Zorro’s Centennial with Johnston McCulley Biographer D. Kepler

Aug 10, 2019 by

D. Kepler is a historian, journalist, writer and Zorro expert. After doing research in Europe for a book, he bought an 18th century hacienda in Portugal and lives a reclusive life in the sun. This year he published the first biography of Johnston McCulley, the creator of Zorro. An excerpt of the book is in THE PULPSTER this year. For PulpFest fans, Mr. Kepler offered a short interview in which he talks about Johnston McCulley and “100 Years of Zorro.”

Why did you wrote this biography in the first place?

I think it’s important to keep the legacy of pulp writers alive. Nowadays everybody knows Batman, Zorro and Doc Savage or the names of actors who played their part in the movies. Hardly anybody knows who actually created these characters and the stories back in the days. In general, producers and the people who own the rights to the characters are only interested in making money. The Gertz family, who own the rights to Zorro, are making millions with McCulley’s brainchild, but they hardly mention his name on their website, social media and so on. They should be ashamed. Interestingly enough, when I did the research for the biography in dusty newspaper archives and talked to relatives, I discovered that the life of McCulley was almost like a thrilling pulp adventure. It was fun to do!

In your biography and especially in the second part of the book 100 YEARS OF ZORRO, you have serious doubts if the Gertz family are the right people for owning the legacy of Zorro. Why?

Well, I’m not the only one, even judges nowadays are not convinced they are the rightful owners of Zorro. For example, a while ago a judge said the first Zorro story is in public domain and people could use the story without paying the Gertz family. John Gertz and his sister (Zorro Productions Inc.) were smart and went to the trademark office in the 1970s with the name Zorro. Zorro Productions Inc. has a trademark for uncountable products, but don’t produce these products. They just want to receive money when somebody else produces a “Zorro” product. They’re not very picky with the licenses. There is even a Zorro slot machine. I think it’s rather disgraceful to exploit a great character like that. If they actually were related to McCulley, it would be a different story. Instead, they are just strangers who shamelessly take advantage of the great ideas of a dead writer. In one of the chapters of my book, I write about how Zorro ended up in porn movies. Show some respect, please!

But didn’t Johnston McCulley sell the rights to Zorro to their father, Mitchell Gertz, in the 1940s?

That’s what they want us to believe. After doing extensive research, I have come to the conclusion that McCulley somehow might have been forced by Mitchell Gertz to sell him the rights. Who knows what happened? It doesn’t make any sense why McCulley sold the rights. Gertz was a former wrestler and Hollywood agent with a bad reputation. There isn’t even proof Gertz was actually McCulley’s agent and McCulley didn’t need the money. He was a wealthy man. After a few years, Gertz sold the rights to Disney. Years later, Disney sold the rights back to the children of Gertz. In fact, the stepdaughter of McCulley sued Gertz and Disney for conspiring to defraud. After years, the case was settled. Gertz was already dead by then, but Disney did settle for a reason with McCulley’s stepdaughter.

So in 2019, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Zorro. Reading your book we’ve noticed you are more a fan of the old Zorro adaptions and not really a huge fan of the modern Zorro.

I’m a fan of the Zorro created by Johnston McCulley. For decades, Hollywood producers and comic book writers made up a completely different version of the original character. For example Don Diego was originally a dandy who knew he was a caballero by blood (upper class), a great character. In the fifties, Disney changed Don Diego into a more popular, manly, masculine type of guy for TV. Interesting character, but not the same. Furthermore, McCulley wrote for adults with romance and adult humor. Disney turned Zorro into a show for children. Slapstick humor and all that. That was where the money was. And still is. The Zorro movies with Banderas were still pretty childish for the same reason. They were still entertaining, but I would rather watch a rerun of the wonderful 1940 MARK OF ZORRO.

While doing your research, did you find anything that you would have preferred not to find?

I’m a writer, but also a historian and journalist. Therefore, I want to sell books, but also establish the truth. The problem with Zorro (or any other character with a fanbase) is, the fans don’t want to read bad things about their idol. So if you want to sell a lot of books, you might want to make a book for the fans and stick with the cheering. I didn’t. I write about the good Zorro stuff and the bad stuff. The latter is sometimes more entertaining by the way. I was afraid the biography could turn out boring but it didn’t. Not at all! The biography has some juicy stories and, it has to be said, some disturbing details. McCulley wasn’t exactly a saint. For example he ended up in court for molesting a 15 year old girl. Quite shocking stuff to write about, but like I said, it’s a biography and not a fan book.

At the end of the book you have added a bonus story by Johnston McCulley. Why that particular story?

It is actually the first story he wrote that got published in a magazine in 1906. It’s an interesting little story that has never before been republished. It’s unbelievable. It was written 13 years before his first Zorro story and when you read it, you immediately notice the man had talent!

Last question: PulpFest is coming up. Are you a fan of conventions?

First of all, I want to thank you guys for publishing an excerpt of the book in your program book. It’s great to be part of PulpFest 2019, especially with the 100th anniversary of Zorro. I think conventions like PulpFest are a great way to honor the godfathers of story writing. Next to that, it’s fun to meet writers, dealers, pulp collectors, and fans in person. Nowadays, everybody is chatting with each other and buying stuff on the internet. Nothing wrong with that, but conventions are more old school. You gotta love that! See you all at PulpFest!

The book JOHNSTON MCCULLEY, CREATOR OF ZORRO: THE BIOGRAPHY is available for Kindle via Amazon.

(Published in November 2018, D. Kepler’s biography of Johnston McCulley is subtitled: “100 Years Of Zorro The Exploitation Of A Cultural Icon.”

Our featured image of Johnston McCulley comes from the article, “Chillicothe’s Master Storyteller,” published in May 2013 by PEORIA MAGAZINE.)