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Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle

Entry updated 7 August 2023. Tagged: Comics.

US Comic strip created by Fletcher Hanks under the pseudonym Barclay Flagg. First appeared in Jungle Comics #2 (February 1940); last appearance in issue #51 (March 1944). The stories can be divided into three styles: original (issues #2-#15); jungle girl (#16-#26) and Egyptian queen (#27-#51) (see Ancient Egypt in SF). The first period, by some considerable margin, is the most interesting.

The original Fantomah's plots usually involve men arriving to exploit or harm the jungle; many are evil Scientists, including the living mummy of an ancient Egyptian scientist. Fantomah punishes them all. Initially as she uses her Superpowers, her head becomes a glowing skull; then, from #10, her skull and skin also turn blue. Her abilities include near-godlike Psi Powers, ESP, Flying "on concentrated thought waves", transforming others and indestructibility.

The first story has two ivory hunters arriving at the elephants' graveyard; as they gloat over the ivory an uncanny skull-headed woman appears behind them, declaring intruders "shall never go out alive". So it proves: one, wanting the wealth for himself, stabs the other before perishing in quicksand. In other stories, Fantomah turns two thieves into weird, green, insect-like humanoids and returns them to their plane; as they fly home one observes, "Crime doesn't seem to pay" and the other agrees. A scientist develops a serum that increases ape Intelligence, planning to create a "beast-men" army to conquer the world. Another scientist plans to rule the jungle with "hypnotized giant reptiles"; Fantomah strands him on an Asteroid with the reptiles. Several slavers are melded into one man and given to a goblin-like race, which is only the beginning of his suffering. A millionaire bombs New York and then releases giant panthers onto the streets, intending it to become a "lost city" since he believes civilization has failed and this is the first step in his "return to primitive living" (see Pastoral) ... but Fantomah melts the planes, levitates the panthers and millionaire back to the jungle, then turns the latter into a caveman (see Apes as Human). Giant flaming hands menace the jungle – the only visible part of huge, invisible (see Invisibility) "chemical men", creatures created by an orphaned scientist wanting revenge on the jungle. Vahines – women who stand on running tigers – plan to kill all other women, so Fantomah draws a giant moonstone from a volcano, has it absorb the Vahines, then – by manipulating Gravity – crashes it into Mars.

From Jungle Comics #16 the stories are by "W B Hovius" and there are changes. The Villains change from being predominantly white men to mainly Africans and Arabs; the portrayal of both becomes noticeably more offensive (see Race in SF). Fantomah is no longer an aloof, imperious avenger, but more of a Sheena, Queen of the Jungle character, though still with a little Magic – her appearance no longer alters when she uses those powers (instead of turning blue, she has a blue one-piece bathing suit). She acquires a puma and – temporarily – an orphan boy as companions; the puma is named Fury; the boy, Ken. Then, in Jungle Comics #27, the strip becomes Fantomah, Daughter of the Pharaohs: a stranger, hailing Fantomah as the "legendary daughter of the Pharaohs" gives her a "sacred costume" – a bikini with an Egyptian style head-dress ... whereupon her hair changes from blonde to red. She becomes queen of the lost ancient Egyptian city of Khefra; though initially still a magic user – now calling upon Egyptian gods (see Gods and Demons) to perform it – this disappears after a few issues – similarly, genre tropes vanish too. But each has a last hurrah: there is an Underground Lost World with cavemen and Dinosaurs in Jungle Comics #48 and her magical powers are used in #49 to punish an army of fake mummies.

The original Fantomah is unlike any other female Superhero of the era, and there is also a strong case for her being the first (discussed under Miss Fury). The first 14 stories, in Jungle Comics #2-#15, are memorably odd; subsequent stories are Clichéd and forgettable.

Kaänga Comics #10 (Winter 1951-1952) included a strip, Jungle Girl, whose protagonist is called Fantomah – however, this is a Camilla (see Camilla, Queen of the Lost Empire) story with the character's name changed: Kaänga #8 (1958) also reprints it in this form. [SP]

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