Back when this column was still new, I wrote about Phantom Lady, a character that predating Wonder Woman’s first published appearance by about four months. I posited that she may have been one of the first women superheroes.
Well, I learn stuff too, and recently learned who, exactly, was the first female superhero according to many. Her name was Fantomah. She’s…scary.
Fantomah is, well, really weird. What powers did she have? Any powers she wanted to have. At first glance, she’s a certain type of character popular in that era, namely the mysterious “jungle queen” type, a most likely caucasian woman who lived in the jungles of Africa or South America, wore a glorified swimsuit, and swung around fighting the forces of evil in the form of men looking to get rich in morally dubious ways in the jungle. Most of these characters didn’t really have any superpowers and weren’t limited to comic books.
For example, I caught an episode of a 1943 movie serial while waiting to see something at the Alamo Drafthouse once. The character was Tiger Woman. She lived in the jungles of South America, a land not known for having any tigers whatsoever, and she assisted the natives there in ways that don’t scream “white imperialism” at all to the modern audience. Nope. Not at all.
But Fantomah was more than that. Fantamah was the creation of writer/artist Fletcher Hanks. Hanks’ characters tended to be these sort of all-powerful types who went around dispensing lethal and ironic punishments on evildoers, and Fantomah fit that perception to a tee. Hanks, it should be worth noting, quit comics in 1941 for completely unknown reasons and died penniless on a Manhattan park bench in 1976. Basically, the guy is one of the more enigmatic figures to ever work in the industry.
As for Fantomah, in her regular, everyday appearance, she was an attractive, doe-eyed blonde. When her sense of moral outrage, or whatever she called it, was aroused, she changed. Her skin would turn blue. Her face would become a skull. She still had the fabulous hair, though, but the rest was just scary.
Heck, sometimes she just became a flying, flaming skull.
As that…pleasant being, she’d go off and dispense the sort of punishments DC’s Spectre is perhaps best known for.
So, what happened to Fantomah? Why did she disappear? The short answer is only Hanks’ bizarre imagination made her at all noteworthy, and later writers and artists would seriously depower her into some sort of normal adventurer of the jungle queen variety. Why turn into a flaming skull when you can just wrestle snakes as a normal human being?
Fantomah today is a public domain character, meaning anyone can use her, and to that end, she does occasionally pop up here and there. Most recently, she appeared in the series Hack/Slash, a series about a young girl and her large friend who take down “slashers” like the ones that ripped people to ribbons in 80s horror movies.
That seems rather appropriate for Fantomah, actually.