Friday, November 12, 2010

Fantomas: An Introduction

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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