This is a strange story.
It connects a pulp bad guy from 1929, a Japanese superhero from 1931, an American superhero from 1940, and an Italian master criminal from 1964.
The lot, because of my idea of doing something new with Fantomah.
Fantomah, as you’ll remember, was the jungle queen/daughter of the pharaohs created in 1940 by Fletcher Hanks,later variously re-imagined, and currently on the public domain. In her original incarnation she was a statuesque blonde that turned into a gray-blue skinned, skull-faced super-witch.
Now here’s my idea: in AMARNA1, one of the characters is a pulp magazine reader. He always carries a folded pulp mag in his back pocket. So, I thought I’ll make him read my stories about Fantomah, as published by Spicy Oriental Adventures (a title that, as far as I know, never existed). The idea, in other words, is to write and publish a serial-within-the serial. Short 3000-words episodes presenting my own take on Fantomah, as explained in a previous post.
It sounded easy, it sounded fun.
I would call this serial-within-a-serial The Curse of Fantomah.
Then, I started thinking about Fantaman, and my project started spiraling out of control.
Everything starts in Japan, in 1931, when a guy called Takeo Nagamatsu creates a superhero called Ōgon Bat (literally “Golden Bat”). Quoth Wikipedia…
Ōgon Bat has a golden, skull-shaped head, wears a green and white costume with a high-collared red cape, and carries a rapier. He lives in a fortress in the Japanese Alps. His superpowers include superhuman strength, invulnerability, and the ability to fly. Ōgon Bat has an evil counterpart known as Kurayami Bat (“Dark Bat”). His main enemy is Dr. Erich Nazō, the leader of a crime syndicate bent on world domination, who wears a black costume and mask with bat-like ears.
… and no kidding.
The character debuted in street-storytellers’ shows.
Now, the skull-face thing… not only Ogon Bat and Fantomah share the skull-face thing, but also an Egyptian origin. Consider, if you please, the plot of the 1966 movie about Ogon Bat…
Professor Yamatone and his family visit present day Egypt, and discover an ancient tomb belonging to a god of justice and protector of the weak known as Ogon Bat. When the Professor is taken captive later by Gorgo, agent of the evil Dr. Erich Nazō, his daughter Mari pleads for Ogon Bat to save her father. As she starts to cry, her tears fall in Ogon Bat’s tomb and revive him. From then on, Mari calls on Ogon Bat to fight against evil.
In the 1967 animated series about the character, we discover that Ogon Bat is actually the last survivor from Atlantis.
Which is interesting, because Robert E. Howard’s own Skull Face features a skull-faced Atlantean necromancer as the titular character and main bad guy.
The hands–but, oh God, the face! A skull to which no vestige of flesh seemed to remain but on which taut brownish-yellow skin grew fast, etching out every detail of that terrible death’s-head. The forehead was high and in a way magnificent, but the head was curiously narrow through the temples, and from under penthouse brows great eyes glimmered like pools of yellow fire. The nose was high-bridged and very thin; the mouth was a mere colorless gash between thin, cruel lips. A long, bony neck supported this frightful vision and completed the effect of a reptilian demon from some medieval hell.
Now I am not saying the Takeo Nagamatsu in 1931 Japan had had any access to the 1929 issues of Weird Tales in which the Howard story had been published. Nor can I prove that whoever wrote the 1967 Ogon Bat series had any knowledge of the Howard character.
I simply point out a curious coincidence.
Ogon Bat, on the other hand, was plagued by coincidences. Like the fact that he had a lookalike in Italy, the master-criminal Kriminal, created by Italian comic artists Magnus and Max Bunker. The character was an attempt at riding the colossal success of the comics featuring master criminal Diabolik.
Kriminal was more violent and sexier than Diabolik, but maybe because of this, he never got the same success.
Interestingly enough, two movies were made featuring the character … the first one coming out in in 1966, the same year of the Ogon Bat movie.
And when the Italian distributors bought the Ogin Bat movie, it was a no-brainer for them to tweak the translation, and present the movie as a Kriminal film.
Legal problems ensued, and the title had to be changed – and looking for something equally comic-book-friendly, the distributors settled for Diavolik – playing on Kriminal’s main inspiration and contender but changing a letter. But this was not enough, and further legal problems were brought up. The movie disappeared.
It was probably because of this naming chaos and legal tangle that, when a decade later the Ogon Bat animated series was imported in Italy, the distributor decided to play it safe, and called the character Fantaman.
That, you will agree, sounds a lot like Fantomah.
All of this came to me as I was jotting down the first episode of Curse of Fantomah, my serial-within-a-serial.
Ancient Egypt. Atlantis. Sorcerers and necromancers. Skull-faced, super-powered individuals…
Is it possible, I wondered, to fit everything into a single setting, using Ogon Bat, Skull Face and maybe even Kriminal/Diavolik/Fantaman as sources for the background mythos of Fantomah?
Well, my Patreon supporters will learn soon, as I’ll hit them with the first episode of The Curse of Fantomah in a few days (as soon as the Italian version’s ready). Non-supporters will have to wait longer.
But boy is this writing business fun!
- first episode coming in two weeks, watch out! ↩