REIGN IN BLOOD: The secret mark that French pulp villain FANTOMAS left on the Twentieth Century, by Erik Morse (Arthur, 2008)


The secret mark that French pulp villain Fantômas left on the Twentieth Century

By Erik Morse

Art direction by Mark Frohman and Molly Frances

Originally published in Arthur No. 28 (March, 2008)

Early in 1911 popular French publishing house Fayard released the first of 32 monthly serial novels of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre’s Fantômas. Subtitled ‘A Shadow on the Guillotine,’ this ultra-violent pulp tale recounted the exploits of the eponymous master villain as he reined blood and magick upon the boulevards of Paris. Pursued by police inspector, Juve, and his journalist sidekick, Jerome Fandor, Fantômas slaughters members of French high-society indiscriminately before stealing away with their wealth and, often, their very identities—in his travels between the Dordogne and Paris, Fantômas dispatches the Marquise de Langrune, her steward Dollon, Lord Beltham, Princess Sonia Danidoff, the famed actor Valgrand and a passenger liner full of travelers en route to South America. When Fantômas, alias Etienne Rambert, alias Gurn, is apprehended by Juve at Lady Beltham’s villa, he is brought to trial at the Palais de Justice, found guilty of murder and condemned to the guillotine. However with the aid of his mistress, Fantômas steals away from his Santé prison cell and fills the vacancy with an unsuspecting look-a-like who is left to the blade. When Juve discovers the ruse, he proclaims, “Curses! Fantômas has escaped! Fantômas is free! He had an innocent man executed in his place! Fantômas! I tell you, Fantômas is alive.” 

Within months of its February debut, the Fantômas serial became a pop smash with the reading public, profiting no doubt from the French public’s unquenchable thirst for violence, mayhem and pulp. At 65 centimes a copy, sales for each volume reached easily into the hundreds of thousands. American poet and Fantômas enthusiast John Ashbery contends that the real success of the serial was its transcendence of class, education and sex, from “Countesses and concierges: poets and proletarians; cubists, nascent Dadaists, soon-to-surrealists. Everyone who could read, and even those who could not, shivered at posters of a masked man in impeccable evening clothes, dagger in hand, looming over Paris like a somber Gulliver, contemplating hideous misdeeds from which no citizen was safe.” Such was the popular reaction to the Fayard publication, Marcel Allain would later recall, with some hyperbole, “The adventures of Fantômas have surpassed those of the Bible.”

Nearly a hundred years later, we can see the frightening metastasis of the master of crime’s “brand”—from his beginnings amongst the Right Bank sophisticates who released him upon the world, to the marauding gangs plundering and murdering in his name, to the sacrificial cults who would congregate at the witching hour to reenact his sins. His trangressions—bold, fiendish and inexplicable—were the narratives of nightmares. Fantômas captured the imagination of his admirers and extended his influence through the artistic genealogies of Europe, leaving a catechism of excess, debauchery and violence to a brood as varied as Pablo Picasso, Andre Breton, Jean Cocteau, Georges Bataille, Alain Robbe-Grillet, James Joyce, Guillaume Apollinaire, Robert Desnos, Jean Marais, Alain Resnais, René Magritte, Francois Truffaut; and the Mike Patton-Buzz Osbourne-Trevor Dunn-Dave Lombardo art-rock superband of the same name. In their major contributions to the century, the words and deeds of France’s supreme villain pullulate still more revolutionary achievements and still darker crimes.

Here, in this extended fait-diver, is the unedited, uncensored and untold history of the criminal of the century.

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The bantamweight boxing champion managed by Jean Cocteau

Panama Al Brown

“When the eminent French poet Jean Cocteau died last October at the age of 74, his obituaries noted that he had followed an astounding number of part-time careers as well—novelist, playwright, choreographer, film director, critic and artist. But Cocteau’s journalistic biographers overlooked the most bizarre of his avocations: he was once the successful manager of a world champion prizefighter.

“The fighter was Alphonse Theo Brown, better known as Panama Al Brown, born in Panama in 1902, a lean, spindly-legged, thin-waisted boxer who won the bantamweight title when he was 26 years old. With a scrupulous exactitude that was rare for him—he was one of the most tireless name-droppers in the history of literature—Cocteau insisted that he was not Brown’s manager in a professional sense, that there was no contract or financial arrangement between them. But, in fact, Cocteau got to know Brown when he was down on his luck, persuaded him to train, selected opponents for him, directed a masterly publicity campaign on Brown’s behalf and guided and goaded Brown back to the championship. Nor is the sporting significance of this feat to be underrated. Unlike America, where the heavyweight class has long dominated public interest-even as it does this very week—Europe has always revered the smaller fighters, from the middleweights down. A flashy Al Brown could be, and was, the talk of Paris.

“No professional manager could have done a better job than Cocteau did with Brown, and probably no one in boxing history ever had less preparation for it…”

—from Robert Cantwell’s introduction to a long excerpt drawn from Monstres Sacres du Ring by Georges Peeters, published in the March 2, 1964 issue of Sports Illustrated. Here are links to both:

The Poet And The Boxer by Robert Cantwell

How Cocteau Managed A Champion by Georges Peeters

Today's Autonomedia Jubilee Saint – HULDRYCH ZWINGLI

Swiss protestant radical leader, humanist leveller.


1424 — Religious reformer Jan Zizka dies.
1531 — Swiss religious rebel Huldrych Zwingli killed in Battle of Kappel.
1868 — Electric vote recorder patented, Edison’s first invention.
1874 — Masseseditor Mary Heaton Vorse born, New York City.
1924 — Founding of the Bureau of Surrealist Research.
1961 — Film comedian Chico Marx dies.
1963 — Jean Cocteau dies, Milley-la-Fôret, Paris, France.

Excerpted from The 2009 Autonomedia Calendar of Jubilee Saints: Radical Heroes for the New Millennium by James Koehnline and the Autonomedia Collective