The Fantom leaps to the rescue.

THE FANTOM OF THE FAIR

Medium: Comic Books
Published by: Centaur Publications
First Appeared: 1939
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Superman burst onto the comic book scene so hard, he was bound to spawn a flood of characters trying to ride his coat-tails to success. His first knock-off, Wonder Man, was instantly sued out of existence by Superman's publisher, DC Comics, as the blatant plagiarism he was (publisher Victor Fox had given …

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… only one instruction in commissioning Wondy, to make him just like Supes). But it wasn't long before less actionable heroes came along, and superheroes became comics' dominant genre. The Fantom of the Fair is tied (with The Masked Marvel and The Flame) as the first such character to run in other publishers' comics with DC's (no-doubt grudging) tolerance.

The "Fair" in his name was the World's Fair, which was the biggest thing in New York during its run, 1939-40. The "Fantom" (sic, and no relation) debuted shortly after it got off the ground, in Amazing Mystery Funnies vol. 2 #7, dated July, 1939 (replacing Skyrocket Steele, who went on to oblivion). The publisher was Centaur Publications, which was also behind The Eye, Minimidget, Speed Centaur and other notable characters. Bibliographers aren't sure who wrote and drew his early stories, but the artist readers first saw drawing him was Paul Gustavson (The Spider, The Angel), who did the cover of his introductory issue and very likely created the character.

The Fantom was tied to the Fair in both location and purpose. He lived in a headquarters underneath it, which was equipped with a modern laboratory and, implausibly enough, located right next to an underground river which apparently flowed below sea level, avoiding all the open water in the area. His mission was to protect visitors from the various criminal activities that swarmed around the Fair. His Fantom costume was all he generally wore, and his regular name wasn't mentioned. Also unmentioned was any motive he may or may not have had for doing what he did.

He was stronger and better with his fists than most people, but doesn't seem to have had extraordinary powers in that direction. He did display apparent mental powers, such as being able to hypnotize people against their will. No explanation was given. Between Fair seasons, he ventured elsewhere to bash evil, sometimes hiding his identity (whatever it was) by pulling a hat brim over his face instead of wearing the usual mask.

Of course, a schtick like his has only limited duration no matter how popular it is at the time. In an attempt to keep the character viable as the Fair was winding down, the publisher changed his name to Fantoman in Amazing Mystery #24 (September, 1940). Unfortunately, that was the final issue of the title, but he continued to appear in his own comic. Equally unfortunately, Fantoman (which, for unexplained reasons, had no #1) ended with #4, December, 1940, and that was the last time Centaur, which remained in business only a couple more years, used him.

When, in the 1990s, Malibu Comics (Dreadstar, Dinosaurs for Hire) attempted to tap into a ready-made superhero universe by appropriating such Centaur heroes as The Arrow and Amazing-Man (which had fallen into the public domain), Fantoman was there. But Malibu, in keeping with the '90s style of grim'n'gritty heroes, renamed him "Gravestone".

The Fantom's wasn't the only superhero series tied to the World's Fair. Decades later, DC's All-Star Squadron, which was set during World War II, used a surviving World's Fair building as its headquarters. But that building rose above earth's surface. What became of that underground lab, and its access to subterranean water transportation, is just another thing about him that was never explained.

— DDM

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Text ©2007-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Centaur Comics