Much of what is known about Fantomas could only be reconstructed a great deal later by putting together the evidence from crimes and investigations over a span of decades. In recent years, a few journalists and historians have pulled the records together and sifted them, and what follows is a summary of what most of them agree on.
Fantomas appeared in Paris in 1903, but the man who took on the mask – a supposed English aristocrat and failed claimant to a dukedom – had been a criminal for years. He just found it convenient to invent a mysterious identity to commit his crimes in, to avoid having them connected to one of his known personalities.
Born in 1867, he was already an accomplished swindler and thief by 1892, when, operating in the German statelet of Hesse-Weimar, he styled himself Archduke Juan North and fathered a child, Vladimir, with a noblewoman whose identity was concealed (perhaps not necessarily in order to protect the innocent, given her part in his son's activities in World War One, on which more below). The relationship collapsed when his lover denounced him and sent him to prison. Fantomas never seems to have had any revenge for this, but little is known for certain about either party.
In 1895, having broken the Hesse-Weimar jail, the future Fantômas went to India, where he joined forces with a degenerate, Oxford-educated Indian rajah with whom he shared an English lover. This woman gave birth to one child, Hélène, never knowing who the father was. The degenerate rajah was captured and executed by his own family, his lover fled to South Africa with Helene. The mother is believed to have come to a bad end; Hélène eventually made her way to Paris.
In 1897, Fantômas was in the United States of America and Mexico. There, he ruined his then-business partner, Etienne Rambert.
In 1899, he fought in the Second Boer War in South Africa under the name of Gurn. He swindled his way into the British Army, taking the role of an artillery sergeant whose death he had procured. He became aide-de-camp to Lord Edward Beltham of Scottwell Hill and fell in love with his younger wife, Lady Maud Beltham. Lord Edward, a Bohemian type, went to live in Paris after the war. The so-called Sgt.Gurn followed him and Lady Beltham. This ended in the murder of Lord Edward, when he confronted the lovers in their Paris love nest at Rue Levert. With typical brutality, Gurn hit him with a hammer then strangled him. At some point before this, he had begun to wear the mask and black dress of Fantomas to commit his crimes, and his new identity soon became headline newspaper fodder.
Fantômas impersonated Etienne Rambert and framed his son, Charles, for a murder he had committed. As Etienne, he persuaded Charles to go into hiding, but the young man was soon found out by French police detective Juve, truly obsessed with the capture of Fantômas. Juve knew that Charles was innocent and gave him a new identity: journalist Jerôme Fandor who is employed at the newspaper La Capitale. Juve later arrested Gurn and, at his trial, brought forward a convincing argument that Gurn and Fantômas were one and the same, though the evidence was too circumstantial to make a real case. On the eve of his execution, Gurn/Fantômas escaped from custody by being replaced by an actor who had modelled the appearance of his latest character after him and was guillotined in his place.
Lady Beltham remained constantly torn between her passion for the villain and her horror at his criminal schemes. She eventually committed suicide in 1910.
The golden age of Fantomas may have begun to dim with her death. Sick and perverted though their relationship was, it is certain that he had some kind of need for her, and no other woman ever filled it for him. Shortly after this we can date his first absolute failure: his enemy Fandor fell in love with Hélène and, despite Fantômas's repeated attempts to break them up, married her.
Fantômas's evil son, Vladimir, reappeared in 1911. Although it was not clear at the time, Vladimir was working with his mother , Frau von X, Fantomas' old flame before he was Fantomas; and behind her lay the power of the Secret Chancellery, then committed to Germany and Austria in the coming war. Vladimir turned on his father, and this time an innocent paid the price - Vladimir's girlfriend died in the struggle between father and son, and Vladimir had to flee his father's vengeance, pretending to have been shot by Juve.
Ironically, the first Fantomas died in the early days of World War One without having done anything to deserve it. He was in his late forties and had intended to retire, when a stray German bullet killed him as he tried to reach Antwerp and embark for England before the Germans overran the country. Not in any way patriotic or self-sacrificing, he knew nevertheless that the vengeance of his son and her mother would reach him anywhere German arms were active, and in fact both were furious when the civilian corpse was identified by Belgian police under German supervision.
