Elegant Menace

Fantomas, The Elegant Menace

Images courtesy of Jesus Vargas

Information courtesy of José Luis Silva, Marco Antonio Zamorano Cruz, Eugenio González, Manuel Camacho, and Johannes Dalmasy.

Click to enlarge In the early 1960s a Mexican publishing company, Editorial Novaro, began publishing a comic book series featuring Fantomas (spelled without the French circumflex over the "o"). Originally, these comic books were relatively straightforward adaptations of the Souvestre-Allain tales. With time and growing popularity, however, this Fantomas figure began to take on features that differed substantially from the Souvestre-Allain character: although a thief with a particular weakness for great art, he was also a bit of a Robin Hood. He opposed corruption and thievery in high places, and worked to benefit ordinary people (and himself, if a priceless work of art was involved).

This new incarnation conflated elements of the French Fantômas, Maurice Leblanc's "gentleman-burglar" Arsène Lupin, and the avenger-hero of Louis Feuillade's silent film serial Judex. Like Judex, or the American comic-book superhero Batman, Fantomas had a secret hideout perpetually shrouded in mist and packed with high-technology gadgets.

Click to enlarge One of those gadgets invented by Fantomas's scientific advisor, Professor Johannes Semo, was a robot whose only glitch was a comical inability to pronounce its inventor's name. Fantomas had more appealing companions at his hideout as well: his staff was comprised of beautiful miniskirted women named after the signs of the zodiac. And his trademark black mask/hood became in this Latin American incarnation a form-fitting white hood, a white cape, and white gloves.

His nemesis was somewhat different, as well. The French Inspector Juve became in this version a man named Inspector Gerard. Gerard had no sidekick/assistant as Juve did in Fandor; indeed, Gerard seems to be a much less important figure in the series than was Juve in the original novels. He also seems to have been a much more traditional policeman. Where Juve employed multiple disguises and even many of the same methods as Fantômas, Gerard could never be mistaken for the Mexican Fantomas.

Click to enlarge In the mid-1970s Argentinian novelist Julio Cortázar incorporated the comic-book Fantomas into a short novel based on his experiences investigating human-rights abuses in Latin America. Cortázar, a latter-day surrealist who was also undoubtedly aware of Fantômas's original incarnations in the Souvestre-Allain novels and Feuillade films, wrote a highly self-referential story in which panels from the comic book (drawn by Editorial Novaro's artists) alternate with text describing the narrator's experiences.

In the story, entitled Fantomas contra los vampiros multinacionales (Fantomas versus the multinational vampires), the narrator (autobiographically named Julio Cortázar) has been collecting testimony on human rights abuses in Latin America, including the 1973 CIA-supported coup in Chile against the democratically elected Marxist government of Salvador Allende. The narrator buys a copy of the Fantomas comic book to read on the train, and becomes absorbed in the story in which Fantomas is battling a nefarious conspiracy which is destroying the world's libraries and museums. Soon the worlds of the comic book, the novella, and reality have completely interpenetrated, and Fantomas discovers that those responsible for the destruction of the world's cultures are also those responsible for the poverty and political repression in Latin America. Bringing these men to justice is a task too great for any one man, of course, even Fantomas.

For the Spanish-language text of Cortázar's novella (with black and white, rather than the original color, illustrations) go here..

Click to enlarge The Mexican Fantomas series was originally written by Alfredo Cardona Peña and illustrated by the Rubens Studio (Rubén Lara Romero being the main artist). Over Fantomas's two-decade run at Editorial Novaro, additional writers (such as Guillermo Mendizábal, Sotero Garcia Reyes, and Hilda Zacour) and artists (such as Victor Cruz and his team) also contributed to the series, which finally ceased publication in the early 1980s.

Ten years later, in the early 1990s, a different company, Editorial Vid, began a new series with a new set of artists and writers. The formula had become a bit exhausted, though, and Editorial Vid favored self-contained stories instead of serials spanning ten or fifteen issues. There was also an attempt to bring Fantomas up-to-date: in one episode Fantomas became involved in the investigation of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which led him (and a beautiful woman journalist) into the clutches of one of the factions of the Yugoslavian civil war. Of course, by the end of the episode Fantomas had freed himself, rescued the woman, and destroyed the headquarters of the terrorist faction (though the terrorist mastermind survived, perhaps to reappear in a future episode). Shortly after this episode appeared the series ceased publication for the second time.

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