INTERVIEW: Gail Simone Guides 'Blockbuster Update' of Red Sonja, Vampirella and Dejah Thoris
I can’t take it any more. Everywhere in the comics press there is endless speculation and crabbing and geeking out over what DC is doing. It’s starting to feel like we’re all unpaid interns working in DC’s publicity department.
So, enough. Here is something completely different.
(Fair warning… it’s also enormously nerdy.)
However, people seemed to enjoy it when I let my inner fanfic nerd out last time, so here we are again. This is one that started bouncing around in my head while Julie and I were home sick a couple of weeks ago. Since neither one of us felt much like moving, we huddled under a quilt on the couch and had soup and watched a lot of television.
As luck would have it, at the time we were working our way through a DVD set of a one-season wonder called Queen of Swords, a fun little syndicated show (from Fireworks, the Andromeda and Mutant X people) that never really caught on.
Essentially, it’s about a female Zorro in old California. Later, over the weekend, our godson Phenix was visiting and we screened some of the old Duncan Regehr Zorro shows for him, and we watched The Mask of Zorro as well.
So, I kind of had Zorro on the brain, so to speak, and especially when you watch The Mask of Zorro, you get the idea that it’s a generational thing. Many have been inspired to follow the lead of the Fox.
In particular, though, my mind kept drifting to Tessa Alvarado, the Queen of Swords. Could she have been inspired by Zorro? She must have been.
Here’s the official line: A young Spanish aristocrat, Tessa Alvarado, returns to Spanish California after the death of her father and finds her home in ruins, her father’s manservant reduced to stealing. The town where she was born is run by a militaristic governor who abuses his power, resulting in the miscarriage of justice and the poor living conditions of his subjects. Upset about the state of her birthplace and the murder of her father, Tessa’s path is revealed to her in a mysterious dream where her father comes to her and talks of his murder, his hidden gold, and of his “Avenging Angel.” She will take up arms to protect the people from the town’s governor and to avenge her father’s death. Tessa will do this in disguise behind a mask, becoming that “Avenging Angel,” The Queen of Swords. The name is suggested by Tessa’s maid and sole confidante, the gypsy Marta.
Obviously you will find no mention of Zorro in the show itself, but it’s obvious to everyone else. (In France the show was released as “Under the Sign of the Sword,” very similar to the way Alain Delon’s Zorro was called “Cape and Sword.”)
I knew that there was a fair amount of Zorro scholarship already out there. In particular, I knew that the crew at the wonderful Wold Newton web site had done a lot of work on figuring out a Zorro chronology and reconciling all the various Zorros we’ve seen in popular fiction.
Now, most of the versions in film and television, and in prose and comics as well, all start from Johnston McCulley’s original character, Don Diego de la Vega.
Diego’s the guy you see in most of the movies, the TV series, the cartoons, and the comics.
However, the idea that had begun tugging at my subconscious was that Tessa Alvarado, the Queen of Swords, had some kind of family connection to Diego de la Vega. So I hustled myself over to the Wold Newton Zorro Chronology and other documentation to see what they had to say. Sure enough, the Queen was there.
Here’s the relevant part… While Alejandro is off adventuring as Zorro or possibly working with John C. Frement in establishing the American-sponsored Bear Flag revolt, Eléna dons the mask and becomes a Zorro type character called Queen of Swords. She fights against a renegade Don Montoya, a cohort of Montero who attempts to keep California from American hands by terrorizing the populace.
Okay, so that by itself was a really amazing idea. “Tessa Alvarado” is in actuality… Diego’s daughter from The Mask of Zorro, Eléna de la Vega.
But here’s the part that really got me going: Aiding Eléna in this fight is the Immortal Methos, who calls himself Dr. Helm… The accounts of Eléna’s adventures in this period were portrayed in a highly fictionalized manner in the television show, Queen of Swords.
Yeah. Methos. The guy from Highlander.
That notion started my brain buzzing in a big way. The trouble is that Wold Newton’s Zorro experts (“Zorrologists”?) Matthew Baugh and Dennis Power, just kinda threw it out there and then dropped it. They’re much more interested in figuring out how to reconcile the chronology of the Diego Zorro with the various others that we’ve seen, ranging from Linda Stirling in Zorro’s Black Whip to Antonio Banderas in The Legend of Zorro.
