Superheroes Began with a Woman: Remembering Baroness Emma Orczy
Guest post by Alan Sizzler Kistler
Superheroes began in the imagination of a woman.
I’m not speaking metaphorically, nor do I mean “behind every great man from Krypton, there is a fearless woman ready to kick a little butt in the name of truth and justice” (though this is true and Lois Lane is simply marvelous). I’m talking about Baroness Emma “Emmuska” Magdalena Rosalia Maria Josepha Barbara Orczy. Her hero, the Scarlet Pimpernel, started the ball rolling.
There were stories of powerful fighters of evil before, such as Hercules, Gilgamesh, or Robin Hood, but these were cultural myths that shifted with the teller. They weren’t created for popular entertainment under the direction of one person or a small group of people, and the characters didn’t use what we consider to be a “secret identity” or costumes that symbolized an alter ego. Rather than fighting injustice in general, they usually had one major enemy or were reactionary protagonists, fighting evil if they stumbled upon it or if it directly entered their lives. Robin Hood didn’t patrol Nottingham the way Batman patrols Gotham or Superman watches over Earth.
The first step towards a traditional “superhero” in literature started in the mind of Baroness Orczy. In 1899, the 34-year-old Emma Orczy gave birth to her son John and published her first book. It didn’t meet with success, but that didn’t slow her down. She published several short stories and then a second novel in 1901, which earned her a bit of fame. She enjoyed writing heroic detective stories, and created Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, one of the first female detectives in literature. In 1901, she wrote (but did not publish) a story called “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” which came to her so quickly that she is said to have finished it in five weeks. The story starred Sir Percy Blakeney, a British baronet married to Marguerite—“the cleverest woman in Europe.” Sir Percy is a man skilled in swordsmanship, disguise, and strategy. During the early days of the French Revolution, he secretly rescues people he considers unjustly sentenced to death by Madame Guillotine. To cover his tracks, he uses an alias taken from an old family seal, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and recruits nineteen friends as agents in his “League of the Scarlet Pimpernel.” In public, Sir Percy acts like a shallow fop, one who grows faint at the mention of violence and believes that all problems can be solved by luxury, relaxation, and beautiful clothing.
This hero was clearly drawn from Baroness Orczy’s childhood as well as her political views. During her older sister’s fifth birthday, a peasant uprising set her family estate ablaze, prompting her family to leave Hungary and travel through Europe before settling in London, where she eventually met her husband Montagu Barstow. The Scarlet Pimpernel was the kind of hero she wished could have protected her family when she was a young girl.
Though she didn’t initially publish the story, Emma Orczy and her husband wrote a stage production version that opened in October 1903 at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal. It wasn’t well received but the Baroness again chose to not give up. After a little rewriting, the new version of the play opened in London in 1905 and became a popular hit, even while critics wrote negatively about it. The same year, Baroness Orczy published her novel The Scarlet Pimpernel, which was highly acclaimed by casual reader and critic alike. She went on to write ten sequel novels, plus two collections of short stories featuring the hero. She also wrote two prequel novels starring an ancestor of Sir Percy Blakeney, and another novel that focused on a descendant. The Scarlet Pimpernel grew beyond Baroness Orczy and spread across pop culture. There have been film adaptations, TV adaptations, and a Broadway musical. In 1940, Daffy Duck assumed the identity of the Scarlet Pumpernickel. Bart Simpson once watched a film where Zorro declared war on the Scarlet Pimpernel. In the first comic book series starring the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a painting revealed that an earlier incarnation of the titular team included Sir Percy and Marguerite, as well as the Reverend Dr. Syn (more on him in a little bit).
Was Sir Percy the first superhero? He didn’t have any powers, but neither do characters such as Batman or Iron Man (usually), or Green Lantern without his ring. In general, I see the term “superhero” as traditionally referring to a character who wears a distinctive costume or uniform, lives in an exaggerated reality that involves science fiction and/or fantasy elements, often has a secret identity, and fights evil due to a moral calling rather than because it is literally a job they signed up for (so the police and agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are heroes, while the Justice League and Avengers are superheroes). There are exceptions, but this is the general and traditional idea. The Scarlet Pimpernel wore many disguises, but he didn’t have a costume or a distinctive mask, just his literal calling card decorated by a red flower. He’s close to a superhero, but not quite there.
