Who Is Fantômas?

Fantômas: The first pulp fiction, by Robin Walz, et al.

FantomasSouvestre and Allain's Fantômas novels present us with a paradox. They feature a character who commits spectacularly gruesome crimes without apparent cause or motivation, and who, at the end of each novel, manages by a hair's breadth to escape punishment. But at the same time the novels were immensely popular. Each book in the series—and they were published at the rate of one a month for 32 straight months—was awaited with keen excitement by a large Parisian reading public of all social levels.

Of course, Fantômas may have been so popular precisely because his crimes were so horrible. It was the very audacity of his exploits that made them compelling reading. Souvestre and Allain—and later the film director Louis Feuillade—made use of highly recognizable Parisian settings for Fantômas's crimes; the familiar settings undoubtedly increased the frisson for the readers. And Fantômas's improbable escape at the end of every episode only whetted the public's hunger for the next.

The story of how the Fantômas series was produced is as wild as the plots of the novels themselves, and as tangled a web of plausibility and myth. Pierre Souvestre was a failed lawyer who had turned to automotive journalism; Marcel Allain, ten years his junior, applied for the position of Souvestre's secretary and got the job by producing a lengthy article on the spot about a new truck that he'd never seen. Soon the two were working for a variety of magazines, generating copy that included detective serials set in the world of auto racing (for L'Auto) or the theatre (for Comoedia, a theatre review).

Crime's employment agencyTheir serialized novels brought them to the attention of Arthème Fayard, the publisher of cheap paperback novels in his Le Livre Populaire ("popular book") series. Most of the books in the series were reprints of 19th-century novels (so Fayard could avoid paying royalities), given full-color covers by house illustrator Gino Starace, printed as cheaply as possible, and sold for the incredibly low price of 65 centimes—a sum within the reach of all but the very poorest Parisians. It was a brilliant idea, which would decades later be adapted by American publishers to create an entire genre, pulp fiction. Fayard hired Souvestre and Allain to write a series of fantastic novels. As Allain later remembered it, on the subway ride over to sign the contract the two authors came up with the name "Fantômus." Fayard apparently misread the title, and the authors never bothered to correct him; thus Fantômas was born.

Their contract required Souvestre and Allain to produce one full-length novel each month. In order to churn out that much verbiage, the authors produced the novels in an assembly-line fashion. In the first week they outlined the basic plot, plagiarizing shamelessly from their own previous serials and the detective stories of other writers. Thefts from stories by Maurice Leblanc (the "gentleman burglar" Arsène Lupin), Emile Gaboriau (the Sûreté inspector Monsieur Lecoq), and Gaston LeRoux (the investigative reporter Rouletabille) are especially apparent. Over the next two weeks Souvestre and Allain each dictated their share of the story to their secretaries, and Allain conveyed the main plot points to Gino Starace, who drew a suitably lurid cover. In the final week they exchanged copies, wrote transitional paragraphs to get into and out of each other's chapters, and sent it off to Fayard. They continued at this level of literary production for 32 straight months!

The end of FantomasThe plots Souvestre and Allain dreamed up were astonishing, featuring multiple disguises (including cross-gender ones), incoherencies of time and space, spectacular gadgetry, and endless violent atrocities. And, unlike their 19th-century predecessors, the Fantômas novels do not conclude with the restoration of the moral order. Instead, the archvillain escapes, to perpetrate more cruelties in the next episode. In these elements the Surrealists would later see parallels to their own preoccupation with the marvelous; for more on the Surrealist's fascination with the novels and Feuillade's films, see Robin Walz's article "Serial Killings: Fantômas, Feuillade, and the Mass-Culture Geneology of Surrealism."

The first novel in the series appeared in February 1911, and was an instant success, aided by the publicity campaign featuring the unforgettable image of a giant masked man clutching a dagger looming over the heart of Paris (see The Fantômas Novels). Ultimately Fayard would publish more than 5 million Fantômas novels (by far the most popular series within Le Livre Populaire). The novels' immense popularity sparked a bidding war betwen the two major French film studios; Gaumont won, and five Fantômas films directed by Louis Feuillade were produced in 1913 and 1914. The films were also a tremendous popular success, and although Souvestre and Allain had apparently killed off both Juve and Fantômas in the final installment La Fin De Fantômas, it's possible that either more novels or more films would have been produced. However, a few months after the release of the fifth Fantômas film France was plunged into World War I, and Feuillade had gone to fight in the trenches. By the end of the war, Souvestre was dead (of the Spanish influenza epidemic). Feuillade, wounded early in the war, resumed filmmaking by elaborating on the elements and atmosphere of the Fantômas films in his masterpiece Les Vampires and other serials, but never made another Fantômas film.

Allain would go on to marry Souvestre's widow and over the decades write three new series of Fantômas adventures on his own. And after Feuillade's Fantômas, an American silent serial of 20 episodes, 6 French sound feature films and a four-episode TV series were to follow. But none of the later manifestations of the Genius of Crime achieved either the popularity or the (inadvertent) artistic success of his original incarnations.

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