By: Johnston McCulley
Appeared in: All-Story Weekly (August – September 1919)
The All-Story magazine (which had published Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan and John Carter novels) switched to a weekly schedule in 1914, becoming All-Story Weekly (and eventually Argosy Weekly in 1920). In 1919 the magazine featured the first tale of another character which would join Tarzan’s company as one of the most influential pulp characters ever.
Zorro (Spanish for ‘fox’) is the eponymous ‘curse’ in the title and Capistrano refers to San Juan Capistrano in California which was under Mexican rule in the early 19th century. It’s easy to see the influence on Batman in this masked crusader for justice and his foppish, playboy alter-ego, Don Diego Vega. Don Diego is a wealthy but cowardly caballero in love with Lolita; the daughter of a local aristocrat who has fallen upon hard times. Her father, Carlos, is thrilled at the promise of a union between the two, but the feisty Lolita is infatuated by Zorro; the dashing bandit and hero of the people (having no idea they are one and the same). Also vying for Lolita’s hand is Ramón; a captain in the Mexican army.
When Lolita is left home alone for an evening, Captain Ramón visits her and comes on a little too strong. Zorro appears and defends her honor. Ramón swears vengeance on both of them and writes to the governor that Lolita’s family are aiding Zorro. The Governor arrives and has Lolita and her mother and father thrown into jail. Zorro sets about rallying the local caballeros into a band committed to fighting injustice and their first task is to free Lolita and her family, thus thwarting the dastardly Captain Ramón and his oafish henchman Sergeant Gonzales.
The story is a fairly simple swashbuckler and is essentially Robin Hood in Mexico with a liberal helping from The Scarlet Pimpernel. As well as being jam packed with sword fights, gun play and horse chases, it also has a good deal of humor largely stemming from Don Diego’s cover as the idle son of a rich man and his lack of interest in anything approaching adventure or romance. McCulley laid down the groundwork for generations of ‘masked crusader’ characters like Batman and The Shadow and created a timeless character who became synonymous with swashbuckling adventure from the early days of cinema to the present day.
Silent star Douglas Fairbanks purchased the rights to the story as the first production for his new company United Artists. The Mark of Zorro (1920) was so popular that McCulley’s novel was renamed and released in book form in 1924 and has remained The Mark of Zorro ever since. The character’s appeal has barely diminished on film and page with McCulley writing over fifty sequels and many authors and comic book writers picking up the torch after his death in 1958. The Mark of Zorro was remade in 1940 as a ‘talkie’ starring Tyrone Power and there have been countless film and TV appearances of Zorro from serials like Zorro’s Fighting Legion (1939) to the more recent movies starring Antonio Banderas.