He seems like a devil-may-care playboy, pursuing women and good times in equal measure. Yet that's only a ruse: In reality, he's a masked hero who emerges from a secret hide-out to fight injustice wherever he finds it.
Bruce Wayne and his alter ego, Batman? No. It's the original Caped Crusader -- Zorro. And 86 years after he first appeared in a pulp magazine story, the early 19th century California hero is poised to become the next pop culture craze. Consider:
* "Zorro," a novel by Isabel Allende about his origins, has received enormous critical praise and become an instant bestseller. "Allende's latest page-turner explodes with vivid characterization and high-speed storytelling," Publishers Weekly said in a starred review.
* "The Legend of Zorro," the sequel to 1998's "The Mask of Zorro," opens Oct. 28. The film reunites Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, stars of the original, which grossed $250 million worldwide.
* The first of a three-part Zorro comic series, "Scars!," hit the streets last month.
* "The Mark of Zorro," the original novel by former newspaperman Johnston McCulley, will be rereleased in August. "Young Zorro," a children's novel, is due out early next year. "The Zorro Television Companion," a guide to the various small-screen adaptations of the character, will also be published at the end of this summer.
* "Zorro," the musical, featuring original tunes by the Gipsy Kings, is set to premiere in London's West End in 2006. Plus, the Chicano performance troupe Culture Clash will put its own spin on the legend with "Zorro," a play that will premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in March.
And let's not forget Zorro the action figure, Zorro the mobile phone game, Zorro the wallpaper and ring tones. The legend of Don Diego de la Vega (Zorro's "real" name) is alive and well in the merchandising age.
So why Zorro? And why now? It's not just about advance hype for the movie, says Don McGregor, writer of the "Scars!" comics. The popularity of Zorro (Spanish for "fox"), he says, is based on "the old axiom that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Zorro sees the abuse of power in high places and he is going to do something about it. That stirs something in people. He's also a very sexy character; he loves women, women know it, and they love him. And he doesn't take himself too seriously."
"Zorro can be any person," adds Sandra Curtis of Berkeley-based Zorro Productions, which owns the rights to the character. "He doesn't have special powers. He's athletic, bright and witty, but he doesn't have superpowers. There's an Everyman quality to him."
That Everyman made his debut in 1919 in "The Curse of Capistrano," a short story by McCulley that appeared in the pulp publication All-Story Weekly. The tale quickly attracted the attention of silent film star Douglas Fairbanks, whose 1920 feature "The Mark of Zorro" is not only regarded as one of the great movies of the pre-sound era but also established the Fox as a multimedia sensation: Nearly 60 movies have been made with Zorro's name in the title (including the 1940 Tyrone Power classic "The Mark of Zorro"), and seven TV series have featured the character, the most famous being the 1957-59 Disney show starring Guy Williams.
Yet the swashbuckling hero and his daredevil exploits have also proved problematic to some members of the Latino community. Critics argue that Zorro plugs into classic stereotypes of the Latin lover fighting an endless series of inept Mexican villains and that these media representations of early California tend to ignore its multiethnicity and cultural complexity.
"The image of the swarthy and mysterious Spanish hero creates a romanticized image of Latino prowess," says UCLA English professor Rafael Perez-Torres. "The Zorro character is Criollo, a white Spaniard born in the New World of purely Spanish blood. In the famous TV series, the Zorro character always represented the honorable good against the evil-though-bumbling Mexican soldiers who controlled the pueblo in which he lived."
Zorro, adds Culture Clash member Herbert Siguenza, "is a Hispanic myth. He's less threatening that way. California had real bandidos defending the rights of native Californians, people like Joaquin Murieta. These guys were the real Zorros to us Latinos. Zorro is this romantic version of what a Hispanic is. That means you have mostly Spanish blood; it's a very Eurocentric version of a hero."
Yet both Siguenza and Perez-Torres admit that Zorro's appeal occasionally transcends stereotyping. The spirit of the character, says Siguenza, "someone fighting for the rights of the oppressed, is the same philosophy as Zapata and Che Guevara. The spirit is something we endorse."
Adds Perez-Torres: "The stereotyping is inseparable from the appeal of the character. This is true both in terms of Zorro's positive image as an honorable and aristocratic character fighting anonymously against injustice, and his battle against merciless and ruthless villains. The Zorro story plays up both the positive and negative sides of Latino stereotyping."
And when it comes to stereotyping, there is little doubt that the romanticized image of the Latin lover is probably the key element in Zorro's popularity. The mystery, the flashing eyes, the insouciance, they all add up to a very seductive whole. And it hasn't hurt that, over the years, the Fox has been played by such Hollywood hotties as Power, Williams and Banderas, along with Alain Delon, George Hamilton and Frank Langella.
"He is just a very sexy Latin lover," says John Gertz, president of Zorro Productions. "Women just respond to the character."
If nothing else, that seems to be what Allende was drawn to when she was approached by Zorro Productions in 2003 to write a novel based on the character. Initially put off by the proposal -- "I'm a serious writer," she told them -- Allende sparked to the idea after looking through a box of old Zorro movies, comics and TV shows.
"I fell in love again with Zorro," she has been quoted as saying. "Because I had been in love with him as a child. I would like to be like him. He's romantic, he's athletic, he fights for justice."
And as a Latina writer, Allende made sure to set her work in a more historically realistic cultural context.
This time out, Zorro's parentage is a mix of Spanish and Indian, and his best friend, Bernardo, is Indian.
"We wanted to draw from the authenticity of the era," says Zorro Productions' Curtis of the decision to make the novel more culturally nuanced. "This included the aristocracy, the Mexican community, the Native American community. Johnston McCulley was an Irish American who wasn't a historian. His works weren't historically accurate. We wanted to create an origins legend that would include the hero's journey and the depth of this rich environment."
Ultimately, though, this is all window dressing. Zorro has survived criticism, camp portrayals and cultural naysayers for the most basic of all reasons: He appeals to something in us that is purely elemental.
"There is this eternal appetite for the hero, now more than ever," says Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone, who is working with Culture Clash on the new play. "In this time of deep cynicism, of collective and individual alienation, the appeal of the Zorro message is huge. Yeah, it's still possible to activate that part of yourself, to have heroes. Yeah, it's still possible to have romance."