The adventure fiction of the early 20th Century featured a rich variety of master criminals committed to grand schemes of crime and terror.
In 1911, two French writers, Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, introduced a new super-villain to the pulp fiction pantheon, a ruthless mastermind who would become known as "l'Empéreur du Crime."
The Emperor of Crime.
Some important details separated Fantômas from his criminal contemporaries. First, Fantômas was cruel, and capable both of great violence on the individual level, and great violence on the grand scale.
Secondly, Fantômas was a cypher. Unlike Professor Moriarty or Dr. Fu Manchu, there was no physical description available for this villain. In the first of the Fantômas adventures, the character is described by a guest at a dinner party:
Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre
1986 revised translation (William Morrow & Co.)
Throughout the series, Fantômas's plottings are countered by the efforts of Inspector Juve, with assistance from reporter Jérôme Fandor. On the other side, Fantômas was aided by his mysterious wife, Lady Beltham, and their daughter, Hélène.
To keep up with their instant success, Allain and Souvestre churned out volumes in the Fantômas series at an extremely swift rate, producing a total of thirty two volumes over a period of just four years. Essentially, the saga was a monthly series of novel-length adventures, many of them featuring cliff-hanger endings. Obviously, these were not works of serious literary of artistic intent. But they had enough interesting plot twists and engaging passages to make them popular reading at almost every level of French culture. Ultimately, Fantômas became not only a commercial success, but a multi-media cultural phenomena.
The lack of specific visual identification for this super-villain, and the character's uncanny mastery of disguise, helped to further separate Fantômas from other crime figures by offering an extreme latitude for stylish graphic design in the visual advertisements, posters, and cover art for the series. Gino Starace, the Italian illustrator who designed the cover art for the Fantômas books, took full advantage of this opportunity.
The potential mythic aspects of Fantômas are reflected in Starace's artwork, which often feature archetypic or otherwise potentially symbolic imagery. Starace's cover for the first book features the giant figure of a masked Fantômas, formally dressed and holding a dagger, crouching god-like over the city of Paris. For Fantômas: Le Pendu de Londres, a hooded figure stands on a gallows platform waiting to be hanged. This figure is accompanied by a priest, a policeman and an executioner each appear to possibly be somewhat other than they seem. In the artwork for Fantômas: La Disparition de Fandor, a man sleeps soundly, while a black-clad stranger creeps out from under the sleeping man's bed, and in Fantômas: La Cercueil Vide, two nuns can be seen examining an empty coffin. Fantômas' skill at disguise and his ruthless disregard for law and custom meant that any person, even the most seemingly trustworthy, could be a killer. A doctor's bag could contain poison, a policeman's uniform could cloak an assassin. The sleeve of a Holy Sister's habit could conceal a stiletto. Starace's artwork strongly reinforced one of the most compelling themes of the Fantômas tales: No one could be trusted. Death can come at any time.
Although the Fantômas tales certainly reside in the realm of the fantastic, these adventures did not stray too far from the documented realities of the world at the time. The early years of the Twentieth Century were filled with exploration and adventure, and there are few of Fantômas's exploits that would not seem potentially plausible when considered alongside the exploits of Houdini. In 1911, the same year the Fantômas series began, Harry Houdini was manacled and slipped inside the carcass of a "sea monster" that had washed up on a beach near Boston. The unidentified corpse was then sewn shut and chain was wrapped around it. Houdini escaped, although he claimed the fumes of the rotting beast mixed with arsenic used to preserve it for the stunt very nearly killed him. Fortunately, Houdini was able to stay conscious, and managed to escape from his organic prison. This was the sort of event that even fantastic fiction such as the Fantômas tales could rarely match.
In 1913, the Fantômas phenomenon perhaps reached its zenith with the release of a series of motion-picture serial adaptations of the novels.
Directed by Louis Feuillade for Gaumont Pictures, the Fantômas films starred René Navarre as the Emperor of Crime, Breon as Juve, Georges Melchoir as Fandor, and Renée Carl as Lady Beltham. This series would set the stage for further action adventure serials from Feuillade.
The first of the Fantômas films was an adaptation of the first novel, in three roughly hour-long episodes. The second film adapted Juve contre Fantômas in 4 episodes. By the end of 1913, five cinematic Fantômas adventures had been released, composed of a total of 32 episodes. Quickly produced and a part of a genre which was essentially being invented as each episode was filmed, the Fantômas films offered a worthy cinematic counterpart to the continuing monthly volumes, even if their technique pales beside Feuillade's later serials Les Vampires (1915-16) and Judex (1916).
One of Fantômas's most notorious crimes occurred in the eighth volume of the series. In La Fille de Fantômas, an ocean liner is infected with deadly plague, and 500 passengers suffer grisly, painful deaths. In 1912, the Spanish Influenza was sweeping across Europe, killing tens of thousands. In 1914, Pierre Souvestre was stricken and killed in the epidemic.
The creators of Fantômas were in no way immune from the horrors of the world that inspired their fiction.
The Fantômas adventures completed their initial literary run with volume number 32, La Fin de Fantômas. By 1914, the danger Fantômas posed to Paris could not compare to the threat of the advancing German army. Allain became a soldier, and the series came to an end. Starace's cover art for this volume features a Fantômas' trademark mask, floating in the sea nest to an empty life preserver bearing the name "Gigantic." In the distance, a great steamship slowly sinks beneath the waves.
After the war, Allain continued to write, and remained an active figure in pulp fiction until his death at age 83 in 1969. Fantômas returned as well, in reprint adventures, comic books and movies. The comic-book hero "Diabolik" is a direct descendent of the black-garbed silent assassin.
But Fantômas' influence extended beyond the range of films, pulps, and comics. Artists featured him in paintings. Robert Desnos composed a poem about Fantômas, for which Kurt Weill composed a score. Appolinaire, Cocteau, Max Jacob, Picasso, and Colette were all members of the Fantômas cult.
Today, Fantômas' name is not well known, at least in America. The original books never caught on in the States, and the late-1980's revised translations are now out of print. But Fantômas' ruthless qualities, the slightly surreal environment of his creation, and the inherent visual possibilities he represents, all suggest that the world has not heard the last of Fantômas. The Emperor of Crime is too potent an archetype to slip meekly into the netherworld of forgotten terrors.
As long as there are horrible crimes, and horrible tradgedies, Fantômas will survive.
Marcel Allain & Pierre Souvestre
1984 revised translation
Introduction by John Ashbury
Ballantine Books, 1987
The Silent Executioner
Marcel Allain & Pierre Souvestre
1987 revised translation
Introduction by Edward Gorey
Ballantine Books, 1989
Fantômas: un mito
Illustrations by Karel Thole
Azienda Autonoma, 1979
(In Italian, no translation)
The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914
University of California Press, 1994
French Cinema: The First Wave, 1915-1929
Princeton University Press, 1984
Jay Robert Nash's Crime Chronology
Jay Robert Nash
Facts on File, 1984
The Illustrated History of Magic
Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1973