By Jarrod Jones. As the Chapterverse grows, so too must its shadows.
Fantomah explores the darker corners of the Chapterhouse superhero universe, and yet it’s set quite apart from it. Paz Gallegos doesn’t rub elbows with the Agents of P.A.C.T. or run into some calamity alongside Captain Canuck. She takes care of her family. She keeps them safe. And her nightmares — such angry nightmares — have begun to manifest into… something. Something that’s beginning to shape the way Paz interacts with the world.
When danger lurks, Paz becomes Fantomah, the Weeping Woman. She’s Chapterhouse’s very own spirit of vengeance, ripped from the Golden Age of comics and set upon the evildoers of today. When I spoke with the creative team of Fantomah, I asked what they felt was the enduring appeal of a character created back in 1940.
Artist Soo Lee has an answer. “People […] want to see more diverse women in the spectrum of heroes“, she says. “I think people like the kind of heroes who are atypical.”
That’s a sentiment shared by the writer of Fantomah, Ray Fawkes. “Fantomah is such a strong, wild concept that it felt completely natural to keep her going and start telling new stories about her,” he tells me. “She’s been updated, but all the Golden Age heroes around today have been — and her core remains the same: monster woman defending the hidden places from evil.”
Ray Fawkes and Soo Lee spoke with me about Fantomah, working on the first female superhero (Google it!), and lurking in the darker corners of the Chapterverse.
1. Fantomah is widely considered to be the first female superhero, preceding Wonder Woman by at least two years. With a pedigree like that, and her new home being Chapterhouse Comics, how will Fantomah sit among the publisher’s superhero pantheon? Is Fantomah a character primed for team-ups with Captain Canuck, or is this meant as a more intimate take on the character?
Soo Lee: I really hope she is! She’s definitely not your typical hero; she’s adorned in dark colors and Gothic-styled attire, who turns in to a somewhat grotesque/scary figure. She’s definitely unique and strange. And I like strange. I think her character is refreshing and weird and seeing her go through the motions with her inner demons make her a much more relatable person. I think she would make a very unique addition, but her uniqueness is fitting to a standalone universe. But we’ll have see!
Ray Fawkes: Fantomah is an outlier in the Chapterhouse universe, but she is a hero, and she deserves to take her place next to all the other heroes in her world. Part of her story is about that — about the fact that Fantomah is a hero to the ignored and the forgotten, and though she might be lonely and quiet, she has no less of an impact on the world than the big names like Captain Canuck. There’s something not altogether accidental about making our Fantomah a very quiet operator too — a lot of people in our world have no idea she was the first female superhero.
2. What is it about Fantomah that keeps the character around to this day? Of all the characters that have struggled to survive Golden Age obscurity, Fantomah is one of the more peculiar ones to come out the other side.
SL: I think it’s because she’s, like I’ve mentioned, a strange character! People would want to see more diverse women in the spectrum of heroes and I think people like the kind of heroes who are atypical. I personally love that a female character can transform into this bizarre scary looking figure.
RF: I agree with Soo. Fantomah is such a strong, wild concept that it felt completely natural to keep her going and start telling new stories about her. She’s been updated, but all the Golden Age heroes around today have been — and her core remains the same: monster woman defending the hidden places from evil.
3. ‘Fantomah’ #1 establishes Paz Gallegos as a human vessel for the avenging spectre. What kind of relationship does Paz have with Fantomah — is this a Jim Corrigan type of partnership, where one is often at the mercy of the other, or is this going to develop into more of a congenial Prof. Stein/Ronnie Raymond sort of deal?
SL: I really can’t be sure. We’ll just have to find out!
RF: I don’t want to give it away. Paz would like to think that Fantomah is not quite under her control — a distinct personality, with its own thoughts and desires — but in reality it’s a lot more complicated than that. She certainly has never tried talking to Fantomah like a friend — but that isn’t to say she won’t give it a go in the future. Keep reading!
4. Tell me how each of you became involved with this book, if you would.
RF: Chapterhouse asked if I’d like to be involved in bringing Fantomah back and I jumped at the chance.
SL: I think I just got lucky! This is the type of character I’ve always wanted to work on; I’ve talked with the wonderful folks at Chapterhouse and we knew this team would be a good fit for this character. And we just made it happen!
5. Fantomah’s origins are a bit murky, as is her power set. (At one point she gained her powers from an Egyptian relic, and a good chunk of her Golden Age appearances depicted her as the “savior of the jungle”.) When you were assembling ‘Fantomah’, how did you decide which facets of the character’s history would remain, and which would get the ol’ heave-ho?
SL: I think this is more of a question Ray can answer!
RF: I wanted to keep her as “saviour of the Jungle” in some sense — and she still is, but, as I mentioned above, I interpreted it more as “saviour of the invisible places”, and drew a line between the wilderness and an impoverished neighbourhood. I wanted to keep her strength, her rage, and her terrifying demeanour, and worked from there. I like that her origins and the limits of her power set are murky — in part because it gives us wide latitude in our stories, which is fun, and in part because it makes her much, much more frightening. The first response of most of the characters she goes up against is: “What is she?” and I like that they have no answer.
6. How far into the character’s horror trappings are you prepared to go? Is Fantomah going to be a righteous sort of crusader, or will there be terrible consequences for Paz as she unleashes her newfound power?
SL: Since Ray is brains behind Paz, this is a question only he can answer! But to put my two cents in, I love when things get darker.
RF: Terrible consequences. I’m writing an issue right now that deals with them directly. Fantomah feels righteous, and it’s debatable whether her methods or reasons are good — but the kind of war she wages would take a toll on anyone.
7. Paz Gallegos lives with a family that shares the Catholic faith. In some panels, she can be seen wearing earrings in the shape of the Cross. How does Paz’s Catholicism come into play in ‘Fantomah’? Or will it?
RF: It does come into play. Paz comes from a place of faith, and that faith both helps and hinders her. On the one hand, she believes in a very clear-cut set of rules about right and wrong, good and evil. On the other, she’s taking punishing the guilty into her own hands, which is a sin. Fantomah’s manifestation through Paz is also affected by Catholic folk tales — something that will also come into play in the book.
SL: I think this is something that helps her internally throughout the series. I think it brings a kind of comfort and something that grounds her. The earrings I think are a good touch and I think it shows that the faith might be a part of her wherever she goes and they’re not just there for fashion.
8. A contemporary setting, a Spanish background — are these changes to the Fantomah lore designed to distance the character from her peculiar histories, to ground her in some semblance of reality? Or are these avenues through which you can explore the themes of the character and her relationships with death and violence?
RF: Both. We need Paz to feel like a person readers can relate to, and in doing so, we create a character through whom we can get deep into the themes of Fantomah.
SL: I think it really does ground her to reality. I think Ray did a great job with this modern version that fits more into the present times, in both the world and Paz as a character.
9. Fantomah is relatively famous for being able to conjure any sort of punishment for those she deems worthy of it. How do you warm up the dark corners of your minds in order to realize her properly terrifying forms of vengeance?
RF: I dwell on darkness. In my writer’s crypt. With my black elixir (coffee).
10. On that tack, what horror are you reading/watching to get into the headspace to create ‘Fantomah’? Are there any sources of inspiration for either of you?
SL: I was rereading horror manga, mostly by Junji Ito to get me “into the mood,” so to speak. Ito’s work is a good mix of grotesque and psychological horror that was the perfect inspiration for Fantomah.
RF: We’ve got a good synchronicity on this — I’m pulling from some Japanese horror sources for my atmosphere, and, as I mentioned before, reading a lot of Latin American catholic urban myths.
‘Fantomah’ #4 is in stores today.