Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Heck with Continuity!

I like logical continuity in my fictional universes, but there are times when continuity simply gets in the way of a good story and gets tossed out the window.

Johnston McCulley knew that. A prolific writer for the pulp magazines, McCulley was responsible creating buckets-full of great characters, such the original Spider, the Green Ghost and Thubway Tham (a clever pickpocket who speaks with a lisp).

But, of course, his best-known creation is Zorro, who first popped up in a 1919 story serialized in All-Story Weekly. Anyone reading a blog like mine probably doesn’t need an explanation of who Zorro is. If you do—well, the rest of us are giggling at you behind your back and spreading malicious gossip about you to others.

The interesting thing about Zorro was that he was supposed to be a one-off character, not a series character. At the end of the original story—The Curse of Capistrano—the main bad guy is dead, Zorro’s real identity of Diego Vega is revealed and everyone who deserves to live happily ever after seems prepared to do so.

But then Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford stumbled across the story and decided to us it as the basis for the first movie from their new studio—United Artists. The movie, titled The Mark of Zorro (1920) was a big hit. The Curse of Capistrano was reprinted in book form—also now titled The Mark of Zorro—and McCulley realized he had a real money maker on his hands. He could write as many new Zorro stories has he wanted and always find a market for them.

But therein lay the problem. Zorro’s career was clearly over by the end of the book. And (unlike what Rafael Sabatini was able to do with Captain Blood) there was no real room within the plot to sandwich in “untold” adventures.

So how do you fit new Zorro stories into this tight continuity? The answer was simple: You don’t. McCulley simply retconned the character, bringing the main villain back to life and allowing Diego to simply resume his secret identity in order to battle despots, pirates and slavers. In effect, McCulley created a parallel universe to the original Zorro story.  Along the way, he dressed his Zorro in the black suit and mask that Fairbanks had worn in the movie and eventually expanded Diego’s full name to Diego de la Vega—probably just because all that looked and sounded cooler. (Or at least McCulley sometimes expanded the name to de la Vega. He was a little inconsistent with this.)

The world should be grateful that McCulley was fast on the retcon. The later Zorro stories often lacked the energy and spontaneity of the original novel, but they are invariably fun all the same.

“Zorro Raids a Caravan” (published in West magazine in October 1946) is a fine example of that. Diego suspects that a caravan heading through town is kidnapping locals to be sold as slaves. He also learns that a master swordsman is guarding the caravan.

As the foppish Diego, he not only collects this information, but manages to trick the swordsman into leaving the caravan for a time that night.  That allows Zorro to met and challenge the man alone, leading to a pretty cool sword-fight-while-on-horseback scene.

It’s a fun story, though not great. The cool parts come early, when Diego subtly uses his wimpy persona to gain information and set up the situation the way he wants it. Then he has that nifty sword fight. But the climax, in which he must dodge some of the governor’s soldiers and free the prisoners in the caravan, happens too quickly and seems too easy. And though the head slaver does get a comeuppance, I think Zorro let him off a little too easy. Another few hundred words and a greater element of suspense would have helped the story enormously.

But, after all, it is Zorro. If anyone is going to make foiling a slaver seem easy, it’d be him. Despite the story’s flaws, we are more than happy to tag along with the masked man whenever he wants to raid a caravan.

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