jueves, 30 de diciembre de 2021

Fantomius, Disney Italia's gentelman thief

With the debut of the Diabolik film in cinemas this month I decided to stay on topic by talking about another famous thief of Italian comics: Fantomius gentleman thief. In order to talk about him we need a bit of context on his history and the long series of parodies and homages made by Italian Disney comic artists.

In 1969 authors of Topolino magazine Guido Martina and Giovanni Battista Carpi and editor-in-chief Elisa Penna created an alter-ego for Donald Duck: Paperinik, identity that allows Donald to have vindication against the misadventures of his daily life. Paperinik started as a bit of a humorous entity (one of his first achievements was stealing his uncle Scrooge McDuck’s mattress as a personal revenge), but soon Paperinik uses this new identity and his gadgets created by Gyro Gearloose to help people and fight crime as a vigilante. In Paperinik e il diabolico vendicatore Donald is inspired to take this second identity by the diary of Fantomius, who operated as a thief during the 1920s and had his home Villa Rosa in Duckburg as his base. Along with the diary, Donald found the famous thief’s costume as well and took it for his own adventure as Paperinik.

"Paperinik e il segreto di Fantomius"
by Marco Gervasio (2011)

For a long time Fantomius was a mystery, very little was known about his life other than his exploits and he had been mentioned in a few Paperinik stories only through his diary. The beginning of the character’s reinterpretation happens in four stories: Paperinik e l’ombra di Fantomius (2003), Paperinik e il tesoro di Dolly Paprika (2007), Paperinik e il segreto di Fantomius (2011) e Paperinik e il passato senza futuro (2012), which work as prologue for the official series dedicated to Fantomius set in the 1920s.

This new phase of the character’s management is led by Marco Gervasio, Disney writer and artist, who established a much clearer and more defined identity of the gentleman thief, exploring his adventures in his own series of stories, periodically published on Topolino. The saga Le strabilianti imprese di Fantomius ladro gentiluomo started in 2012 with the story Il Monte Rosa published on November 13th 2012 on Topolino n.2972. The first four stories were released in the span of four weeks on the magazine, to present the character, his friend allies and his enemies and rivals. Later, the thief’s adventures were released on a more free schedule, accounting to this day to a total of 27 stories plus the four of the prologue.

Cover of Definitive Collection n.0
with the four prologue stories

Fantomius, like Diabolik (one of his inspirations), takes elements from 1910s French novels about the thief Fantômas, with whom Fantomius has in common the blue mask as well.

Fantomius’ true identity is Lord John Lamont Quackett, a young noble fond of Robin Hood’s adventures stories who doesn’t appreciate the hypocrisy of the society of the time and feels alienated by his peers, because they consider him a slacker. Inspired by his favorite thief, Fantomius steals from the rich to give to those who need (and a bit for himself) and the thrill of the challenge: the more the exploit seems difficult, the more fun it is.

The series presents gadgets that were already mentioned in the diaries found by Donald and many new ones. The devices, created by his inventor friend Copernico Pitagorico (ancestor of Gyro, who helps Paperink in the present), sometimes are anachronistic inventions, that is they precede the real date of invention: for instance, in Il ladro e il miliardario, set in 1922, Fantomius uses a reel in which he can be heard talking, while in reality sound in films was achieved later, in 1927

Dolly Paprika, Fantomius
and Copernico in n.2
of the Definitive Collection

Like Diabolik, the duck thief has a partner both on the job and in private life: Dolly Duck, who works with Fantomius under the name Dolly Paprika. The two thieves are always chased by commissioner Pinko, a very determined but also unlucky character and source of part of the series’ gags. Through the series Marco Gervasio managed to build a group of characters with a defined personality and a detailed personal history, to the point that in the Definitive Collection volume edition you can read a timeline for each member of Fantomius’ gang. 

All three of them have a family history that gets explored in several stories, including the story of their first meetings and the formation of the gang. The brother that inspired John Quackett to become a gentleman thief, the ballet dancer training and the irritation towards the upper class that shaped Dolly Duck, and the conflictual relationship between Copernico and his twin brother Cartesio are some of the elements that make the characters interesting and charismatic.

Homage to Laurel & Hardy
in "Silenzio in sala"
(source: ventennipaperoni.com)

The attention to the 1920s historical context allows to create peculiar stories: Silenzio in sala, published on April 1th 2012 on Topolino n.2994, is an homage to silent films, and because of this the story is without dialogues! In addition, in a chase between Fantomius and Pinko through the Hollywood movie sets you can see homages to Nosferatu (1922), The battle of the century (1927) starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (known in the first years in Italy as Cric e Croc before being called Stanlio e Ollio), Sins of Rome (1953) and Shane (1953). The last two are an example of anachronism because they didn’t exist yet in the 1920s, but it is a sort of artistic license, an intentional homage.

Visually, the Fantomius series stands out from the regular Topolino stories due to its more desaturated color palette, which goes well with the time period of the story. In addition, the caption squares are decorated, in contrast with the simple squares of the regular stories.

First page of "Il Monte Rosa"
by Marco Gervasio (2012)

Le strabilianti avventure di Fantomius has elements in common with Diabolik, but with a lighter and humorous atmosphere keeping the charm of the mystery intact; from this point of view it’s closer to the animated adventures of Lupin III. Fantomius is definitely one of the most interesting characters that the Italian side of Disney comics gave us in its very long history, and that still has the potential to keep telling new adventures.

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