'Z' Marks the Spot

'Z' Marks the Spot

Maybe it's the way he handles a sword -- or the way he has with women -- but Zorro has never been dull to film and TV buffs.

As "The Legend of Zorro," starring Antonio Banderas, opens in theatres nationwide today, it is hard to believe the masked, Z-carving swashbuckler has captured the imagination of superhero enthusiasts for 86 years. As illustrated by the $94.1 million in domestic ticket sales for "The Mask of Zorro" in 1998 -- and the buzz surrounding its sequel -- Zorro still manages to carve out a place in people's hearts.

What is it about him? He has no superpowers. His physique is not particularly impressive. He prefers to rely more on finesse and his wits than brute force to defeat his foes.

Maybe that's it. With his black mask and cape and extraordinary sword-fighting skills, Zorro carries an outlaw's mystique: He's larger than life, mysterious and debonair. But his lack of superpowers, and penchant for helping the poor, makes him an Everyman. And he's a wise-ass -- someone who carves a "Z" into his beaten foes must have a wicked sense of humor.

Combined, these are the qualities of a hero with almost universal appeal.

"He has all the elements of a classic hero," said Terry Nantier, founder and president of NBM, a New York-based graphic novel company that is producing a series of Zorro graphic novels. "He champions the downtrodden. He's a version of Robin Hood. He's a romantic figure who's good with the women, suave. And he has a sense of humor, a fun element to go along with the good cause he is fighting for."

Born in Pulp Fiction

The Zorro character was born when pulp fiction writer Johnston McCulley's short story, "The Curse of Capistrano," was published in the magazine All-Story Weekly in 1919. McCulley's protagonist was a Spanish nobleman named Don Diego Vega who, as his alter-ego Zorro (Spanish for "fox"), fought for the rights of oppressed California peasants. "The Curse of Capistrano" caught the attention of actor Douglas Fairbanks, who bought the rights to the story and developed it into the 1920 silent film "The Mark of Zorro."

"The Mark of Zorro" was one of the decade's greatest box office successes. It launched a hero franchise that endures to this day which has included several movies, a 1950s Walt Disney TV series (Disney is the parent company of ABC News), comic strips, comic books, cartoons, toys and trading cards.

From Fairbanks to Guy Williams in Disney's "Zorro," to George Hamilton in the 1981 comedy "Zorro, the Gay Blade" and Banderas, multiple generations have been exposed to the masked "fox." The success of 1998's "The Mask of Zorro" -- which also starred Banderas -- is only part of the reason for Zorro's enduring appeal. The hero has had almost instant recognition for decades.

"When speaking to anybody on the street, everyone recognizes the 'zip, zip, zip' of Zorro," said John Gertz, president of Zorro Productions Inc., in reference to the sound of Zorro carving his initials into his enemies. "Everyone knows what you're talking about. Basically, you can't be American and not have Zorro percolate into your consciousness."

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