Writing about writing: 2

The hero in the shadows

Writing about writing: 2
Zorro & Catwoman - characters who're at the root of stereotypes rather than rooted in them!


For those who haven't read part 1 of this blog (I'll put a link at the end), this is my chronicle of my efforts to write my novel, Playing Zorro; set in a theatre where Zorro was performed, it chronicles a time when life behind the scenes begins to imitate art onstage. This blog will follow my creation of the imaginary world of that theatre - and the world within that world, of Zorro - step by step, for you to join me on my journey and critique my technique as we go along. Between us, my friends, we will create a masterpiece. I think.

Writer's note: throughout the following piece I will repeatedly refer to the gay, transgender and non binary community under the umbrella term "queer" - this, although it has been used as an insult, is a word many of us within the community choose with pride to identify ourselves. Where prejudice is normal, being abnormal is a good thing. I mean the term queer always as a compliment and never as a slur. OK, back to the blog.

The first step, of course, for every storyteller, is to introduce characters and concepts. There are other elements and levels of the story - theatre, as I've said; LGBTQIA+ representation abounds throughout the story, as it does in real world theatre; terminal illness; addiction; the fate and fortune of traveller communities; and a sub plot involving lost paintings by Vincent van Gogh.

But let's start with Zorro.

As I said, we start by introducing characters and concepts; and that's exactly what Zorro is - he is both a character, and a concept. The caped crimefighters, the mystery men and women, who fill our bookshelves and our movie screens, all started with him.

If a picture paints a thousand words, there are some words - and a handful of names - that conjure a thousand pictures. Such a name, love it or hate or don't care, is Zorro. The original "mystery man". There had been cavaliers before him, though they were few - Robin Hood and d'Artagnan are maybe two of the only names more recognisable than Zorro; there had been crimefighters before him, though they were even fewer - Sherlock Holmes is maybe one of the only names to have appeared in magazines and movies more than Zorro; but the crimefighting cavalier was something new and unknown until Johnston McCulley unmasked his hero in 1919's original The Curse of Capistrano.

NOTE FOR HISTORICAL/LITERARY PURISTS: There may have been a Scarlet Pimpernel haunting France a few years prior, but that cunning master of disguise failed to capture the public imagination at first quite like Zorro did, and in fact did not adopt his signature mask and sword in his earlier adventures until after Zorro made them popular. Not to mention the fact that he was created to fight against the popular peasant rebellion in his fictional France by Baroness Orczy, who genuinely believed in the superiority of the aristocratic class the Frenchmen led to the guillotine. The fact that the epic romantic tale of the French Revolutionary age that was told from the peasants' perspective - Victor Hugo's Les Miserables - has gone on to remain a beloved part of popular culture almost two centuries later, speaks volumes about "giving the public what they want" in terms of aristocrats vs. rebels! Zorro, by contrast, like Robin Hood before him, fought for the underdog, and it was the underdog who adopted him as their dashing hero, even if there was an aristocrat beneath the mask.

I digress. Back to Zorro.

Because that's where the family tree of every superhero goes: back to Zorro. Forty-four years before the name was given to Marvel Comics' premier team, Zorro's band of riders and fighters were the first to call themselves The Avengers. Radio shows and magazines in the 1930s chronicled the unusual career of the unseen crimefighter known only as The Shadow, who was envisioned as a combination of two prior heroes: the dashing mask and cape of Zorro, with the cunning detective mind of Sherlock Holmes. The Shadow then went on himself to be the main influence and inspiration behind the design of Batman. This new hero's origin story told of his parents' murder in an alley behind a theatre, where the movie playing was Tyrone Power's star vehicle The Mark of Zorro - which coincidentally also starred Basil Rathbone, the cinematic face of Sherlock Holmes. The rest is history, and we have a different story to tell here (Although I will add one more factoid: in novelist Isabel Allende's revamped origin story of Zorro, he was given his new identity by a secret crimefighting society known as La Justicia - loosely translated, the Justice League).