FANTOMAS II (team of German agents)
Though Frau von X and Vladimir knew who the dead man was, nobody else did, and Paris and all France still lived under the nightmare of Fantomas. So the German secret services had Vladimir train some of their best agents – and of those whose French and English was the most fluent – to cross the lines and become Fantomas, This was the second Fantomas – not one man, but some twenty German agents under Vladimir's leadership. They sowed terror in France and the allied countries, until Juve, in his last and greatest investigation, broke the ring and arrested almost every one of them, sending them all to the firing squad as spies. Vladimir escaped.
In the early twenties, Vladimir was in Istanbul, taking advantage of the collapse of the Turkish Empire and the civil war to mop up the treasures of fleeing Greeks and Armenians and enemies of Kemal Pasha (later Ataturk), and resurrecting the identity of Fantomas for the occasion. Once he was paid money to ferry dozens of Greeks and Ataturk opponents away from Turkey, only to hand them straight to Ataturk's secret services and certain death, and be paid for it in turn; to avoid any unpleasantness, he had dealt with the refugees in his own person, and then pretended that the terrible Fantomas had taken over the ship they were using and turned it back to Turkey. Once Ataturk had tightened the screws on the city, Vladimir made his way back to Germany and his old contacts. He had learned that war is very good business.
FANOTMAS IV (the American)
Another Fantomas appeared shortly after in America. He was a German-American, one of the German agents trained by Vladimir, the only one apart from Vladimir himself to escape Juve and the French firing squads. He had made it to America thanks to the help of some rather murky German-American relatives, and he and his relatives, who were in the beer business, had seen the great opportunity of Prohibition. This Fantomas operated in the States along with his gang of former German-American spies and imported thugs – he regularly smuggled criminals and political murderers out of Germany to strengthen his ranks. He kept going, making money and killing people, until the early thirties, when he was killed by Sicilian rivals. Or at least so it is thought: he just vanished from sight, and shortly after a rumour started going around that Murder Inc. - the executioners of Cosa Nostra - had got him. His network collapsed and most of his thugs went back to Germany, where the new Nazi government welcomed them with open arms.
FANTOMAS III again
Vladimir became a go-between in the secret and very illegal dealings between the German and Soviet governments, which allowed Germany to develop an air force against the dictates of Versailles. He still kept his hand in as a thief, mainly in France, both to keep attention away from his business dealings and to keep the French scared and nervous. As he was growing old, he began to train his son – born in 1919, nobody knows who from – to become Fantomas; the only regular succession that the mask ever had. Vladimir died in a British bombardment in 1940, having neglected to protect himself properly.
His son Feodor kept the family tradition up by going to Turkey, where he organized a huge oil stealing and smuggling operation, taking Iraqi oil through Turkey to Germany with the help of disgruntled Arabs and bribed Turkish officials. He could have done even more, if only the Germans had had the resources to take more oil, but he certainly did a lot of harm. At the end of the war, he moved to the Far East, where he saw opportunities in the Communist insurgencies in China, Malaya, and later Vietnam.
FANTOMAS VI (Agent King)
Vietnam was his downfall. In 1963, a young, ruthless American agent called King infiltrated his operation, killed him and took his place. For a long time King managed to keep his superiors in the CIA happy while effectively building up his own power base and feathering his own nest; but as things grew worse in Vietnam, his interests and theirs diverged. In the Teraverse, the movie Apocalypse Now was based on fact: King had built up his own force, had become a power and a loose cannon, and the USA had felt the need to take him down. Except that the hit failed – but you can't blame Francis Ford Coppola for faking facts, because in fact nobody found out until much later, when King really did die. He faked his death convincingly, and continued his activities as Fantomas, whom nobody had thought of associating with him.
