Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Fantômas Part I

“This mysterious being was enveloped in a big black cloak, a black slouch hat half covered a black hooded mask which hid his features.
This was Fantômas, beyond doubt !”
Pierre Souvestre (1874-1914) and his assistant Marcel Allain (1885-1969) wrote their first serial ‘Le Rour,’ for the newspaper L’Auto, in 1909. The roman policier ‘Le Rour,’ featured a criminal character with artificial wings. Souvestre wrote the first Fantômas serial in February 1911 and 32 novels in total were published by Fayard. Eleven new adventures were written by Allain alone after the death of Souvestre in 1914. Intellectuals like Guillaume Apollinaire and Jean Cocteau were fans of the writing style, similar to penny dreadful and dime novel serials. In America the writing was often compared with dime novel heroes Nick Carter and Old Sleuth.

Louis Feuillade filmed the original Fantômas serials for the Gaumont Co. in 1914 and followed them with The Vampires (The Arch Criminals of Paris) series, with its large number of Fantômas doubles whose number included a woman named Irma Vep. The New York World serialized the films as they appeared.

I have read four Fantômas novels in English translation and although I can’t recall the names of characters who are the dual identities of Fantômas, he had at least three and perhaps more serial dual identities. A wild waggish character, Fantômas could be anybody, and often was everybody – the reader becomes suspicious of every character. He was nowhere and everywhere at once. Juve – is it Juve or Fantômas? Fandor – Fandor or Fantômas? He changed identities at the drop of a hat. The heroes, journalist Fandor and Inspector Juve, also often disguise themselves adding to the confusion. Identity is fluid, unfixed, eyes peer out of masks, every man has a double, cops are criminals, criminals cops, everything is turned upside down.


One interesting thing about the writing is that the two authors wrote in a round robin style – Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain writing alternate chapters, which might explain the loopy surrealism of the serials. Was surrealism the intent or a happy accident ?


The great covers were by Italian artist Gino Starace (1859-1950). There is a slim biographical art book called Gino Starace, L’illustrateur de “Fantomas,” published in France in 1987, which includes art by Jan Starace (a son ?) who also illustrated the bewildering criminal. Three English-language Fantômas novels published by Brentano’s in New York in 1917 and 1918 are available for reading HERE.

All Images courtesy Joe Rainone
Continue to Fantômas Part II HERE.

1 comment:

  1. Nice entry. I've always been fascinated by the Fantomas covers. No bookshops I've been to had even heard of them! But thanks for the link to some translations.