Matt Wagner on Zorro + 6 Page Preview of #8

Matt Wagner on Zorro

In the span of the series’ first six issues, Matt Wagner has meticulously told the origin of Zorro, fleshing the character out in such a way that he stands shoulder to shoulder with any contemporary character in terms of depth and complexity. As Wagner has told Newsarama previously, his version of the freedom fighter of Old California is based on the original pulp era Zorro stories by the character’s creator, Johnston McCulley, as well as novelist Isabelle Allende’s contemporary take on the legendary character.

As Wagner told Newsarama previously, he saw his chance to tell the origin of Zorro as something similar to going back to the very start of the character and incorporating what makes the most sense for the character, much like Dynamite has done with The Lone Ranger.

Last year, Wagner told Newsarama: “Another part of what attracted me so much this gig was when Nick told me that, through the licensor, they also had access to using the material found in Isabel Allende’s 2005 novel, Zorro. I had read this delightful re-imagining of Zorro’s origins and absolutely loved. In fact, I’ve raved about it in more than one interview long before this. The book tells the story of Zorro’s origin in intricate detail, taking the time and humanity to explain absolutely everything about how he got to be who he is and how he came to take on his one-man crusade against oppression. Much like the film Batman Begins, by the time Diego finally appears onstage as Zorro, it all makes perfect sense; all the pieces are in place and it doesn’t seem like a sudden bolt of convenient inspiration for him to put on a costume and fight the bad guys. It’s a definite extension of who he already is. So, I plan on using a lot of the clever, clever plot points that Ms. Allende conceived of as well as trying to capture a lot of the pulpy spirit of the original novel.”

Get Guy Williams or George Hamilton out of your mind.

Joined by artist Francesco Francavilla (Wagner also serves as the series’ art director), Wagner’s take on Zorro has met with praise from critics and fans alike. The forthcoming issue #7 wraps up “The Trail of the Fox,” Wagner’s re-telling of Zorro’s origin, and we spoke with the writer about his first arc on the series, as well as what’s to come.

Newsarama: Matt, in telling the origin story of Zorro, you're telling the story all around him, showing how he is seen by others along with the insight from his longtime friend, Bernardo. Why go this route to explaining who he is, and how he came to be?

Matt Wagner: I went that rout in order to accentuate the mythic grandeur of his tale. Bernardo makes very clear that what we are witnessing is the birth of a legend. And I don’t think true legends ever really consider themselves as such. Would George Washington ever have presented his own story with the same sense of admiration and awe as his contemporary chroniclers? So, by having Diego’s dearest friend—and the only other person to know his secret identity—I can tell his story with the distance necessary for that heroic glory and yet also filter that viewpoint through the voice of a character that is personally intimate with our main character. It gives me the best of both worlds, in fact. I also really love the descriptive dichotomy of Bernardo’s narration; he’s a character who is (due to psychological scars) mute to the world around him and yet he’s the voice who reveals the true history of his dearest friend that would go on to become the legendary hero, El Zorro!

NRAMA: You've mentioned before that you're pulling from elements that Isabelle Allende introduced in her novel in your origin story of Zorro, but for those who haven't read the novel, what are some of the bigger pieces that you're using?

MW: Well, the fact that Diego’s mother was Native American, the secret society—“La Justicia”—that he joins during his time in Spain, the source of his name, his costume, his horse…all those are from the Allende book. The character and portrayal of the brutal Sgt. Pedro Gonzales is more influenced by the original Zorro story, “The Curse of Capistrano” written by the character’s creator, Johnson McCully. In most film versions (aside from the first, silent flick starring Douglas Fairbanks) Gonzales is renamed Sgt. Garcia and assumes the role of a comedic foil; he’s pudgy and not too smart. The actual pace and construction of this version of the story is mine. In the Allende book, Diego doesn’t even get into the costume until the final forty or fifty pages of the book. Obviously, that’s just not gonna work in a comic book adaptation. Granted, I’ve taken my good sweet time with this first origin arc but we DO get to see, and in some cases just hear about, Zorro in action. During these sequences, he’s very much viewed from the outside as seen by his enemies and the people he’s trying to intimidate. He’s comes off as somewhat scary and mysterious. That’s then contrasted with the back-story wherein we get to learn about his youth and his progression into the hero he will become; it’s a far more intimate narrative. In the McCully book, he unmasks at the end; the battle is done and he no longer needs the disguise. Again, obviously that's not what we're going for in this case. At the end of the first story arc, he’s just getting started in his ongoing crusade against the forces of oppression.

NRAMA: Tell us about the inclusion of La Justica. While it does add a certain richness and an epic feel to the story, you could also argue that it takes away from Zorro's "specialness"....that now he's just "one" of the "Zorros" - kind of like the League of Batmen in a way... What about making Zorro part of a fraternity appealed to you?

