Though it came and went without fanfare, the year 2011 marked the centennial anniversary of Europe’s most intriguing literary villain – the maître du crime, Fantômas. Originally conceived by French feuilleton writers Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre to capitalize on the popularity of gentleman thieves like Arsène Lupin and Rocambole, Fantômas was a stealthy, more diabolical sociopath whose only motivation was the destruction of tout le monde. Over 32 serial novels (published from 1911–13), as well as five films by French gothic auteur Louis Feuillade (produced between 1913 and 1914), the misadventures of the master of crime captivated both mass audiences and the Surrealists of the Parisian Left Bank.
Among the many reboots experienced by Fantômas in the succeeding decades, one of the more exceptional was Julio Cortázar’s meta-text, Fantômas contra los vampiros multinacionales (Fantômas Versus the Multinational Vampires, 1975), newly translated by Semiotext(e) and included in their contribution to this year’s Whitney Biennial. Between the caped and top-hatted scourge of the French belle époque and the white-masked Marxist revolutionary of Pinochet-era Latin America, the protean depictions of Fantômas acted as ciphers for many of the 20th century’s political and cultural events.
The first, and perhaps most iconic, illustration of the master of crime was drawn by Italian artist Gino Starace and appeared on the cover of volume one of the 1911 Fayard publication, Fantômas. Starace’s Gothic depiction of a masked bon vivant, in top hat and formal wear, lunging over the cityscape of Paris with bloodied dagger, offered a striking still-life of the phantom – instantly evoking the macabre fashionability of the Grand Guignol, the politicized naturalism of Émile Zola and the anti-monarchial fervour of the anarcho-syndicalists. Combined with Allain and Souvestre’s lurid yet unrefined prose (serials were often written over just a few weeks) Starace’s melodramatic portraits of murder and scandal in subsequent issues encapsulated the kind of pulp sensibility praised by Guillaume Apollinaire, who claimed: ‘From the imaginative standpoint, Fantômas is one of the richest works that exists.’
Feuillade’s film epic, by contrast, reimagined actor René Navarre’s title character with a decidedly more disturbing, and erotic, brush. Because of the popularity of the serials, many theatre-goers were well versed in the films’ sub-plots and twists, forcing the director to invent novel devices of form and fashion. Though Navarre donned many of the disguises described by Allain and Souvestre – including those of policeman, aristocrat and gang leader – and briefly wore Starace’s formal top hat and tails, it was Feuillade’s decision to cloak Fantômas in a black cowl and full black body suit during the serials’ climatic scenes that was the most disturbing. Viewed as bondage wear or special military garments used by soldiers to insulate their bodies from chemical warfare – a technology first exercised on the battlefield in 1915 – this Fantômas was the first to shed the clothing of the belle époque and signal the orgy of ecumenical militarization to come.
In his 2013 essay ‘Transnational Fantômas: The Influence of Feuillade’s Series on International Cinema during the 1910s’, literary scholar Federico Pagello traces the villain’s particular cultural diffusion throughout European and international markets in the aftermath of Feuillade’s films. He writes of Fantômas’s unique influence and adaptability as far afield as the US and Russia during the inter-war period: ‘Souvestre and Allain’s anti-hero could be seen as a metaphor of the condition of Modern(ist) urban dwellers such as the dandy, the lumpen proletarian and the immigrant, by necessity expropriated of any predetermined social identity and thus naturally opposed to the national state.’
According to Pagello, a brief release of Feuillade’s serials in the US under the misleading title ‘Cracksman vs. Detective’ led to Fox director Edward Sedgwick’s 1920–21 Fantômas serials, which provided the first example of a non-Francophone adaptation. Using Allain and Souvestre’s work as a skeleton, Sedgwick transformed the sociopath/anarchist into an industrious thief – with more extreme action sequences, less sensationalist brutality and the pragmatic nobility of the American gangster. Though the serial is now considered lost, stills and synopses of Sedgwick’s ‘free-market’ version of Fantômas reveal a taller, more muscular and square-jawed villain, interpreted by the actor Edward Roseman, who appears in various threadbare disguises or a formal dinner jacket. Prefiguring the American gangster genre by nearly a decade, the Fox production was a commercial failure and terminated Hollywood’s brief liaison with French pulp.
André Hunebelle’s Fantômas films (1964–67), by contrast, reinterpreted him as an effete super-villain-cum-dandy, an archetype that had recently found mainstream success in the literary and cinematic adventures of James Bond. Styled as a hybrid espionage-comedy, Hunebelle’s trilogy ‘camped’ science-fiction with overtones of homoeroticism, reified in Fantômas’s generous application of cosmetics (he appears like a green-skinned alien) and fanciful, space-age ‘toys’; absent were the capes, formal wear and death shrouds of the earlier French incarnations, replaced by turtlenecks, double-breasted suits and skin-tight jumpers suggestive of Carnaby Street.
By the 1960s, the question of politics in the Anglo-French heritage of Fantômas had increasingly been overshadowed by the pleasures of spectacle, while the various Italo-Latin franchises eventually adopted the villain as an anti-capitalist revolutionary. As early as 1914, the Italian film Cinessino imita Fantômas (Cinessino as Fantômas) referenced its French counterpart, and a theatrical adaptation premiered in Spain the following year. Serial and film villains like Kriminal and Diabolik, who first appeared in the pages of Italian comics, had been modelled after Fantômas but gained their own indigenous identities and regional resonances. According to Mexican comics scholar José Luis Silva, it was these low-budget homages to Fantômas that had a major influence in taking the European incarnation to Latin America.
At nearly the same time, distribution of Hunebelle’s trilogy to Cuba succeeded in introducing a popular anti-hero to the very epicentre of Marxist revolution. When the first issues of the Mexican comic Fantômas: The Elegant Threat appeared in 1969, its dapper, white masked and blue-suited art thief, drawn by artist Víctor Cruz Mota, shared few of the diabolical motifs of his earlier brethren. Instead, he had joined a coterie of female vamps and the occasional real-life intellectual to become a freedom fighter righting the wrongs of draconian dictators.
Cortázar, who had recently taken part in the 1973 Russell Tribunal investigation of political and human rights violations in Latin America, was introduced to the pulp series by Luis Guillermo Piazza, the Mexican publisher of Fantômas. According to translator David Kurnick, issue 201’s inclusion of a Cortázar persona so amused the author that he produced a meta-text/pamphlet utilizing the comic’s illustrations and basic plot structure. His Fantômas, however, is neither a phantom nor an invincible outlaw; rather, he is an overworked playboy who can only succeed by uniting the multitudes that seek out a Situationist revolution from everyday life. In choosing to include the Tribunal as a setting for his story, Cortázar created a new exemplar for Latin American intellectuals in the way the original maître du crime had emblemized the French Surrealists. The text was published by the Excelsior newspaper and included a six-page appendix detailing the Tribunal’s findings.
Translations of Fantômas, in both text and film, have continued into the present, disseminating Allain and Souvestre’s tenebrous villain further into the ventricles of popular culture. A century later, his greatest accomplishment remains as a hauntological anti-hero who can be resurrected at any time and place in the name of subterfuge.
Erik Morse is the author of Dreamweapon (2004) and Bluff City Underground: A Roman Noir of the Deep South (2012). He is a former lecturer at SCI-Arc, Los Angeles, USA, and the 2015 recipient of a Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant.
First published in Issue 166