What can Zorro and his fellow heroes have that lends them so suitably to my novel's story of theatre life, of the LGBTQIA+ community, travelling tribes, and a starving artist? The answer, and the thread on which the plot elements of the novel hang, is that heroes, actors, travellers, artists and queers, have one thing in common:

Having to live a double life; pretending to be someone else.

Queer coding, queer baiting, and queer representation (and as I said, I use the word queer as a term of pride, not shame) is something I'll go into more deeply another time; but it wouldn't be complete without looking at Zorro. Queer characters were not welcome in fiction until pretty recently, but that didn't stop queer coding in the crimefighting stories in movies and magazines becoming more widespread than its critics could detect. Villains and victims had to be less masculine if they were men, and less feminine if they were women, than those who we were meant to cheer for and root for as heroes and their romantic interests. Writers and actors embraced the queer stereotypes that their readers would see and recognise as undesirable and untouchable, as an easy fix to achieve the effect. This, ironically, allowed queer writers and actors to indulge themselves more in their portrayals of villains than heroes; and to this day it's said, in film and fiction, that villains have more fun. When viewers and readers wanted to stop seeing it being so vilified and mocked, or simply to see writers and actors stop relying so easily on such cliches, the lighter side of the same idea was introduced: queer baiting. Stereotyped characteristics could be given to childish or comic relief characters in whom we were asked to find sympathy and enjoyment, without ever shocking the censors by ever actually having to say the word "gay". The stereotypical transgender images became an object not of fury but of fun, in the shape of pantomime dames and accidental drag queens, or just in the "soft" sidekick needing to be saved or advised by the "hard" hero, who nevertheless clearly adored them (but not in a gay way). Zorro was even used as the epitome of this comedy in his parody movie The Gay Blade.

Queer representation now means featuring such characters not as an object of comedy or villainy, but as someone brave and beautiful. Every time it's tried, there's kick back from conservatives who'd rather not be "forced" to look at it or admit that it's nothing abnormal or unnatural. Even so, comics creators can rely on the fact that the community, whether they're in or out of the closet, were already finding their heroes relatable in ways beyond what their creators even intended. Even before the current trend of introducing LGBTQIA+ characters into comics - such as DC's lesbian Batwoman or Marvel's genderfluid Loki - queer readers were enjoying their crimefighters from the closet, finding solace in the way Zorro spent his daytime civilian life pretending to be the shiftless and effeminate Diego de la Vega, so that he would be the last person anyone would suspect of being the highwayman hero of colonial California, that fighting fox, El Zorro.

It's a common trope in superhero stories to this day - and again, one that started with Zorro - that even though the hero wears a mask, it is only when they are flying through the air to save the day that they are being their true selves, and their civilian secret identities, in which they face their unsuspecting friends and families unmasked, is where they are pretending the most. Ironically, it was the mask of Zorro that was Don Diego's true face, not the soft-skinned boy behind it.

Actors have been trained ever since the days of Stanislavski and his famous "method", that a true performer does not "put on" a character when they cover themselves in costume and make up, they must instead "bring out" a character from within themselves. No wonder so many thespians are gay or lesbian.

I'm an actor. And I'm queer. And I'm a poshrat. I'll explain what that last one means later, for anyone who's unfamiliar with the phrase; suffice it to say, all three of those things mean I relate deeply to all the above.

I'm beginning to stray into my next subject - how many of the traits that make up such a character can so often engender the sympathy and understanding of the actor. The fact that the swishing cape and "gay blade" of Zorro can cover such a multitude of character themes - from the method actor to the closeted queer - makes him the ideal hook on which to hang my story, and the story of these actors' hidden and forgotten lives.


(To catch up on Part 1 go to https://vocal.media/geeks/writing-about-writing-1)

Stephen Stevie Cole
Stephen Stevie Cole
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Stephen Stevie Cole
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