It’s very possible that you’ve never heard of Fantomah, our top vote-getter on “The Hardest-hitting Female Heroes of All Time!” Fantomah is considered by many to be the first female super-hero, debuting in Jungle Comics #2, February 1940, two years before Wonder Woman. The truly unique Fletcher Hanks provided the art and, likely, the story for her first 13 appearances before he suddenly vanished from the comic scene (using the pen name Barclay Flagg).
Some define the first female hero as Olga Mesmer, the Girl with X-Ray Eyes. She debuted in Spicy Mystery Stories in August 1937, nearly a year before Superman exploded on the scene in April 1938’s Action Comics. She had super-human strength and x-ray vision that killed people. She sounds awesome. Unfortunately, not much remains of her stories.
All of Fantomah’s stories have been archived and are amazingly bizarre, but is she truly a hero?
Some people look at her as an anti-hero or more of a mystical guardian, but she does transform into her blue skullface form to mete out her divine retribution. I would consider her an early anti-hero, similar to The Human Torch or the Sub-mariner from Marvel or Stardust the Super Wizard, also from Fletcher Hanks. These first anti-heroes were all created in late 1939 or early 1940.
Fantomah has a variety of mystical powers. She basically flies around, sometimes as just a floating human head with lightning around her, sometimes as a disembodied skull with lightning surrounding it.
She also looks like she works out. Most women depicted in comics at the time looked much more frail than Fantomah. She looks like she’s gonna knock out Org. I’d feel bad for him if he wasn’t such a total jerk.
In her first adventure, she guards the Elephant Graveyard from some unsavory types. Don’t worry. This is Fantomah and we’re talking Divine Retribution! They get what’s coming to them. In spades.
Angel Eyes hates the jungle. He sends the Flaming Claws to terrorize the people and the animals. The Claws look cool. Angel Eyes just looks like a creep. The floating head of Fantomah sees all.
Fantomah never has a repeat villain because she never leaves them unpunished… or living. Arco would make a good rogue for her gallery though. I wonder what powers a super scientist might have? I guess the ability to rise from the dead after 4000 years, for one.
Fantomah is not happy that soldiers are dropping in on her jungle.
Another awesome aspect of her stories is she didn’t faint. Many powerful women in comics have their power counter-balanced by fainting, headaches and dizziness or are drained of all power and completely helpless after an expenditure (sounds like a few male friends I know). Fantomah isn’t like that. She blasts the bad guys, stops them dead in their tracks and then keeps dishing out the pain.
For most men, having a beautiful jungle goddess and her vigilant eyes attracted to you is a good thing. Org is going to find out that having Fantomah’s gaze fall upon you will bring a world of hurt with it. Don’t feel bad for Org, though. He’s a jerk as well. Our jungle goddess seems to meet a lot of them, doesn’t she?
One of the coolest aspects was that Fantomah had no romance. Hey, don’t get me wrong; I’m not anti-romance or anything. Time and place for everything (or is it anything? ;)) Fantomah was before her time. She doesn’t have a boyfriend, no one’s trying to be King of the Jungle or the “God” to her “Goddess.” She’s a force of nature and she acts like it.
She cares about the animals too. The stories are simple, true, but also progressive for the time and medium. She treated the jungle and the animals as precious resources and protected them with all her terrifying might.
Hanks had the odd habit of showing his characters flying with the hands at their sides and their head down, as if they were shot from a cannon. Here is a rare drawing of Fantomah actually looking where she’s flying.
After a flurry of stories over a two year period, Fletcher Hanks suddenly disappeared. Decades later, he was found frozen to death on a park bench. No one knows what Hanks did for money in the intervening years, but his bizarre style never graced the pages of comic books again.
After Hanks’ disappearance, other writer-artist teams took over the series. It changed dramatically. Gone is the black party dress, the blonde curls, the blue skullface and the retribution.
She still uses magic lightning bolts in this first appearance. She even takes on a weird wizard type and transforms the wizard. It seems without her skull form she just doesn’t have the same conviction and she changes him back.
Even later, she changed again to become “The Daughter of the Pharaohs”. George Appel produced some decent art over a year’s worth of stories. The art started to deteriorate for the last couple of tales.
Her last Golden Age appearance was in Jungle Comics #51 in 1944.