The Ubiquity of Fantômas
By Joshua Corin
Last month, in listing the influences which preceded the long-running Italian crime comic Diabolik, I alluded to the French antihero Fantômas. This month, I’ll deep dive into that character, concentrating on his wildly varied appearances in comic books around the world.
But first: an introduction. Fantômas began life not on the four-color pages of a comic book but in a series of fast-paced novels written by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre—between 1911 and 1913, they wrote 32 Fantômas novels. Their criminal hero became an international sensation and was soon appearing in silent film serials in French and English.
Fantômas is an unrepentant monster. He favors murder via torture chamber and eludes the police by framing innocent men. He was Hannibal the Cannibal decades before Thomas Harris was even born.
For our purposes, we’re going to look at the Mexican incarnation of Fantômas that first appeared in 1962 in a comic book called Treasury of Classic Tales. These early stories were direct adaptations of the original French novels and proved so popular that in 1969 they spawned a separate comic book, Fantomas.
But here’s where things get interesting.
This new Fantomas became less a psychopath and more a gentleman outlaw, and even became known as “the elegant threat.” He had a secret lair staffed with mysterious women (each named after a zodiac sign) and employed high-tech gadgets. He fought villainy and corruption wherever he found it, often in defense of the common man. It probably goes without saying that the black mask long associated with the brand was, for this Fantomas, white.
Fantomas was written by legendary fantasist Alfredo Cardona Peña and illustrated by Ruben Lara Romero, and it had a profound impact across Latin America in the late ’60s/early ’70s. Such was its impact on the zeitgeist that in 1975 even Julio Cortázar, perhaps the most famous Argentine writer of the 20th century, got in on the craze, writing a graphic novel called Fantomas vs. the Multinational Vampires in which a protagonist named Julio Cortázar becomes inspired by a Fantomas comic book to combat the real life human rights abuses in Brazil and Chile. Fantomas vs. the Multinational Vampires is classic Cortázar—postmodern, political, and brilliant.
The ubiquity of Fantômas continues to this day.
Marvel Comics has even gotten in on the action, with Grant Morrison introducing the character Fantomex in the pages of New X-Men in 2002. Less the reference be too subtle, Fantomex is a thief-with-a-heart of-gold and a master of disguise who wears a white mask.
Can’t get enough Fantômas? Here are a few additional resources:
- The single best online source for all things Fantômas is Fantômas Lives, which details not only the novels and comic books but also his many, many, many appearances in other art forms, including the 1928 painting The Barbarian by Henri Magritte.
- Julio Cortázar’s weird and wonderful Fantomas vs. the Multinational Vampires was finally translated into English in 2014 and is available for purchase here.
- Although Fantomex is somewhat incongruously associated with teams, he did feature in his own solo miniseries that draws heavily on the storytelling tropes established by Alfredo Cardona Peña in the late ’60s.
About the Author:
Joshua Corin is the author of six novels (most recently American Lies from Random House) and a bunch of comic books (most recently Spider-Man/Deadpool from Marvel). He served as the awards chair for ITW for five years.
To learn more about Joshua and his work, please visit his website.