to a better understanding of self” (Hardin xiii) as a result of his coming-of-age.  Instead of understanding himself better through confronting his multiple ethnic allegiances, Diego finds comfort (indeed, he finds charisma, confidence, and virility) in donning the mask of Zorro and escaping the question of ethnicity altogether.

Though Diego’s coming-of-age reflects the psychologically real process of wrestling with ethnicity, the result of his coming-of-age is not typical of a bildungsroman but is instead typical of a superhero origin story.  Conversely, Oscar’s story can and should be read as a prototypical bildungsroman with an ending that would satisfy the genre’s criteria.

Oscar’s formation (bildung) as an adult mirrors his pursuit of the Dominican ethnic identity that his family lost generations ago.  Abelard, Oscar’s grandfather, began his break with Dominican ethnicity when he realized his daughters might fall victim to Trujillo’s rape.  Instead of taking action—sending his daughters to Cuba, for instance—he hesitated indefinitely; “instead of making his move, Abelard fretted and temporized and despaired” (Diaz 231).  Dominicans, as Diaz would have his readers understand them, are decisive and aggressive, almost to a fault.  Take Lola, for instance, who runs away to Wildwood on the whim that she simply cannot stay in her mother’s house any longer.  Abelard, in contrast to Lola and Diaz’s typical Dominicans, cannot even die decisively; while all the other people in his life die quick deaths, Abelard is cursed by his indecision to meekly shuffle through prison—purgatory—half-lobotomized, in his pajamas, ad infinitum.

Perhaps Oscar is Abelard’s second chance—his spiritual reincarnation—as the next male Dominican born to Abelard’s family.  As a member of the Dominican ethnic family, Oscar is expected to sleep with any woman he wants, like Yunior, without compunction or effort.  This described Dominican promiscuity is the manifestation of a Dominican’s ability to take action.  “Did you fuck her?” asks Lola.  “I do not move so precipitously,” sighs Oscar, who still carries his grandfather Abelard’s indecisive genes.  Oscar tries, periodically, to take his life into his own hands, like when he agrees to go running with Yunior.  But it seems Diaz shows the readers this episode just to highlight how much of Oscar’s bad shape (mentally and physically) is his own doing.  “He quit,” Diaz unequivocally tells the readers through Yunior, the narrator.  “I will run again no more, he [Oscar] intoned from under his pillow” (Diaz 178), showing and telling Yunior that he prefers inaction to action, literally and metaphorically.

When it comes to love and sex, Oscar is similarly indecisive.  When Oscar falls in love with Ybon in the Dominican Republic (on a trip he took because he had nothing else to do during the summer), he finds himself pathologically incapable of acting.  “Did they the ever fuck? Of course not…He watched her for the signs…that would tell him she loved him” (Diaz 290) instead of confessing his love himself.  He does not kiss her for the first time; she kisses him in her Pathfinder.  And when Ybon’s kiss gets Oscar beat up by her jealous boyfriend, Oscar “thought about escaping, thought about jumping, out of the car and running down the street…but he couldn’t do it” (Diaz 297).  It is fitting, then, that Oscar gets beaten to near-death like his predecessor Abelard—cursed by his indecision to live in pain.

By going back to the Dominican Republic at great peril to himself specifically to confess his love to Ybon, Oscar comes of age through the fulfillment of his ethnic identity.  It is important to note, however, that love and sex is simply the context in which Oscar finds his identity.  Objectively, perhaps the fact that Oscar somehow accedes to his ethnic misogynistic expectations is not all good.  But love and sex are simply the tools of the Dominican ethnicity, and Oscar uses them to come into himself.  It is vital, for Diaz, that Oscar grow up, and grow up Dominican—and being Dominican means taking action, for better or worse.  Oscar ultimately does take action, for worse. He actively loves Ybon at pain of death.  Most importantly, though, he finds that Dominican compulsion with his last breath.  “Fire, he blurted out, unable to help himself” (Diaz 322); the old Oscar would not have been able to pull his own trigger for love.  He finally does what Abelard couldn’t do—acted, even if it kills him.

Oscar’s bildungsroman teaches us that you don’t get to just excuse yourself from your history, ethnicity, and human experience.  Growing up and becoming an adult in real life means coping with all the ethnic baggage you were given; only superheroes like Zorro can don a mask and escape.   Zorro, as a superhero, escapes all ethnic considerations and qualifications, but in so doing, he gives up his uniqueness as a human being, becoming a symbol instead that can belong to anyone.  As a human, you have to deal with both the good and the bad of your ethnicity in order to develop a unique identity.  Perhaps the greatest super hero is not the guy who leaves earth in a single bound, but the braver person who accepts who he is, where he’s from, and does something about it.

(Naphtali Rivkin is a senior English and Russian Area Studies double major at Washington and Lee University. He recently published a piece called “Why Everything you need to know about politics you can learn from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar” in the the Ukrainian Philosophical Foundation’s journal, Future Human Image. Currently, he is writing an English honors thesis on early 20th century Socialist American writers. He wrote “ADULTMAN: An Origin Story” in Professor Gavaler’s course 21st Century North American Fiction.)

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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.