To my mind, the first traditional superhero came in 1915 with Russell Thorndike’s book Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh. The book featured Dr. Christopher Syn, a pirate-turned-reverend living in Dymchurch (a town in Kent, England) who decided not to simply stand by as his parishioners were victimized by the government and criminal elements. At night, Dr. Syn rode a dark stallion, which he kept in a hidden lair, and donned the costume of a demonic scarecrow. None suspected that the kindly, somber reverend was secretly the terrifying Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, feared even by those he helped.
Syn is a very different character on the surface, but Thorndyke followed many beats from the Scarlet Pimpernel. Similar to Orczy’s hero, Dr. Syn acted less aggressive in his public life, using tricks to appear older and weaker than he was. While Blakeney had the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, Syn had a few trusted agents, including a witch and a death mask-wearing gravedigger called Hellspite. Dr. Syn was also a man initially born into a wealthy upper class family who, unbeknownst to his family and friends, received training in fighting and other special fields, just like Sir Percy.
The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh was popular enough that he starred in six later novels by Thorndyke, three films, a television mini-series from Disney, audio adaptations, a stage play, and comic books. The town of Dymchurch even has a biannual “Days of Syn” celebration in honor of the character.
In 1919, four years after Syn’s debut, Johnston McCulley created a more famous character who also inspired by Baroness Orczy’s hero. McCulley’s story “The Curse of Capistrano” was serialized in the pulp fiction magazine All-Story Weekly. Later, it was published as a novel under a new title: The Mark of Zorro.
Don Diego de la Vega aka Zorro was, like Sir Blakeney, a man of wealth and education who was secretly adept at sword fighting, strategy, and disguise. In his daily life, he pretended to be a shallow weakling with no direction in life, focused mainly on the latest fashion and popular trends. While the Scarlet Pimpernel left a calling card, Zorro left his monogram carved on walls. Following Syn’s example, Zorro used a hidden lair and a dark horse and donned a distinctive costume.
After Zorro, pulp fiction magazines and comic strips brought forth other characters cut from the same cloth. The mysterious Shadow, the Spider, and the Phantom all followed the basic model of the Scarlet Pimpernel, being independently wealthy renaissance men who pretended to be less in their public life while fighting evil via an alter ego. The Spider, Phantom, and Green Hornet also had unique seals like the Scarlet Pimpernel. While many of his contemporaries wore distinctive clothing, the Phantom took it a step further by donning a skin-tight costume and a mask that didn’t reveal his eyes.
Two years after the Phantom was introduced, Superman debuted in Action Comics #1, published in 1938. The Man of Steel was not independently wealthy as the Scarlet Pimpernel had been, nor did he rely on a team of agents, but there was still the element of a man who pretended to be meek in public so none would suspect he was a hero who protected others from harm and evil. Similar to the Pimpernel, you immediately felt Superman’s presence when you saw his distinctive seal. In the Superman radio show a couple of years later, it was implied that Superman’s S-shield was actually a Kryptonian symbol. This idea entered into popular culture with Superman: The Movie in 1978, where it was shown that the shield was Superman’s family symbol —just like the scarlet pimpernel flower was Sir Percy Blakeney’s family seal.
The Scarlet Pimpernel was not a traditional superhero. He was actually the proto-superhero, that first model that eventually led to Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Justice League, and so many others. Some of these characters may still have been created, but they wouldn’t have been the same. Our popular culture, and some of our lives, would be very different. We needed The Scarlet Pimpernel before we could figure out how to take things further and further.
So if someone suggests that superheroes can only be appreciated by the male gender, remember that it all started with a woman who certainly wasn’t perfect but who should be recognized for never letting failures and setbacks stop her. A woman who kept writing until she created something that struck a chord. Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s story was the seminal work of a whole new genre, and look where we are now, over a century later.
She changed the world.
Alan Sizzler Kistler is an actor and author who bounces between New York City and Los Angeles. He is the host of Stay Geeky on YouTube and co-host of the podcast Crazy Sexy Geeks on iTunes. A contributor to various websites, Alan is the author of The Unofficial Game of Thrones Cookbook and the upcoming Doctor Who: A History, and is a contributor to the book Star Trek and History. He prefers his vampires to be scary and is still waiting for a Wonder Woman movie. Find him on Twitter: @SizzlerKistler