The Wrath of Fantomas is a book I approached with extreme prejudice. It’s a graphic novel that seeks to present a new version of Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain’s Fantomas series, which proved so successful when it was introduced a scant 108 years ago. As a rule, I dislike the concept of rebooting a series.
When first discovering a book series as a kid, continuity was key. It made a property more meaningful if there were numerous volumes to find and devour. Scouring used bookstores for dogeared copies of the missing pieces in the narrative puzzle made such books far more valuable to me. It seemed there were always a half dozen series I was working on completing in those decades long before the internet. They form some of the happiest memories of my formative years.
The entire concept of rebooting a series as a jumping-on point for new readers (or viewers, in the case of films) is distasteful to me. It devalues the worth of the original works. It suggests a series can be boiled down to its lowest common denominator and elements juggled so that a name and basic concept are enough to move forward with renewed sense of purpose.
Generally, in these overly sensitive times of ours, it also means elements that are no longer fashionable or politically acceptable will be whitewashed, bowdlerized, and otherwise made acceptable for Stalin, Mao, or whomever else has the clout to say censorship is required when the past inconveniently reminds us people were always flawed, unfair, uncouth, or sometimes just bluntly honest.
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David Lee White is an accomplished contemporary playwright in the Tri-State area who is also a man with a fervent mission. Through his publishing imprint, Beltham House, he has brought a number of obscure works back into print after many decades. L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace’s The Sorceress of the Strand (1902) and The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings (1899), a pair of obscure yet influential mysteries involving Madame Blavatsky-like female criminal masterminds, are two prime examples. However, it is with Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain’s Fantomas crime series that White has truly made his greatest impact. It is unlikely that any American has done more for bringing Fantomas back in the public eye in the United States than Mr. White.
Beltham House has been responsible for reprinting six long out-of-print titles in the series for the first time in decades, only to have numerous copycat public domain publishers quickly throw together their own knockoff editions. Since Beltham House is published through Lulu Press and not all of their titles are readily available on Amazon.com, it is likely that most of the specialized audience for the series is not even aware that Beltham House is the one-man operation that rediscovered these lost classics of the thriller genre. White also adapted a long-lost 1920 Fantomas serial as a novelization for Black Coat Press a few years back entitled, Fantomas in America. The book was the first new Fantomas novel in nearly fifty years and its historical significance was even greater for preserving a story that was otherwise lost to the ravages of time as no extant print of the serial has yet been recovered.
So it was that I approached Beltham House’s contribution to Fantomas’s centennial last year with a degree of skepticism. I already owned the nine original books that were back in print and White’s novelization of the serial, so why would I shell out the extra money for The Collected Fantomas, an omnibus edition collecting the first seven books in the series? If I already owned the books, the omnibus could not possibly be of interest to me, right? Wrong.
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Fantomas is criminally unknown in the United States. Only seven of the original 43 classic French pulp novels are currently in print in English. The series is unique in its successful blend of black comedy and absurdist humor within the traditional murder mystery genre.
Fantomas himself is a criminal anarchist who robs and murders for the sheer joy of creating chaos. While the murders are frequently described in surprisingly grisly detail for their day, they are quickly followed by delightfully sublime escapes or revelations handled with such a deftly light touch that it is impossible not to find the villainous character fun in spite of his many crimes.
Fantomas made his debut in the 1911 novel, Fantomas. The book was an instant sensation whose appeal transcended all barriers of French society. The avant-garde adopted the character as one of their own. Inspired by Gino Sterace’s lurid cover art for the first book, surrealists such as Rene Magritte and Juan Gris, composer Kurt Weil, and poets such as Guillaume Apollinaire and Max Jacob soon incorporated the character in their work.
Fantomas’ appeal to the art world was as strong as the popularity of the books among the working class. The character’s centennial next year will be marked with celebrations in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia in an effort to bring greater recognition to the character and its impact on 20th Century art.
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