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Paul Revere died in 1818 and was reborn in 1861. His resurrection gave him the strength of three men and the power of bilocation: He was both in the church tower swinging a lantern and on his horse across the river receiving the message. Fellow riders, William Dawes and Samuel Prescott, stumbled and vanished into the white space between the stanzas of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride,” the poem that created the larger-than-life American hero. When the actual, human-sized Revere died, his obit writer didn’t even mention that not-yet-legendary midnight ride.

Paul Revere is one of several super-Americans Tarek Mehanna, a Pittsburgh-born pharmacist convicted of supporting Al Qaeda in 2012, named as his role models. Batman was at the top of the list. “When I was six,” Mehanna told his sentencing judge, “I began putting together a massive collection of comic books. Batman implanted a concept in my mind, introduced me to a paradigm as to how the world is set up: that there are oppressors, there are the oppressed, and there are those who step up to defend the oppressed.”

Tarek Mehanna court drawing

After Batman, school field trips and high school history classes showed him “just how real that paradigm is in the world.” He admired the oppression-fighting Paul Revere, Tom Paine, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, John Brown, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. “Everything a man is exposed to in his environment becomes an ingredient that shapes his outlook,” Mehanna explained. “So, in more ways than one, it’s because of America that I am who I am.”

Judge O’Toole sentenced him to seventeen years. Glenn Greenwald calls that “one of the most egregious violations of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech,” one that history will condemn along with “the architects of the policies he felt compelled to battle.” It could be a while before history makes its ruling, so meanwhile O’Toole’s stands—a panel of judges rejected an appeal last month.

Like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Tarek Mehanna is a writer. He supported Al Qaeda by pen rather than sword. Longfellow was the first American to translate Dante’s Divine Comedy into English. Mehanna translated “39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad” and posted it online from his bedroom in his parents’ suburban Boston home. That sounds considerably less poetic than a midnight gallop, but like his hero, Mehanna is a messenger.

“I mentioned Paul Revere,” said Mehanna,  “when he went on his midnight ride, it was for the purpose of warning the people that the British were marching to Lexington to arrest Sam Adams and John Hancock, then on to Concord to confiscate the weapons stored there by the Minutemen. By the time they got to Concord, they found the Minutemen waiting for them, weapons in hand. They fired at the British, fought them, and beat them. From that battle came the American Revolution. There’s an Arabic word to describe what those Minutemen did that day. That word is: JIHAD, and this is what my trial was about.”

That’s not a definition most Americans know. The FBI, however, defines “Terrorism” as “acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law” and that are intended to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population” and/or “influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.” There’s a Spanish word to describe that:

Zorro.

Johnson McCulley’s grasp of colonial history is even looser than Longfellow’s, but the pulp novelist knew what Americans loved: Champions of the Oppressed. Zorro waged his one-man war on the corrupt regime of Spanish California. His activities included whipping judges, disfiguring soldiers, and killing at least one military officer in open combat—all with the aim of coercing a tyrannous governor into reversing his abusive policies. Batman co-creator Bill Finger was six when The Mark of Zorro hit theaters in 1920. Finger included stills of the masked and swashbuckling Douglass Fairbanks in the scripts he handed Bob Kane to draw.

When Mehanna was collecting Batman comics in 1989, Michael Keaton was playing the caped crusader in theaters, but the paradigm was the same. “Muslims should defend their lands from foreign invaders – Soviets, Americans, or Martians,” Mehanna told Judge O’Toole. “This is not terrorism, and it’s not extremism. It’s what the arrows on that seal above your head represent: defense of the homeland.”

Whether you think Mehanna was unfairly convicted or not (my jury is still deliberating), he is a devout follower of American Superheroism. He, like many of his fellows Americans, likes things simple. He sees the world through a six-year-old’s eyes: the good guys and the bad guys they battle. That’s a black and white universe, with all the poetically inconvenient nuances dropped into the stanza breaks and panel gutters. Longfellow sacrificed Dawes and Prescott to preserve the simplicity of his heroic vision. Madeline Albright, argues Mehanna, sacrificed “over half a million children” who died due to “American-led sanctions that prevented food, medicine, and medical equipment from entering Iraq.”

The figures are contestable, but the Department of Defense considers “incidental injury” to non-military targets lawful “so long as it is not excessive in light of the overall military advantage.” So a Stanford Law School study, for example, estimates that drone attacks in Pakistan have killed up to 881 civilians, including 176 children. Such “collateral damage” differs from terrorism because the deaths, although premeditated, were not the overt goal—a distinction irrelevant to the victims.

Longfellow would leave the body count out of any poetic rendering of the War on Terrorism. We prefer our Paul Reveres heroically purified. Eugene Debs, another of Mehannna’s role models, was six when “Paul Revere’s Ride” was first published in Atlantic Monthly. Debs grew up to be a champion of oppressed laborers and was sentenced to ten years in prison under the Espionage Act of 1917 for speaking against U.S. involvement in the first World War. President Harding commuted the sentence after the war ended. Perhaps some future, post-War on Terror President will do the same for Mehanna, but I doubt it. America loves its Batman paradigm too much. It would take another Revolution to overthrow it.

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[A version of this piece first appeared in the Roanoke Times on November 30, 2013.]

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