King/Fantomas based himself on a previously uninhabited island in the South China Sea, claimed by Cambodia and Vietnam, and set up a new kind of criminal organization: a kind of criminal agency, bringing together experts in every area of criminal activity – forgers, drugs and poison chemists, hit-men, gem cutters, electronics specialists, engineers, financial experts – whose services he used himself or hired out for money. His island was far enough from Roanapur not to make raids convenient, but close enough for plenty of business to be transacted between the crook nation and the outlaw island. King's hired experts made a peculiar society, a small number of murderous high artisans served by a larger but still tiny number of local pirates who had made their homes in a makeshift village on the island. When Cambodia and Vietnam fell, the flight of boat people began, and pirates began to batten on them. King was not displeased at this, seeing in it not only a profitable sideline but a way to keep his subordinates' teeth sharp.
FANTOMAS VII (Diabolik)
However, when they found a toddler alive alone on a boat with a dozen dead adults and older children, they decided to keep him. The child grew up on the island, in an extraordinary condition of mingled neglect and attention, learning from everything and everyone around him and absorbing their various professional skills. They called him Diabolik, after a panther that King had shot, but also in recognition of his cunning and quick wits.
Meanwhile, King grew older and more paranoid. By the late nineties he was in his fifties and young Diabolik was in his teens. In everyone's eyes but King's, Diabolik was his clear successor; in King's, however, he was a threatening, presence, young, strong, virile and dangerously multi-talented. When Diabolik came up with an extraordinary and very promising invention – a formula for artificial face masks that mimicked real faces down to the smallest detail and felt real to the touch – king decided to kill him. However, it was he who died, after finding out that Diabolik had guessed his purposes and made a mask in his own image. Diabolik then dissolved the King syndacate and vanished in the East for a few years.
He re-emerged in Paris around the turn of the century, having added to his numerous skill a disreputable but effective brand of martial arts, and soon gained a lover and accomplice in the rebellious aristocratic beauty Eva Kant. Since then he has been a thorn in the side of European, and occasionally Asian and American, law enforcement agencies, pulling thefts so outrageous that on one occasion they contributed to the collapse of a currency. He has stolen from everyone, including the Esteemed Order and the League of Assassins, and while they never managed to pay him or Eva Kant back, they have killed a number of friends of his down the year. There is an implacable feud between Fantomas VII and many criminal organizations.
FANTOMAS VII (DIABOLIK) and EVA KANT
Fantomas VII and Eva Kant are partners in the most seamless way, something which baffles and often defeats their victims and their enemies. They are each other's fearsome back-up; their plans always rely on the presence of the other, and they have often got each other out of the most desperate situations. They are absolutely a partnership, firmer than any other among villains.
Nobody knows who Diabolik really is, including himself. He was found one grey day in November 1978, the only living thing in a drifting boatful of starved and murdered boat people, off the tortured coast of Kampuchea. His captors, themselves criminals in the pay of the renegade CIA agent King (Fantomas VI), capriciously decided to keep him as a pet, and King allowed him to stay on his island. King, a criminal contractor with no loyalties but excellent relationships with criminal cartels the world over, had gathered a gang of experts in various areas of criminal skill – a chemist specializing in poisons, a surgeon with skills both in traumatic injuries and in plastic surgery, a couple of car engineers capable of doing anything with anything with an internal combustion engine, a skilled and unscrupulous jewel cutter, a crooked financial expert with agents among the fences of the world, and a few weapons experts including the greatest knife master of his time, a man whose name was never made public. He committed crimes both on his own initiative and on commission, and also dealt with the cover-up of crimes committed by others and arranged the sale of particularly hot items. As the child, who had got the nickname “Diabolik” by the adults, grew up, he hung around their various labs and workplaces and absorbed their skills like a sponge.
Eventually King grew old and paranoid, and looked at the strong young man not as an heir but as a menace. Diabolik was compelled to kill before he was killed. He then vanished in the Far East, and the best that can be made out is that he sharpened his fighting skills with disreputable back street fighting masters and degraded senseis, till he had added high-quality fighting to his other skills. Then, with no name, no family, no knowledge except for what he had gained from high-rank criminals and criminalized martial arts masters, this young man was unleashed upon the world.
