The origins of Fantômas in popular culture

Seeking to capitalize on the French public’s appetite for detective novels—Arsène Lupin, Zigomar, and Nick Carter were already popular characters whose exploits could be found in periodicals of the time—publisher Arthème Fayard approached Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain in 1910 to discuss launching a new series. They settled on a contract to produce a novel every month for two years. 

The first book appeared in early 1911 and became an immediate hit. Over the next few years, five million copies of the thirty-two Fantômas novels written by Souvestre and Allain were published.1

Literary mass production

To fulfill the terms of their publishing contract, the co-authors of Fantômas developed a collaborative writing method, churning out well over 12,000 pages in just under three years.2 They produced 400-page novels every month using this rigorous schedule:

Week 1
  • Souvestre and Allain outline the novel, choose chapter titles, and sketch a basic plot outline.
  • Allain conveys the story to Gino Starace, who illustrates the cover.
Week 2–3
  • Souvestre and Allain dictate alternating chapters to secretaries, which are transcribed and submitted for editing.
Week 4
  • Souvestre and Allain exchange copies, write transitional paragraphs to get in and out of each other’s sections, and submit the manuscript to Fayard. 

Pulp surrealism

Fantômas is not a typical detective story. Though the arch-criminal is relentlessly pursued by Inspector Juve and Fandor, he always escapes. The structure of the serial demanded it. Thus, what emerges over the course of the novels is not a story about deduction and detection but one of action and horror—a series of exploits, elaborate crimes, and daredevil antics featuring indeterminate identities, technological gadgetry and gruesome violence. Souvestre and Allain had created a new kind of cultural production, described here by Robin Walz:

The popular effect of Fantômas was carnivalesque but in a peculiarly twentieth-century fashion. Fantômas operated outside logic and deduction, and it offered no moral or social restitution. Instead, it was a récit impossible, an impossible story of displaced identities, detours, paradoxes, and violence. The crime serial was a mass-culture compendium of a surreal, modern mythology in the process of formation.3

The master of crime

Fantômas is the Lord of Terror, the Genius of Evil, a master of disguise who carries out appalling and imaginative crimes, haunting the high society of early twentieth-century Paris, forever escaping the clutches of his nemesis, Inspector Juve, who is obsessed with catching him.

In the first seven books, presented in their English translations by Antipodes Press, Fantômas racks up an incredible number of false identities, murders and assassinations, spectacular robberies, kidnappings, and daring escapes.

Fantômas and the avant-garde

Fantômas had already been adapted by Louis Feuillade into a series of films when Guillaume Apollinaire reviewed the novels in the July 1914 issue of the literary journal Mercure de France. Around the same time, Blaise Cendrars wrote his poem “Fantômas,” which appears in his Nineteen Elastic Poems. Cendrars later wrote, in a postscript to his novel Moravagine, that his reading of Fantômas had inspired him to turn his nascent book into an adventure story.4

The Fantômas series was subsequently celebrated by many surrealists and avant-garde aesthetes who read the stories, like Apollinaire and Cendrars, at the level of their imaginary poetics. Louis Aragon, André Breton, Colette, Robert Desnos, Jean Cocteau, Juan Gris, Max Jacob, René Magritte, André Malraux, Ernest Moerman, and Philippe Soupault figure among the artists and writers who appreciated the impossible paradoxes and displaced identities of the Fantômas series and paid artistic tribute in poems, prose fragments, and paintings.5

  1. Robin Walz, Pulp Surrealism: Insolent Popular Culture in Early Twentieth-Century Paris (University of California Press, 2000), p. 53.
  2. ibid. pp. 52–3
  3. ibid. p. 45
  4. Blaise Cendrars, “How I Wrote Moravagine”, Moravagine (NYRB Classics, 2004), p. 212.
  5. Robin Walz, Pulp Surrealism: Insolent Popular Culture in Early Twentieth-Century Paris (University of California Press, 2000), p. 58.