Holy Irrelevant, it's Joe Clark

Batman!!! Da na na na na na na na Na na na na na na na na ... Sorry. I got a bit carried away. But you have to admit the Scarlet Pimpernel theme is catchy. Eh? I was just talking about Bruce Wayne, millionaire playboy, and his secret alter ego Batman. So you were expecting Adam West in the Batmobile, not Leslie Howard in a stagecoach. Or maybe Joe Clark, by day a vain and pompous politician whose every venture fails ignominiously but who at night morphs into Charlottetown Man who ... um yes well... But no. I don't want to talk about the latest pronouncement by the Great and Powerful Joe, or how they rearranged Paul Martin's furniture so he could discuss with his cabinet whether they might or might not call an election they might or might not win on a platform they would probably discard if elected. I cannot dwell indefinitely on such Olympian heights. I must from time to time pay attention to things people actually care about and should.

For instance, in this Sunday's Citizen's Weekly Linda Jeays described how, seeking a fine trashy romance, she was "misled by the jacket illustration'' and the author's name "Baroness Orczy'' into purchasing The Scarlet Pimpernel and found herself gripped by a "swashbuckling adventure'' about a foppish blue-blood with a secret identity as a daring rescuer of aristocrats from the megalomaniac villains of the French revolution. In the end she wasn't even bitter that she'd read a book dating way back to 1902 or that the author, who really was a Baroness, had "pulled a fur-lined hood over my eyes and unloaded literature in the form of a fast-moving cat-and-mouse game peppered with hair-breadth escapes, the devil's own risks and the triumph of true love.''

I was also reminded of The Scarlet Pimpernel in March when I read Johnston McCulley's original 1919 Zorro, whose masked crusader for justice, by day, plays a young aristocrat so feckless that, threatened with disinheritance if he does not marry, he tries to send someone to serenade the young lady for him. It's odd, since I have never read The Scarlet Pimpernel, though I have seen the 1934 film with Leslie Howard. But it is difficult for me to believe that Johnston McCulley hadn't read The Scarlet Pimpernel, or that the creator of Batman, Bob Kane, was unaware of this pioneering superhero-with-a-secret-identity. As difficult, in fact, as to imagine that the audience or most of the creators of recent Batman movies were familiar with him.

What a pity. First, readers are deprived of a real treat when they are not made aware of books they would enjoy. Second, they are deprived of the rich experience a modern example can give to those who understand the genre, recognize small acts of homage to past masters, see deft improvements on earlier renditions, and notice and deplore inferior and derivative aspects. Even La Presse, this week, knows what a Fu Manchu moustache looks like. But do they, or the audience of Kill Bill, really know Fu Manchu?

Sure, he's an over-the-top, fantastic villain. But isn't Bill? And a modern reviewer, let's call him Brian, may be "alternately repulsed and bored by'' The Passion of The Christ, yet find Kill Bill: Vol. 1 "a cherry blossom bloodbath with dazzling samurai choreography and pink spritzer fountains of gore ... thrilling, funny and often exquisitely beautiful, with a fragile tenderness lurking beneath the cruelty.'' Give me Neyland Smith relentlessly battling the weirdly philosophical psychopath Fu Manchu. Or even Bulldog Drummond.

It always makes me sad to wander between bottles of salad dressing and aromatic candles in a modern bookstore and see how little indication modern readers get that anything worthwhile was produced more than 20 years ago. I don't blame the merchants; Chapters has done us all a great service by keeping bookstores economically viable. Besides, prompted by Linda Jeays, I recently secured the last copy of The Scarlet Pimpernel in a local branch that also had, lurking among the acres of Stephen King, the Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood.

No, it's the readers and, more fundamentally, those who shaped their taste or lack thereof who are at fault. Chapters has some superb bestsellers among the dreck, and a shelf of affordable classics that taunt me with how little I have read. But the proportions reflect what readers want. And I don't mean that in a good way.

Still, thanks to my last visit I'm part way through M.R. James's 1931 Collected Ghost Stories. And let me tell you something: I vastly prefer its old English manors, exquisite atmosphere of terror and delightful phrasing to this dreary modern production with Stephen Harper as a sinister villain planning world conquest for nefarious purposes, Joe Clark as a dashing hero and Paul Martin as a plodding, decent cop. I mean, really.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson