How Reading the Scarlet Pimpernel Got Me Into Superheroes

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Everybody remembers that first superhero who started them down the road of admiring vigilantes, masked superheroes, those doers of justice. For most people, their “gateway crusader” usually comes in the form of Batman or Superman. For me, I fell in love with the superhero concept thanks to a well-dressed Englishman from the late 1700s.

During the French Revolution there was a period called “The Reign of Terror”, where so-called enemies of the Revolution were executed. The death toll was astronomical, and the now infamous guillotine used by French revolutionaries took the lives of scientists, royals, even members of the Catholic Church. As with any civil unrest amplified by mass executions, fear and paranoia were rampant, and while many who met Madame la Guillotine were true enemies of the Revolution, many weren’t. Even if they were opponents, there were some who doubted if mass executions were really the best way to make positive change for a country.

Sir Percival Blakeney had enough of the bloodshed of innocents in the name of revolution. So he hatched a plan; while he presented himself as a vapid idiot to the public, in secret he and his closest friends formed a league to seek out justice. A super group of friends to avenge those who were wrongly accused, wrongly killed, to save as many people as he could. Together, Blakeney, or, “The Scarlet Pimpernel”, and his compatriots, “The League of The Scarlet Pimpernel”, donned disguises, crafted amazing plots, and worked tirelessly to save the lives of innocent French men, women, and children sentenced to a gruesome death. All of their actions of daring and vigilantism are captured in Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel series, my favorite being The Scarlet Pimpernel.

I was never much into comic books as a kid- neither my parents or my friends read them. But even though I had no frame of reference for superheroes or masked vigilantes, I ate this story up. I can’t even remember the number of times I’ve read The Scarlet Pimpernel. I don’t have a ballpark idea of how many times I’ve watched the 1982 TV movie version with Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour, and a pre-Gandalf Sir Ian McKellan (look it up, it’s amazing). I was obsessed.

There was something about Percy’s story that I had never seen before: A normal man who saw injustice, and put himself in harm’s way in order to right wrongs. Percy marred his public reputation to protect his secret, he was willing to sacrifice relationships to protect his secret and his work, and he was not afraid to face a danger that didn’t involve him (after all, Percy was English, not French).

I didn’t see him as a superhero, and I really didn’t know what “vigilante” meant at the time. I just saw him as a hero, and I knew was I was captivated with this man moved to do the right thing and protect the innocent.

But more than anything, I was addicted to the intensity of the story. Percy and the League’s rescue missions were nothing short of heroic- and in a time before walkie-talkies, cell phones, GPS, and”main frames” to hack, the feats were even more impressive. The amount of exploit that went into Percy’s secret identity and heroic missions kept me on the edge of my seat, and kept me reading and watching the book over and over and over.

After my first time going through the entire story, I went back to examine the smallest details, careful not to miss a single clue offered to the reader–even his name, The Scarlet Pimpernel, references a wayside flower; a weed really. An insignificant plant often overlooked that, like any weed, can really uproot the works if left unchecked. I loved uncovering clues and hints of Percy’s true identity, and ways he was in complete control, even when he seemed to be in real trouble. Like any superhero, I looked up to Percy. Since he had no superpowers to speak of -apart from quick thinking and sharp wit- he made me feel like I could achieve great things in my own life; maybe I wouldn’t be saving French citizens from beheading, but I could still do good things.

It would be a few more years before I actually started engaging in superhero stories, and years after that before I started reading comics. Of course, once I started down those paths, I quickly became enthralled, and I have been in love with superheroes and vigilantes ever since. I know that I owe my admiration- okay, obsession- with all things “comic book hero” to Sir Percival Blakeney and the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Baroness Orczy’s words captured me in a way nothing else had, and it led me down a path I would follow me for the rest of my life.

What first got you interested in superheroes? Was it a comic book character, or was it something else? Tell me about it in the comments! 

Image credit: History Stack/

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