Who is Fantomas?
That was the central question in a series of wildly popular pre-World War I French novels that were the forerunner of the American character pulps. But Fantomas was quite unlike the heroes who were the lead characters in most U.S. magazines.
Fantomas was a villain. Not a gentleman thief/Robin Hood-type crook like Jimmy Dale (aka The Gray Seal) or a misunderstood vigilante like so many others. No, Fantomas was the sort of villain The Spider/The Shadow/Doc Savage went up against once a month. He was a criminal genius, the leader of an army of street thugs, a thief and a mass murderer, a villain whose crimes had no apparent motivation except to spread terror. But unlike the villains in U.S. pulps, Fantomas’ identity was never revealed and he was never caught, always managing to stage an improbable escape at the end of every novel.
There were four series of Fantomas novels, but the most famous series (and best, according to most critics) was the first, 32 novels by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain published monthly in Paris from February 1911 to September 1913. The novels were also the basis for five film serials produced in 1913 and 1914.
Fantomas was hunted relentlessly by Inspector Juve, the only person who knows the threat Fantomas represents. Juve is aided by newspaper reporter Jerome Fandor (aka Charles Rambert). One problem: Fandor might be Fantomas’ son.
Other recurring characters included Lady Beltham, Fantomas’ mistress as well as the widow of one of his victims; and Helene, Fantomas’ tattooed, cross-dressing, dope-smoking daughter. She and Fandor are in love with one another but never act on it. Thank God for French family values.
Souvestre died of influenza during World War I, but Allain would write three more series of Fantomas adventures. The novels were translated into English. Sadly, a two-volume paperback series of Fantomas novels published in the mid-1980s appears to be the most recent English version, and it is out of print. (I had a copy of the first and can’t find it anymore.)
Fantomas was also brought to life in a silent U.S. serial in the 1920s, French films in the 1930s and 1940s, and in a series of James Bondish French films in the 1960s starring Jean Marais as the anti-hero. The first in the series, Fantomas (1964), was also released in the United States and later showed up on U.S. television. (I saw it; it was a Euro-hoot, but made a deep impression on my pre-teenage mind, mostly because I thought Fantomas was a cool name.) Fantomas was also the basis for a Mexican comic book series.
For more on Fantomas, check out www.fantomas-lives.com (which was the source for much of the information in this article).