Today we are going to give the ladies of superhero comics a chance to shine. While we have previously talked about Miss Victory, one of the earliest super heroines who beat Wonder Woman to the punch,
she was not the first super heroine. That honor belongs to the queen protector of the jungle: Fantomah.
Origin and career
Fantomah first appeared in Jungle Comics #2 which was published in February of 1940. She was written as a side story to the introduction of another superhero called the Red Panther.
Before we go on it’s worth mentioning a couple of things. First the company behind Jungle Comics was a pulp magazine publisher called Fiction House and one of the most popular pulp heroes at the time was the famous Tarzan.
It seems that copying much more successful characters and flooding the market with cheap copycats is nothing new. Anyway, Fiction House had a bit of success with their own pulp character Sheena: Queen of the Jungle (a character so popular that she would get her own television series)
and in 1940 they decided to expand their comic book line up by commissioning an artist named Henry Fletcher to create a knockoff of their own established success and help establish the new genre of the “white jungle goddess”: Fantomah.
When Fantomah was created it was eventually revealed that she was a former Egyptian relic who was endowed with the power of the gods i.e anything the creator could think of or whatever was needed for Fantomah to save the day. What makes her separate from most of her other jungle goddess counterparts is that her body would change whenever she needed to use her powers transforming form a gorgeous blonde to…
a living nightmare. Basically she was an all powerful avatar of justice and vengeance and boy did she have a lot to do. Her job was to protect her jungle and all its native inhabitants and over the course of her career she faced down evil miners, explorers, and mad scientists. She wasn’t afraid to deal out some harsh justice as well. There was one instance where an evil scientist attempts to create an army of super soldier gorillas and Fantomah decides the best course of action is to take the scientist and feed him to his own creation.
She was the first female in comic books to have a dual identity, supernatural powers, and she was created to expressly fight against evil. These are all the hallmarks of a modern superhero and Fantomah was the first.
So what happened?
Before we go any further, let’s address the pale elephant in the room. Fantomah: the great protector of the jungle and friend to all the animals and natives is white which can be viewed by many, including myself, to be racist as hell. The sad reality is that this was the standard operating procedure at the time and this sort of casual racism was the order of the day for pop culture heroes, especially exotic ones like Tarzan or Fantomah. Personally, I don’t like it and I’m sure a lot of others don’t like it, but it was the way things were back then and we can use examples like this to appreciate just how far we’ve come and as a lesson on what NOT to do with our characters.
You’ll also notice that Fantomah and her stories are…not very well drawn or written.
Fantomah was designed from the start to be a cheap and disposable character designed to fill out the pages of other comic book hero books and sadly she faded into obscurity. She was eventually re purposed in later appearances to share more similarities with her more popular unpowered counterpart Sheena
But sadly she would eventually fade into pop culture obscurity.
Still, Fantomah was the first lady in comic books to fight evil while having a dual identity and superpowers which makes her the very first female super heroine.