What Does a Mexican Comic Hero and a Citizens’ War Crimes Tribunal Have to Do With Each Other?

Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires is a blend of narrative genius with deep political philosophical significance, couched in a surreal blend of comic and prose.

Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia

Publisher: Semiotext(e)
Length: 88 pages
Author: Julio Cortazar
Price: $14.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2014-09

In 1962, a masked Mexican outlaw hit the comic-book stands. His name was Fantomas, and although originally a thief and a villain, as he became more popular he also became more a man of the people; a sort of Latin American Robin Hood (albeit one with a butler and a snazzy sense of style in suits: Latino Robin Hoods have class). Equipped with gadgets to rival James Bond, this techno-bandit in the guise of a Mexican wrestler eventually became a people’s hero, stopping villains and conspiracies (and equally corrupt police and governments) with the help of his 12 ‘Zodiac girls’ and a cat named Yago.

Based on a much more evil French pulp villain of the same name who’d been murdering his way through the crime fiction shelves of that country since 1911, the Mexican Fantomas was influenced by other popular villains prevalent at the time – the Italian Diabolik, for example – and has in turn been cited as a counter-influence on American pop culture, from The Fugitive to American comic series Grendel. The Fantomas comic series, published by Editorial Novaro, was immensely popular until its publisher ceased operations in the mid-‘80s; he remains one of Mexico’s most popular comic heroes.

Meanwhile -- as Fantomas saved the world from villains ranging from ancient Egyptian gods to French devil worshippers to Greek arms dealers to the son of Hitler – an ocean away another struggle to save the world was emerging, and this one in ‘real’ life.

In 1966, philosophers Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre convened what’s been called the ‘Russell Tribunal’, or more formally the International War Crimes Tribunal. Organized in the context of the Vietnam War, the Tribunal brought together leading figures from around the world (from philosophers and writers to a former Mexican president) to investigate war crimes committed by the United States government and its allies.

While unable to actually sanction the countries (which the Tribunal ruled almost unanimously guilty)m the Tribunal did nevertheless draw global attention to brutalities and war crimes committed during the wars in Southeast Asia, and brought considerable pressure to bear on the US government both domestically and internationally. In the '70s, a ‘Second Russell Tribunal’ was established to investigate crimes committed by Latin American dictatorships and military regimes (along with American corporations and military in the region) against their own citizens.

Well that’s all very interesting, you say, but what do a Mexican comic hero and a citizens’ war crimes tribunal have to do with each other? And where do the multinational vampires come in?

Who’s Afraid of Julio Cortazar?

Cortazar was a member of the Second Russell Tribunal. The famous Argentine writer – considered by many his country’s greatest – was at the time living in France, where he resided for much of his life (in 1970 he was officially banned from his native Argentina due to his writing, which the military dictatorship in that country objected to). In February of 1975, the same year as a meeting of the Second Russell Tribunal in Brussels in which he took part, Issue #201 of the Fantomas comic series came out featuring an episode whose title translates into English as "The Mind on Fire". In this episode, a nefarious global conspiracy seeks to destroy all the world’s books, and Fantomas must stop them. The authors of the comic inserted appearances by several leading authors of the day including Octavio Paz, Susan Sontag, and…Julio Cortazar.

Cortazar, who was friends with the publisher, received a copy of the comic and reportedly read it on a plane to Mexico where he was helping to organize protests against the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. Bemused perhaps by his appearance in the comic, and embittered as well by the outpouring of grief and damning details he’d just witnessed and which enveloped him through his growing activism against the Latin American military dictatorships, he came up with the idea of responding with a hybrid novel-comic set immediately after the Tribunal and featuring himself reading a comic about himself.

The ensuing ‘meta-comic’, as it’s been called, incorporates actual excerpts from the original Fantomas comic he was inspired by, and therefore blends reality and fiction in an exceptionally creative and surreal manner. At first he is merely reading the comic, but it gradually and seamlessly merges with actual life and the narrator (Cortazar) finds himself embroiled in the action.

Both the conception and the delivery of the book are brilliant. The action is rollicking and engaging, interspersed as it is with excerpts of the actual comic. But it’s an ingenious literary and metaphorical device as well, which enables Cortazar (the author) to explore ideas around our complicity and responsibility vis-à-vis distant crimes and genocide that we often only encounter on the pages of newspapers (or comics).

The novel, short as it is, is full of perceptive and thought-provoking excerpts that hint tantalizingly at multiple layers of meaning. Cortazar’s (character’s) mind drifts between the comic plot and his own recent experience with the Tribunal: he recounts the horrific acts of violence expressed in the testimony of victims (the book also contains excerpts of documents from the actual Tribunal), and the seeming hopelessness of bringing the criminals to justice.