MW: Well, again, that’s an element from the Allende novel. I don’t really agree though that his inclusion in the ranks of La Justicia takes away from his uniqueness. The members are fairly individualistic and they’re not ALL code-named Zorro so I’d say the analogy is closer to something like the Justice League. And, certainly, no one seems to think that those members are all one and the same, cookie-cutter versions of the same character. The thing I liked about this narrative element is that it establishes that he already has some experience with and an acceptance of the fact that it’s okay to operate in a covert fashion in the name of justice. You know, that’s one of the problems with most super-hero legendry…the idea that suddenly seems to pop into the main character’s head; “There’s trouble in my town. What’s to be done? Hmmm…I know! I’ll wear a mask and adopt an alternate identity in order to better battle the forces of evil!” Certainly seems like a big leap of faith to the think that anyone would come up with such an idea. So, in this case, there’s already an established fraternity that exemplifies these ideals and that sort of behavior. And let’s not forget, Diego comes from a lineage that values honor and tradition. This, then, becomes his tradition. I’d agree that within the confines of where and when La Justicia operates, maybe he’d seem like merely a pea in the bigger pod. But Zorro is operating half a world away from his secret brethren. He’s definitely his one man—and one hell of a hero!

NRAMA: Fair enough. You're still listed as Art Director for the series. But given the character and setting, this material is right in Francesco's comfort zone. So what do you do as Art Director now that the series is up and running?

MW: Every visual aspect of the book gets run by me for approval. That includes everything from the interior artist’s initial breakdowns to the cover’s logo placement and color. And, yeah, you’re right…this stuff is right up Francesco’s alley. Still, inevitably, there’re moments where—as both the art director and writer—that I need to lend a guiding hand to how the production is going. Things like; we need to pull the camera back in panel #4 so that we see more of the setting, establish where the characters are. Or; the action looks a little stiff in panel #3, try making those character poses just a bit more kinetic.

Now, I don’t know if you’re aware of this or not but we’ve got a new artist on board for the second story arc—Cezar Razek. Nothing against Francesco, who’s done a fabulous job on the origin, but we wanted to shake things up just a bit. Anyone who’s familiar with Grendel ought to know I like to keep things lively (yet solid) in regards to a book’s visual and narrative style. That said, I’m also changing how I’ll be writing the next arc. It won't feature Bernardo’s narration this time around…again, just want to give each arc it’s own personality and flavor. And, certainly, Fran will be back for a future gig on the book. He’s too damn good to turn loose for very long and, let’s face, the guy just loooooves Zorro!

NRAMA: Back to the story, and probably a more global perspective, what are Zorro's goals here? I'm probably having one of those moments where I'm realizing the character I liked as a kid (bless you, Guy Williams) is something that, through adult eyes, I see as...well, it's hard to call him a pure hero, isn't it? Surely not all of Spanish California was corrupt and in need of a cleansing.... It's funny - I mean, in today's language, he'd be called either a terrorist or insurgent or a freedom fighter, depending on which side of the line you stood...

MW: Sure…as would Robin Hood, El Cid, William Tell and any number of classical heroes of this ilk. And, certainly, Zorro doesn’t think he’s going to drive the Spain from California altogether. He’s Spanish himself, after all! His complaint is with the current regime of Spanish authorities; a corrupt official—Governor Rafael Mancado—heads the entire workings of the government in California and, in typical “trickle down” manner, he’s replaced the hard working and honorable members of the ruling class with his own legions of toadies and brutes. Remember, Diego’s father was once a dearly beloved Alcalde (mayor) of the area and was ousted by this band of thugs. Ideally, Diego would like to see his father reinstated and the office of governor turned over to a more deserving individual.

NRAMA: Story-wise, how much can you advance Zorro? Classically, Zorro's fought wave after wave of (often bumbling) Spanish troops. He obviously can't force the Spanish out of California before they actually left according to history, but still...what else is there for him besides fighting off wave after wave of Spanish troops?

MW: Well, yeah…it’s Spanish troops. I’ve got no real interest in having Zorro face off with vampires, werewolves or space aliens. Previous comic book incarnations of the character have tried that and I found it all to be pretty dreadful. But, if done right…the troops he fights won’t be just a faceless “wave after wave”. It’s gotta be all about character. That’s why I’ve taken so long to get through the origin tale. I really wanted readers to know Diego as a character before we get to all the regular trappings of his persona as Zorro with which we’re all so familiar. We all know he wears as black costume and mask, rides a black horse, carves a “Z” when he strikes, etc, etc… Plus, it’s during the course of these issues that we see exactly how his life took on those elements that he later incorporates into the design of his alter ego. Have you noticed that, aside from his lessons under the tutelage of his fencing master, we haven’t really seen a proper sword battle yet? I mean—C’MON!—this is Zorro! Where the hell are the sword fights? Again, that’s because I’m focusing on his character so much that, hopefully, by the time we get to an actual sword fight (the final issue of the origin arc, #8) the reader will be really ready for it. They’ve seen him evolve into this brash crusader for justice and they feel like they know him quite intimately. They’ll be invested in the outcome as opposed to viewing it as just another moment in a Zorro tale. I’ve gotta say, that decision wasn’t an easy sell of the licensor either (the copyright holders). They too felt like we ought to have sword fights in each and every issue! I finally won that battle by pointing out that the audience didn’t really see a real light-saber battle until the very end of the second Star Wars film. That weapon plays such a significant role in that mythos and yet we didn’t really see in proper action (I’m not counting that stiff and awkward fight between Darth and Obi-Wan) until the end of Empire. As a result, we were really invested in Luke and his story—we cared about the outcome.