But I didn’t care about that stuff. My mind kept drifting back to Eléna and why she would take on not just one but two new identities. Why would she pretend to be Tessa Alvarado? How did she come to know the gypsy Marta? Why in the hell wasn’t she back home tn the rebuilt de la Vega hacienda with her newborn son (as we saw in the conclusion of Mask of Zorro) instead of gallivanting around California in a mask picking fights with the local government?
Well, I figured it out. Because when you’re sitting on a couch under a quilt for three days straight, your mind wanders. I had to discard some of Mr. Baugh’s and Mr. Power’s assumptions, though.
First of all, let’s just throw out the sequel to The Mask of Zorro. The follow-up movie, Legend of Zorro, can’t possibly count as part of this particular chronology.
The plot is too specifically tied to a particular point in history (California becoming a state) and you just can’t make those dates work; there are anachronisms all over the place. More, too many people saw Alejandro Murrieta unmasked as the new Zorro at the conclusion of Mask, and not only that, they saw him with Eléna and her father Diego. Literally hundreds of freed prisoners from Montero’s illegal gold mine were witnesses to that climactic battle, and they ALL saw Alejandro without his mask and clearly being adopted, more or less, into the Vega family. The idea that he could then continue to operate as the new Zorro, especially after he married Eléna and they set up housekeeping in the de la Vega homestead, is ludicrous on its face. So Legend is out.
No, I think it must have gone something like this…
Zorro, both Diego and his successor Alejandro, had many enemies. Particularly the other dons who were scheming with Rafael Montero in The Mask of Zorro to rob Santa Anna of his gold. So it’s not implausible that Alejandro and Eléna were attacked in their home by one of those enemies; much as Montero had attacked Diego and Esperanza de la Vega in their home two decades previously.
This time, however, it was Alejandro that was killed. Eléna and the baby got away and fled to the south.
More or less at the same time, Tessa Alvarado’s father was murdered by Captain Marcus Grisham on the orders of Colonel Luis Montoya, the governor of Santa Helena. This is because Montoya both fears the threat Don Alvarado represents to his power in Santa Helena, and wants Alvarado’s gold. Not shown in that first episode, though, was Grisham’s men also attempting to murder the real Tessa Alvarado and her maid Marta as they are returning to the Alvarado estate. They get away but Tessa is grievously wounded.
Marta drives the wagon north, desperate to get away and to get Tessa to medical help. And on the road she meets Eléna de la Vega and her infant son.
It’s too late for Tessa; she is dying. She and Eléna strike a deal. Tessa promises that little Joaquin can stay with Tessa’s family in Madrid and be raised there as her son. And Eléna promises to return to Santa Helena and avenge the murder of Tessa’s father.
She knows exactly how to do it, too; after all, both her father and her husband set the example. And Eléna’s got a lot of anger to work off; one way or another, these corrupt aristocrat bastards have cost her not only her father, but also her husband and now her son. Someone’s going to pay for that.
After they get Joaquin safely away to Madrid, they return to Santa Helena. Eléna assumes the identity of Tessa Alvarado — the resemblance is good enough to fool people who haven’t seen the real Tessa since she was a child, and Marta vouches for her as well. Soon thereafter, the Queen of Swords makes her debut.
It gives Eléna a certain grim satisfaction to take out all her hostility and anger at the injustices done both to her and the Alvarados; the Queen of Swords is quite a bit nastier than El Zorro. Though she tries not to take lives, she doesn’t worry about it nearly as much as Diego de la Vega did.
From this point events proceed much as they are depicted in the Queen of Swords television show.
Soon after the Queen begins her campaign of guerrilla warfare against Montoya and his crooked regime, Dr. Robert Helm (in reality, Methos the immortal) arrives in Santa Helena.
“Dr. Helm” is an avowed pacifist. He says he has seen more than enough of greed and killing during his time in Europe (which is certainly true, considering how much blood Methos has on his immortal hands.) He has traveled here to the New World in hopes of making a fresh start, away from his past… in particular, all the horrors he committed during his time as one of the Four Horsemen, when he rode as Death.
Sadly, Methos soon discovers that greed and killing know no national boundaries. He is repelled by the atrocities committed in the name of peace by Colonel Montoya and his soldiers. And against all his principles, he finds himself drawn to the Queen of Swords…. her bravery, her recklessness, her sense of justice.
