Older than Superman, more dashing than the Lone Ranger, and at times more popular than either of them, the 19th century Californian crimefighter Zorro has carved his place as one of pop culture's most enduring characters like a "Z" on the cheek of a corrupt politician.
And while the majority of the masked hero's output appears on the silver screen, Zorro's roots lie, like so many masked heroes, in pulp novels, and his adventures see expansive additions made in comics and books. The latest sequential serial to feature the swashbuckling sensation comes monthly from Dynamite Entertainment with legendary "Grendel" creator Matt Wagner at the helm as both writer and art director. According to Wagner, the Dynamite take on Zorro draws influence from all of the hero's past incarnations from pulp scribe Johnston McCulley's 1919 story "The Curse of Capistrano" to acclaimed novelist Isabel Allende's 2005 reinvention of the character in the novel "Zorro."
"A lot of the specifics you see in my adaptation are taken from that book and the McCulley book and cherry-picking all the best movie parts I like,” Wagner told CBR. “I'm taking all those crazy puzzle pieces, putting a little spice on top and adding it together in the fashion I like.
With the first arc of Dynamite’s eight issues seeing a high quality hardcover treatment as "Zorro: Year One" later this year, with more stories to follow with 2009's "Zorro" #9 and beyond, Wagner and artist Francesco Francavilla have plenty more tales to tell.
"For instance, there hasn't really been a sword fight yet, and that was really deliberate on my part," Wagner said. "I thought, 'Look, I want you to get to know all these characters first before we get on to all the stuff we're familiar with.' We all know he wears a black cape and a black mask — the whole question is 'Why?' I really want you to know him as a character. I had to argue my way through that point [with the copyright holders]. And the way I won that battle was by saying, 'Look, we didn't see a lightsaber battle — like a really good one — until the end of the second Star Wars movie. By the time it happens, you're really ready for it.' I'm trying to be careful that we don't repeat ourselves. Taking my good time on the origin kind of ensures that we don't do that."
Within the first arc, which draws heavily upon Allende's reimagined background -- making Don Diego de la Vega the son of a Spanish noble and a Native American woman -- Wagner discovered a multitude of facets to the character that helped separate Zorro from traditional action hero fare. The writer believes those differences will help keep the Dynamite series fresh moving forward. "The difference is that Zorro isn't fighting villains. He's fighting oppression,” explained Wagner. “Zorro is almost a revolutionary hero. He's fighting for equality more than for vengeance or for justice, even though that's his rallying cry — 'Justice for all!' But he's more fighting a system or a person.
“That said, upcoming I do have plans to introduce his first 'supervillain,' and I think people will get a real kick out of where that supervillain comes about. And by that, I just mean an arch villain. He doesn't have super powers or anything. At the end of a Zorro movie, he has to win the day. He has to beat up all the bad guys, so we have to introduce them right away. That's not the case here. At the end of the first storyline he's just getting started. So his main villain in the first storyline is Sergeant Gonzalez. Well, he's just a sergeant. He's way down in the ranks. Zorro's eventually going to work his way up."
And underneath the general swashbuckling adventures of masked man versus corruption, other themes working with the cultural and ethnic conflicts of the day have worked their way into “Zorro.” "Classism is really what it is, but classism, as you well know, usually has to do with different economic strata between various races who have been oppressed by other races,” said Wagner. “And that's not endemic to America. That happens all over the place as we learn when Zorro goes to Spain and sees the gypsies."
If Wagner's slightly more sophisticated take on Zorro reminds readers of one of Dynamite's other pulp properties, that's because Wagner made the connection himself. "I really liked 'Lone Ranger' and the track John [Cassaday] took on it, so when I saw that Dynamite had 'Zorro,' I called them and said, 'Hey, let me do what John did for you. Let me do the covers and be the art director on the book,' and that's when they came back to me and said, 'What about writing it?' I hadn't really planned on it, but it was too good an offer to pass up."
Wagner said his art direction duties proved to be little more than he is used to juggling on his creator-owned work, making the transition an easy one. "With Francesco, it's pretty much been like I work with a 'Grendel' artist. He turns in layouts, and I'll say, 'Okay, on page five, panel seven, we need to concentrate on this instead of that.' And occasionally, I'll jot down a little sketch and send it back to him.
"At the very beginning, I did character designs, and just as [Dynamite’s] Lone Ranger with just a few slight tweaks is distinctly their Lone Ranger, we did the same with Zorro. One of the big factor's in the 'Lone Ranger' book is that the Lone Ranger comes off as a very young, vital character, and we wanted the same thing for Zorro, so we had this whole question of 'Should he have a mustache?' because a mustache really ages a character. And in the film versions, there's both varieties. Some had mustaches, and some didn't. So I elected to go with no mustache and even wove some stuff into the story as to why. But there again is one little factor that makes it distinctly the Dynamite version of the character."
As for how Dynamite's take on Zorro will continue to differentiate, Wagner promised that new twists on classic set ups are soon to hit the book's pages, including Don Diego's status as something of a lothario. "Zorro's quite a romantic character as well. Unlike the Lone Ranger, who's such a loner, Zorro always tends to have a woman under arm. And if you'll notice, there's not too much of that in the first story arc,” Wagner said. “There again, I just did not have enough room. There was too much story with him on his own. So the next storyline is where the romance enters into the overall narrative."
And that overall narrative should last a long while. Said Wagner, “I have ideas for probably the next four storylines, so I plan on sticking on this for a while."