Okay, so my whole point here is that I intend to take that same sort of approach towards the villains as well. If you’ll notice, Zorro’s main opponent during this first arc is Sgt. Gonzales. Well, think of that…he’s a sergeant. He’s pretty low down in the chain of command. Our boy’s got a long way to go until he makes it to the upper brass, the real source of his grievance. In any given Zorro movie, the hero has to get to the heart of the matter and defeat all the bad guys in the space of two hours. That’s certainly not the case with the series which we hope has a successful run for some time to come. So, this is only the beginning for Zorro. By the end of the origin story, we haven’t even met the main villains yet. There are bigger challenges in store for Diego than we’ve see so far.

NRAMA: Let's talk about Diego's homecoming in issue #7 - I can understand pretending to be a dandy to the outside world, but why to his father? His dad wrote to him of how much he missed him and needed him back, and he can clearly see that this charade is hurting him...why do it?

MW: When he and Bernardo finally arrive home after their lengthy travails, Diego is surprised to find that things are much worse off that he had initially imagined. His father is basically under house arrest and Diego is turned away when he tries to get past the posted guards. Up until that point, his intention wasn’t really to rush home and take up this masked crusade using his La Justicia identity. He fully intended on standing by his father’s side in opposition to the reigning regime. It’s only after the discovery of how bad things really had become that he decides that a more drastic response is needed. After his grandmother’s legacy leads him to discover the gold deposits in the cave beneath the hacienda, he realizes that he’s got everything he really needs to act independently of any other consideration. Actually, this was part of my own addition to the legend. It always kind of bugged me that, in most of the movies, he comes home to California, sees the situation and then—BING!—he’s immediately got the idea to become Zorro and, most importantly, he’s all set up in a flash. Where’d he get all that stuff? Their family’s supposed to be wealthy but it’s not like he could just go to his dad and say, “Yo pops, I’ve got this big secret crusade I’m gonna mount against these bad dudes but I’m gonna need some serious scratch. Can you float me, like, a thousand pesos or so?” So, I struck upon the fact that we needed to explain where and how he got the financial capital to finance such a mission. It only made sense that he might locate a hidden vein of gold in the California of the early 1800’s. So, it’s not until that moment that he decides that “Zorro” is the answer to his dilemma.

Additionally, he doesn’t want to see his father get hurt. Alejandro’s no longer a spring chicken and Diego knows that, while his father might still have the heart of a warrior, this escapade is sure to be a young man’s game. And, after all, isn’t that a pretty common trait to most masked heroic narratives; whether to share the truth of the masquerade with the hero’s loved ones? By acting as a dandy, Diego fools the military into thinking that he couldn’t possibly be any sort of threat, leaving him with the freedom to come and go as he pleases. But for his father’s own sake, he feels it’s necessary to extend the illusion to include his own family as well. This is a factor that I intend to keep playing with, though; should Diego reveal himself to his father? Or should he continue to act alone, assuming that Alejandro’s ignorance of his dual identity will help insure his safety?

NRAMA: This week's issue is the wrap up of "The Trail of the Fox." What can we expect to see?

MW: Romance finally enters the picture! A big part of Zorro’s image has always included being something of a dashing romantic. He’s usually got an eye for the ladies and a heart that’s big as a house. We saw a bit of that in the origin arc with his bout of puppy love after rescuing the gypsy girl from the soldiers. In fact, the Allende novel has a lot more of this factor than I was able to include in the origin arc. In that book, there’s a large amount of text devoted to Diego’s fumbling infatuation with the eldest daughter of his Spanish host, Don Tomas de Remeu. I just did not have the space to include all that in our version so I’m really happy to be able to bring out this aspect of his character in the second storyline. The second arc will also feature the man who has replaced Alejandro has Alcalde—Luis Quintero. We’ll also meet the Alcalde’s hatchet man, Esteban Pasquale who’s an exiled Spanish noble and quite a skilled swordsman. He’s a far more formidable opponent in that respect that the more brutish Sgt. Gonzales.

NRAMA: When we spoke with you about Zorro initially, you indicated that you were only going to be on the series for...its start, and then most likely pull back. But the solicitation for issue #10 says you're still on board..what gives? Is there a point by which you see yourself calling it a day on Zorro?

MW: What can I say? I loves me some Zorro. That’s how I first got involved in this book and that’s why I’m sticking around for now. I’d have to say that I’ve probably got ideas for the next three or four storylines at this point. After that…who knows?

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