Fantomas VII is six foot tall and solidly built, bearing the signs of mixed European and Indo-Chinese ancestry. His hair is black and cut Marine-short. His eyes are his most remarkable feature, of East Asian cut but the palest blue in colour, they are often described as “steely” and can inflict terror without effort, especially when he wears his black body stocking that leaves only those dreadful eyes visible. There have been cases of people literally dying of fear, from heart attacks, in his presence. He is a formidable athlete, in permanent training, and a competent fighter – although he avoids physical confrontations if he can, preferring to plan in advance for every eventuality. Although quite good with guns, he hardly ever carries anything except knives. He is probably the best knifeman alive, and has more than once worked (in disguise) as a trick knife thrower in a circus.
His first years in Europe were a bloodbath. Crime after crime was marked by an absolutely ruthless attitude to human life. People were killed just so he could take their place, or because they were in the way. On a couple of occasion he killed, one after another, the members of a whole family, so as to convey vast inheritances to fake identities set up for the purpose. The only time he is known to have held his hand is when a desperate woman set herself up for “suicide by Fantomas;” having realized what she was up to, he told her that “I do not kill those who are already dead.”
He met Eva Kant a few months after moving to Paris and taking the false identity of Walter Doria (the first of the false inheritance-stealing identities, which he still uses). Supposedly a scion of the rich and blue-blooded Anglo-South African house of Kant, she had gained her name – and avenged her mother – by deceiving the last of the Kant into a marriage he had not long survived. (He had actually died in a hunting accident, but that had only saved her the trouble.) This was her vengeance for her mother, who had been destroyed by the previous generation of Kants for having been the lover of one of them, and for having herself been thrown by the Kants into a cruel orphanage that was one of Europe's ugly secrets, where rich and titled families sent children they wanted to be rid of. Eva and Fantomas VII fell in love practically at first sight, and have been utterly loyal to each other, no matter what, ever since. Eva is five foot ten and a bit, slender and athletic, a green-eyed natural blonde, and so naturally poised and elegant that even policemen find it natural to call her “Lady Kant” even as they are handcuffing her. Already a dangerous woman before she met Diabolik, he has trained her to his own exceptional levels, and she is now as lethal as he is – perhaps more so, because people still tend to undervalue her.
Diabolik/Fantomas and Eva Kant have changed since their bloodstained early years. Perhaps the changing point was a dreadful caper during which he unintentionally caused the death of a small girl – and watched her die. These days they don't kill except in self-defence or for vengeance. They have even made a few friends, both among the criminal classes – especially strays with whom they cooperated – and among law-abiding citizens, and they worry about their safety. In fact, being their friend can be dangerous: on one occasion, four of them were killed to take vengeance on Diabolik and Eva.
Diabolik still likes to insist that he is a murderer with no particular ethics, but in fact he has a few deeply rooted ones. He will destroy criminals with no honour; he keeps his word no matter what; he does not trade in drugs; he does not steal or kidnap for ransom. What is more, there are times when his indignation at some particularly vile piece of criminality gets the better of him, and he sets out to destroy the perp with no regard for his own advantage. God help, especially, anyone he finds abusing or killing little children. Eva Kant is even more of a Robin Hood figure, and Diabolik has had to complain with her more than once when she decides to go on some "crusade" of her own - as he calls them. This corresponds with their different origins: he is a foundling who has grown up among criminals and eventually had to kill the very man who had taken him in in order not to be killed himself, while she is the daughter of a woman who was abused and ruined by the aristocratic Kants, and had her own childhood destroyed by them as well. He begins in a blind struggle for survival, she in a desperate but clear-headed struggle for vengeance. They still are thieves and they will kill cops, guards or armed criminals who are in their way, regarding them pretty much as a soldier in war regards a soldier in enemy uniform.
Their activities are enormously expensive: they need hideouts in several cities and countries, each made to look as respectably middle-class and prosperous as possible, each full of hidden laboratories, safes and man-traps; also a great deal of high-tech engineering gear and other machinery; cars; building material (they regularly set up police-stopping traps at suitable places in roads, so as to be able to drop pursuit when they want); clothes and make-up, and the famous masks that can make them look like almost anyone. So they favour huge and “impossible” jobs. They penetrate massively defended underground vaults in impossible conditions, steal whole cargos of gold from moving trains, and – a favourite – hijack loads of old banknotes sent for burning. They often target other criminals, for the logical reason that criminals deal in untraceable cash or precious metals and jewels, all stuff that can be readily converted and used, and that they cannot go to the police; and Diabolik firmly believes, and so far has been proven right, that nobody can outsmart him, let alone him and Eva together.
