Why Captain America Should Fight Fantomah
Stardust by Mr Fletcher Hanks From Fantastic #8: The Emerald Men of Asperus, July 1940. Published in Fletcher Hanks: You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation, 2009. Image courtesy of Fantagraphics Books
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Nope, it's just Fantomah and Stardust.
The greatest superpower of all is continuous financial viability. The superheroes we see on screen today have been around for 50 years, sometimes as long as 80 years, longer than practically anything we still pay attention to. Robust, pliable, capacious, they’ve adapted to generation after generation, emerging at the end as the supreme products of the pop-cultural evolutionary process. All these epic battles we see at the multiplex are between two or more opponents who have already been tested many, many times. Which is why I wish, just once, we could find some room for the dead ends, the non-starters, the runts, the superheroes who haven’t been burnished by success or sculpted by history, the ones who never got a chance to prove themselves.
Stardust by Mr Fletcher Hanks, from BIG THREE COMICS #2: De Structo & the Headhunter, 1941. Published in Fletcher Hanks: I Shall Destroy All Civilized Planets, 2009. Image courtesy of Fantagraphics Books
The late 1930s and early 1940s were a period of extraordinary fertility in the young field of superhero comics (fictionalised in Mr Michael Chabon's masterpiece The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay). Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain America all came out of what fans call the Golden Age of Comics, but so did Doctor Hormone, who fought crime with endocrine injections; Nelvana of the Northern Lights, who was Canada’s first superhero; and The Eye, who was just a giant floating eye.
My own favourites from this period are Fantomah and Stardust the Super Wizard, both created by Mr Fletcher Hanks, a cartoonist who had a little bit of a revival a few years ago after the indie comics publisher Fantagraphics brought out two collections of his work. Hanks’ work is awkward and amateurish, but also singular and mesmerising; it's been compared to the outsider art of Mr Henry Darger. Fantomah is a flying jungle woman whose face sometimes turns into a blue skull, while Stardust is an all-powerful alien in a leotard. They say things like, “You tried to destroy the heads of a great nation, so your own head shall be destroyed!” and “In civilisation, murderers die by electricity or by gas or by hanging, but in the jungle, they die by the forces of nature!”
In today's films, superheroes tend to defeat each other by strength and courage. Fantomah and Stardust might get a long way with sheer strangeness. No one would know what to do about these two relics, with their stilted diktats, their inhuman expressions, their whimsical brutality. Superhero battles assume a basic degree of compatibility, of conceptual overlap, but these two simply don’t fit – they feel more genuinely alien than any big-screen aliens.
Fantomah by Mr Fletcher Hanks, from Jungle #11: The Scarlet Shadow, November 1940. Published in Fletcher Hanks: You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation, 2007. Image courtesy of Fantagraphics Books
Furthermore, while Superman and Captain America are freighted by decades of symbolism, precedent, and commercial track record, Fantom and Stardust are voids, unknown and unpredictable. They would force open some new spaces within the conventional superhero film, for bathos, confusion and avant-gardism. Which is one reason why we will probably never see them in a blockbuster. Nevertheless, I like to imagine that somewhere, Fantomah and Stardust are watching these films on TV, grumbling at the screen about how they could do better, still waiting for the phone to ring after all these years.