Fantomas

Notes from Friends of Fantômas

José Luis Silva writes: I enjoyed Fantomas' friends contributions, in particular the mention of the Mexican comic book version, since I grew up reading his adventures. The following information might help to complete the picture, as well as to give insight of Fantomas' influences across the borders and the way mass media feed upon each other.

The Mexican Fantomas saw first light in 1962 in a high quality comic book (32 pages long, same size as regular North American comics, printed in color and one book length adventure in each issue) called Tesoro de Cuentos Clásicos (Treasury of Classic Tales) published by Editorial Novaro, Mexico. As you can surmise by the title, it was a close adaptation of the Souvestre and Allain character. On the following issues, several more adventures were adapted from the original novels by the good Mexican writer Alfredo Cardona Peña. The illustrations were made by one of our better artists: Rubén Lara Romero. Public response was so good that soon Fantomas spun out into his own comic book, some covers of which you've reproduced in your interesting section about the Mexican Fantomas. [Thanks to Jesus Vargas; see The Mexican Comic Book for reproductions of the covers.]

The Mexican Fantomas diverged from the original in several ways. I see a strong influence of another European fictional criminal in his early adventures and characterization: that of Diabolik, an Italian comic book criminal, master of disguise, always dressed in a black skin-tight suit that also covers his head and only lets the readers see his eyes and part of his nose. (Sound familiar? Read on.) Diabolik is completely immoral, a true criminal and master of disguise. His nemesis is inspector Ginko, a brilliant man. This comic book was the brainchild of Angela and Luciana Giussani for the Astorina Publishing House in Milan, Italy, published monthly since November 1, 1962, measured 4.5 x 7 inches, holding 132 pages, including the cardboard covers, had a flat spine (each adventure was close to 116 pages, though) and was variously illustrated by Enzo Facciolo, Flavio Pazzoli and Glauco Coretti. The character was so popular that it spawned a whole new genre in comic books for adult readers in Italy (Satanik, Kriminal, Sadik, Jessebel, ad infinitum), has endured for 37 years and was featured in a major motion picture: Danger: Diabolik (1967) directed by Mario Baba and starring John Philip Law. Some critics consider it worthy of silent serial master Louis Feuillade. (I'm sure Tim Lucas can tell you much more than I can about this visually charming film.)

The Mexican version became really indigenous in 1969. It is my theory that the original Fantomas has always "traveled well" to foreign countries because he is completely mysterious and truly anonymous, leaving ample room for either the reader or in this case, foreign strip writers, to devise a personality and a characterization suited to the tastes and values of the local audience. Starting in this year, The Elegant Menace, as he was also known in Mexico, became some sort of hero, even if he operated outside the law and was motivated by the acquisition of wealth, as he progressively turned into an urban high tech Robin Hood. He was a connoisseur of the finer arts, familiar with the latest technological innovations and was always surrounded by his scantily clad female "helpers" without names (he addressed them using the names of astrological signs).

Most Mexican popular heroes are outlaws as the population distrusts both the police and the government. They are also admired by women, frequently misunderstood by the establishment and adored by the poor people of the land. The ideas of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, as well as dispensing justice in favor of the dispossesed have always been very well received among Mexicans. So Fantomas evolved into such a hero. We never saw his face since he always wore, for no discernible reason, a white mask that completely covered his head and face, with small openings for his eyes, although capable of reflecting his moods. The cape, gloves and top hat would come later. He had no civilian identity, but he was a master of disguise and you would never see him engaged in situations where he had to "jump over tall buildings in a single bound." Brains were his main weapon, in contrast to Santo, a real life Mexican wrestler who also became a comic book and movie hero, also wore a mask (at times even a cape but no shirt) 24 hours a day, had a secret hideout full of high tech gimmicks but relied more on his physical prowess and at times had to resort to the intervention of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Mother of God!

Fantomas lived in an unamed modern city and his nemesis was Inspector Gerard, in the place of Juve. Gerard was the name of the Indiana police lieutenant (played by Barry Morse) that one-track-mindedly chased David Janssen in the TV series The Fugitive (1963-1966) The series was extremely popular in Mexico and was on the air for many years after its US cancellation and the airing of the last two part episode in 1967 in which Dr. Richard Kimbal caught the one-armed man that had murdered his wife and framed him (Harrison Ford starred in the more recent Andrew Davis feature film).

I think it was the integration of all of those elements that explains the enduring popularity of the weekly Fantomas Mexican comic, coupled with very good stories (both imaginative and literary) by the same Alfredo Cardona Peña as well as Guillermo Mendizábal and excellent illustrations by the Rubens Studio (Rubén Lara being the main artist and his brother Jorge as well as Luis Carlos Hernández doing backgrounds, helped by Jose S. Reyna, Fermín Márquez and Agustín Martinez) When Rubén Lara and part of his team left Editorial Novaro to create another masked and mysterious hero, even more imaginative and with prettier female companions called El Comodín (The Joker), Victor Cruz and his team (Hector Cruz Mota, Luis Carlos Hernandez, Arnulfo Sanchez, Juan Rangel, Marcelino Vigil, Pedro Morales and Olga Cruz Mota) took over the artistic chores and eventually new writers joined them during Fantomas' very long run in Editorial Novaro. I agree with the other Fantomas friends from Mexico that the newer version by Editorial Vid was vastly inferior. Having said all of the above I must surprise all our friends once again by telling them that there was another Mexican Fantomas in local comic books published as early as 1937! But the telling of that story must wait for the time being. To be continued...

Readers interested in Diabolik can go to the Diabolik Home Page at http://www.diabolik.it.

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