From Wonder Woman to Ms. Marvel, female super heroes are becoming more visible – but what do you know about Fantomah, arguably the first comic book superheroine? Fantomah, originally written and drawn by Fletcher Hanks, first appeared in 1940 in Jungle Comics #2. She had both endless power and a desire to harshly punish wrongdoers who invaded the African jungle she defended – often white male hunters who did not respect the environment and its people.
However, Fantomah is also clearly an example of the white savior trope – her blond hair and pale skin are out of place in the jungle she protects, and she is presented as vastly more capable of protecting the sacred objects, spaces, landscapes, and people than the people themselves. One villager remarks, after Fantomah has defeated a villain and his giant spiders, “What would we do without Fantomah?” She is representative of a comic industry and culture that could only imagine a white superhero having the full power (and possibly moral sense) necessary to be a force for good, but also a culture that fetishized the native people, objects, and environments of Africa.
Fantomah has a wide range of powers, and it was eventually revealed that she is an ancient, revived Egpytian princess – she is sometimes called Fantomah, Daughter of Pharoahs. Her appearance ranges from a curly blond pin-up style to her signature blue-skinned skull appearance when she exercises her powers. Those powers are far ranging – you can find a list of her adventures here, but they include rescuing stolen panthers who are being used in an attack in New York City and restoring them to their jungle home, stopping Nazi-type characters who are trying to invade Brazil, thwarting mad scientists, preventing the destruction of the native women by a group of tiger-women, capturing and punishing a white man who had stolen a sacred mask, and many more.
An article by Lauren Davis in io9 argues that Fantomah could be due for a reboot despite her problematic nature, since she’s arguably the first female superhero (depending on your definition and criteria for superhero). There is, in fact, a fun, brief comic doing just this kind of re-imagination of Fantomah at The Comic Jam (Story by Casey Allen, Art by Aaron Miller, Lettering by Javier Puga). What do you think – is it worthwhile to take another look at these kinds of problematic heroines, or should we look forward to new characters instead?