Likewise, Eléna is drawn to Helm. She is fascinated by the dichotomy “Dr. Helm” represents — a man who is clearly fearless and yet refuses to take up arms. An uneasy romance blossoms. Eléna is reluctant to reveal her secrets, though, so Helm only knows the Queen has feelings for him. As Tessa, Eléna pretends to the indifference and shallowness expected of the daughter of a wealthy don. Likewise, Methos the immortal has been operating in secret so long that evasion and lies have become a way of life.
Most of this we saw play out on Queen of Swords. The show ended before anything further could be shown. But here’s what I think happened.
I think that when California achieved statehood, law came to Santa Helena, and with it, the need for Eléna’s masquerade was gone. Chances are that she and Methos gave in to their mutual attraction. (After all, they were both people damaged by tragedy who’d taken on new identities in an effort at redemption.) They might have tried to make it long-term, maybe even married.
But sooner or later the other immortals would have caught up to “Dr. Helm,” even in a tiny desert backwater like Santa Helena. He would have had to move on.
But not before giving Eléna a son.
Here’s why I think so. I think that son inherited at least half an immortality from Methos. I think he grew up to be….
…superagent Matt Helm.
The real one, that is, the one Donald Hamilton wrote about.
See, here’s the thing. Matt Helm’s adventures have never been incorporated into the Wold Newton mythology, despite a general consensus that he really ought to be in there somewhere. But no one’s ever been able to make the chronology of the books work.
The first Helm novel, Death of a Citizen, was published in 1960. And it clearly took place in 1960. In that first book Helm is a middle-aged veteran of World War II, married, with children. He is recruited back into the service by a former flame of his, a fellow assassin named Tina. There are various cultural references that place the book in 1960 (“Purple People Eater” being a current jukebox selection is just one of them) and there’s no reason to doubt any of them.
But the Helm books continued to come– and they continued to be contemporary. Helm talks about the Vietnam War, the Kent State shootings, the Jonestown massacre… and not only that, but in Helm’s own personal timeline as depicted in the novels, at least twenty years pass. His children age to adulthood and marry.
And yet Helm himself remains the same from that first book, Death of a Citizen in 1960, on up through to the final Helm novel, The Damagers in 1993. He performs extraordinary feats of athleticism and displays almost supernatural endurance; he remains something of a stud with the ladies; and he is deadly in hand-to-hand combat. Moreover, he is almost impossible to kill. (In The Terrorizers an entire houseboat full of terrorists empty their guns into him — Helm still manages to kill most of them and get off the boat to safety before collapsing of his wounds.)
Helm often refers sardonically to his Viking warrior ancestors, and what’s more, he’s not only a crack shot but he’s pretty good with a saber as well. He has a great love for the American southwest, particularly New Mexico. He knows his way really well around desert country and Baja California in particular.
And, oh yeah… his last name’s Helm.
Usually, when a Wold Newton scholar can’t get the chronological markers inside stories to make sense, the default position is that the adventure must be ‘fictional.’ But I think in this case, the chronology that can’t be made to work is the clue. Matt Helm is the son of an Immortal.
…. or, this whole theory could just be the cold medicine talking. You decide. But I kind of like it.
Of course, that’s because I’m a huge nerd. Your mileage may vary.
See you next week.
EMBARRASSED ADDENDUM: It turns out that my clever theory has a HUGE hole in it. I am informed by various Highlander fans, including the one I am married to, that Immortals can’t father children.
Rather than just admit my mistake like a man, I decided I will instead bribe you, the readers, to solve this problem. So we’re having a contest!
The best explanation of this seeming discrepancy offered in the comments, meaning ‘best’ as ruled on by me, gets a prize.
In the spirit of the old paperback suspense guys that gave us series like Matt Helm….
…THIRD PLACE will be Barrier Island, and SECOND PLACE will be The Lonely Silver Rain, a couple of John D. MacDonald hardcovers.
AND…. in the spirit of cheesy adventure shows that only last one season…
FIRST PLACE will be a complete DVD set of The Master starring the mighty Lee van Cleef.
it has to be a real explanation, though, not just “A wizard did it” or something like that. Put some effort into it.
Winners announced in next week’s column. (Assuming anyone tries. But why wouldn’t you? The Master is fun and if that’s not your thing, well, the John D. hardcovers are not to be missed.)
See you then!
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