However, the two plots – the Russell Tribunal and Fantomas’ quest to defeat the global book-destroying conspiracy -- merge, posing questions in the mind of both Cortazar and the reader. Is the whole quest to bring the conspiratorial book-burners to justice merely a smokescreen for something more nefarious (the crimes of multinationals, perhaps)? Where is the justice in the fact that the Russell Tribunal just revealed to the world brutally murderous crimes by American corporations and their government allies, yet the world seems content to ignore it all (while remaining glued to a best-selling comic book)?

Philosophical debates and comic-book action succeed each other in rapid sequence. Fantomas stops the book-destroyers, but has he inadvertently made things worse by restoring balance to an inherently corrupt system? Sontag (the character) weighs in: “What are books compared to those who read them, Julio? What are whole libraries worth if they’re only available to a few? This is a trap for us intellectuals, too. We get more upset about the loss of a single book than about hunger in Ethiopia – it’s logical and understandable and monstrous at the same time.”

Inevitably, Fantomas bursts through a window (as any self-respecting superhero would) and engages in a debate about direct action with Cortazar. Fantomas has realized his real enemy eludes him. But who is the enemy? The CIA? The multinational corporations it protects? Fantomas favors merciless direct action, but “these companies are like those worms that multiply the more you cut them into little pieces.” Cortazar sadly agrees: “We’re just scratching the surface, my masked friend, and meanwhile the real culprits are sitting pretty.”

Still, Fantomas departs by smashing his way through another window, and proceeds to then hunt down and smash the heads of various villainous corporate leaders for a while before his justice-meting abates and he’s “convinced that he’s turned the world on its head.” Or has he? – “…it doesn’t look like much has happened,” says Cortazar, the character. ”But let’s be patient, Susan, we can’t weigh the results just yet.”

Sontag isn’t impressed. “Fantomas is an admirable man…but he’ll never get it through his head that the enemy is legion – and that only other legions can confront and vanquish them.”

This precipitates a debate on how we fight injustices. As individuals? As multitudes? Fidel and Che may have led a movement and won a revolution, but only individualistic vigilantes win their way into comic books. But could a vigilante like Fantomas be such a leader? No, replies Sontag, “the mistake is to think we need a leader, to refuse to lift a finger until we have one, to sit waiting for this leader to appear and unite us and give us our slogans and get us moving. The mistake is to be content to let realities stare us in the face, realities like the Russell Tribunal’s verdict… and still to keep waiting until somebody else – always somebody else – raises the first cry.”

The Russell Tribunal issues its verdict, and then Fantomas smashes his way into a final appearance, exhausted and uncertain. “I’m asking myself if you fucking intellectuals weren’t right,” said Fantomas. “Days and days of international action and it looks like things are hardly changing at all.”

They try to reassure him, and are joined by a chorus of voices that emanate mysteriously and surrealistically from all about them – from tin mines and other places that consign the speakers to an invisible yet all-encompassing presence, even if “The papers don’t say anything about us.”

“The good thing about utopias,” said a clear Afro-Cuban voice that rang like a bell, “is that they’re attainable. You have to get ready to fight, comrade, the dawn is still ahead…”

What point, amid all this bizarre adventure, is Cortazar the author trying to make? The genius of the book lies in the fact that it both has no prescriptive point, and at the same time conveys a remarkable multiplicity of points. It’s a reflection of Cortazar’s own frame of mind following the Second Russell Tribunal – his alternating waves of doubt and confidence; anger and despair and hope. In a world where injustice and genocide continue their march without blinking an eye, what was the point of the tribunal at all? It takes a plot within a plot within a plot to convey the inextricable complexity of injustice and violence in today’s world, and a surreal fusion of the real with the fantastic to arrive at the hope that solutions are possible. Not to arrive at solutions, mind you – that eludes everyone, from Fantomas to the Russell Tribunal. But to arrive at the hope, that solutions are still possible, that utopia is attainable.

For Cortazar – as for those who look up to Fantomas for leadership, in a world where change will only be possible when we stop waiting for leaders and heroes and take on those roles ourselves, becoming heroes through our everyday action – the idea that utopia is attainable is the only hope we can cling to in such a world.

Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires is a blend of narrative genius with deep political philosophical significance, couched in a surreal blend of comic and prose. Originally published in Spanish in 1975, it’s now been translated into English by David Kurnick (who also includes a useful essay offering background context) and published by the provocative independent press, Semiotext(e).

It’s a fitting time for a book such as this; a time in which we, too, must grapple with a world where the boundaries between the comfortable fictions of reality and the uncomfortable predictions of fiction seem increasingly to merge. It leaves us questioning our own role in the broader plot we see unfold around us, and whether we can afford to wait around for a superhero like Fantomas to smash his way through our window in pursuit of justice, or whether it’ll be left to us to take on the role, and attain our own utopias.

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