In his early days, Fantomas VII also stole art treasures for ransom or fencing. Since then he has become more sensitive to beauty – he had, for a while, a kind of personal museum made of beautiful items he had stolen but not wanted to sell. Also, one of their few friends is a professor of history of art who takes a very dim view of damaging or hiding historical artistic treasures. At his request, they stopped another thief who had damaged historical artifacts, and forced her to promise never to do it again.
In spite of these evidences of ethics and maturity, neither Diabolik nor Eva expect to ever be reconciled with society. The hundreds of dead they left behind, especially in their first few years, are too huge a barrier. Dozens of dead policemen mean that the police will never let up on them, and hundreds of victims mean thousands of ordinary people hate them personally. Several things suggest that they expect, one day, to go down side by side, in a police trap, or be destroyed by one of the many criminal syndicates they have repeatedly robbed and humiliated. One pathetic indication of what they expect is that they have taken great care never to have a child or the care of one, though they both love children.
COMMISSAIRE (INSPECTOR) YVES GENCAULT
Yves Gencault has earned his status (which he hates) as the star of the French state police. Rigid, humourless and fiercely by-the-book, he saved all his imagination and intuition for understanding and out-thinking villains. Although he is mainly known for his clashes with Fantomas – he is the only man to have ever managed to arrest him or Eva Kant, and he has done so more than once – he is just a brilliant investigator in general, with the best clean-up rate in his entire force.
Gencault's life has been marked by the ruin of his father, a widely respected high court judge who was found guilty of corruption and racketeer involvement. When the horrified young Yves realized that the charges were all true, he seems to have committed himself to cleaning up the family name somehow. With a background like that, even entering the Police Academy was a stretch, but he made it, and soon he was setting records. The distrust that went with his father's name stood in his way for a while, but could not survive for ever in the face of his dedication, his fanatical honesty, and his brilliance.
He was promoted to Inspector (Commissaire) just as Fantomas VII hit town, and his very first success was to identify and almost arrest him. In the following months, he tore off the layers of false identities and business concerns that Fantomas VII had woven around himself. Although he only briefly had him in handcuffs – Eva Kant, whose affair with him was still unknown, freed him – the loss of his arrangements, and being exposed before he had planned to, were serious blows to the fledgling master criminal. A few people down the years have found it curious that Fantomas VII, who had proved able to kill almost anyone in spite of any defence, had never made an attempt on Gencault's life. Perhaps he respects him, but it is certain that Gencault is well sheltered and always on the look-out. As another villain who had to do with him said, you've got to get up pretty early in the morning to beat that damned inspector.
Perhaps because of the hidden but unforgotten shame of his father, Gencault sticks to the laws with the most obstinate rigidity. Faced with a man who has killed dozens of colleagues and broken out of three prisons (plus two that Gencault did not know about), almost any other policeman would have staged a little accident as soon as they arrested either Diabolik or Eva; Gencault obstinately tries to deliver them alive to prison. But not many people reproach him for it, especially among his colleagues. He is not only a formidable investigator, but a great leader who gets the most intense loyalty from his men. He has earned it on the field, never telling them to go where he would not go himself, and doing things like walking into a live minefield to rescue an injured policeman. He has a positive influence on the whole force: policemen around him are unusually dedicated and upright, and on the rare occasions where a rotten apple turns up, it is a surprise for everyone, and a personal grief for him. Most tellingly, his own enemy Fantomas has never thought of seeking out or using corrupt police officers in Gencault's neighbourhood.
In spite of his extreme legalism, Gencault has a bohemian streak in his private life, mainly taking the shape of an irregular but passionate and highly physical relationship with the rich and beautiful Grafin Althea von Wallenberg, a woman with the blood of kings and emperors in her veins. Althea has frequently been involved in his police business, and on a couple of occasions met Fantomas face to face. On one occasion he saved her life.
Althea and his men often tease him by calling him "Ginko," the bizarre misspelling of his name that once appeared in an Italian newspaper. Without their mockery, it would have long since been forgotten.