“For centuries the United States has produced thousands of superheroes—so many, in fact, that at first glance we might think of this genre as exclusively American. But this is not the case; French superheroes exist.” Xavier Fournier from the introduction to Super-Héros : Une histoire française.
Everyone knows that superheroes were born in the USA when Superman first appeared in 1938. That much is fact. Or is it? In his new and lavishly illustrated book, Super-Héros : Une histoire française, French journalist Xavier Fournier attempts to trace the origins of superheroes back to France where he finds ample evidence of the European heritage of the Man of Steel and others. Fournier admits that his quest to find the antecedents of the more familiar super men and women to be a bit like “looking for a dinosaur skeleton where no one thought it was worth digging for.” But find them he does.
The author traces superheroes not to Depression America but to Napoleonic France in the person of Pierre (or François) Picaud. This honest cobbler was arrested in 1807 and falsely accused of spying for the English by three of his acquaintances and subsequently imprisoned; Picaud later escaped and took terrible vengeance on the men who had him thrown in jail. If this sounds like the plot to the novel The Count of Montecristo, there is no mistake since Alexander Dumas later took the story and transformed it into the tale of a mysterious avenger who dispatches his enemies one by one. This, according to Fournier, is the earliest example of a masked righter of wrongs—the grandfather of all others who came afterward. Is this Picaud really the ancestor of heroes like Batman or Spiderman who turned the hurt and injustice that they suffered from into a burning desire for justice? Perhaps.
French pulp novels of the late 19th and early 20th centuries provide the next step on the road to full superhero-dom. Masked and mysterious avengers were terribly popular, and as the technological advances of the 1800s and 1900s were recognized by the public, writers began to give their heroes some very extraordinary powers based on seemingly miraculous science. Characters who could fly, see through walls, breathe under water or see perfectly in the dark thrilled readers of these cheap and popular novels. But the real supermen did not arrive in Europe until Siegel and Schuster’s original S-man began to appear in newspapers and boys’ papers in the late 1930s. Fournier tells the story of this first American superhero at great length.
The first French publisher of Superman was an Italian who had escaped Mussolini’s Fascists, and although he loved the character, he was not very happy with the hero’s name. He thought that it was too much like the term Übermensch (usually translated as “superman”) that the Nazis used to describe the perfect Aryan man. The Man of Steel was consequently called at first Yordi, Marc the Modern Hercules, The Daring Detective, or François the Invincible. After France was defeated and the Germans occupied over half the country and World War II began, all communication with Allied countries eventually ceased. The comic-book heroes continued to be published in France, but they were now steadfastly European or at least so disguised that no one would guess their American origins.
Global conflict was a curse for humanity, but in many ways it was a blessing for Euro-heroes. Freed from the constant influx of superheroes from America, the French and Italians had to devise their own. This was true even after the conflict ended. Comic books continued to be produced in liberated France, but the heroes that rolled off the presses were completely original in design and origin. The first recognizable homegrown French superhero was Fantax who first appeared in 1946. In his non-super life Fantax is a British lord in the U.S. embassy, but when he dons his tights, mask and cape, he fights such foes as unrepentant Nazis, the Ku-Klux-Klan and other enemies of freedom; he often has a Gauloise hanging from his lips and his relationship with his petite amie is a good deal earthier than Superman and Lois Lane’s. Another amazing creation was Big Bill le Casseur [Big Bill the Bruiser], a comic that was produced between 1947 and 1954. He is a masked cowboy who operates in the American West, but he wears a skin-tight tee shirt over his super-hot and very muscular body—a body that was clearly inspired by American bodybuilders like Steve Reeves who had recently come to Europe. Other unique French superheroes like Satanax, Wonderman, Salvator, Atomas, Fulguros and many more who are virtually unknown to most Americans became popular with young readers in postwar France. There were outer-space supermen, cowboy supermen, those with superpowers and those without, but they all had a unique European flair that was totally different from their American counterparts. Oddly enough, most of these superhero comic books were set in the USA, as if this was the only place where fantastic creatures, mad scientists and wacko criminals might possibly exist.
One thing that definitely existed in America were the huge comic book companies like Dell, Marvel and DC. As the 1960s and 70s progressed, more and more of these American companies sent their products abroad, and since there was already a huge market for superheroes in France, the new American books fit right in. The French were not ready to give up totally, but the higher production values, excellent printing and great writing all meant that the French had a lot to fight against if they wanted to keep their market share. The last great flowering of French superheroes came in the 1980s with characters as Micros, Saltarella, Crabb and Ozark, all of whom were entertaining but ultimately doomed to be overshadowed by rivals from across the Atlantic. Thanks to Hollywood films and comic books produced specifically for the European market, US characters now pretty much rule the superhero roost.
Fournier’s volume takes a long and affectionate look at some superheroes that are totally unknown to most North Americans. One minor problem that I have with the book is that the author never really gives readers a definition of a superhero, and he therefore tends to discuss just about every comic-book character who ever wore a mask and lumps them in with the more obviously recognizable figures. Despite this quibble, it must be admitted that Fournier definitely knows his stuff (he is editor of the magazine and website Comic Box), and he writes in a breezy and entertaining way. So far this is the only book ever devoted exclusively to French superheroes, but it will almost certainly become a classic source in years to come. It is beautifully designed and the illustrations are exquisite, so its rather hefty price (nearly €40) is definitely worth it. Since there are lots of pictures, even if you can’t read French, I can say that Super-Héros : Une histoire française should find a place in the library of every super-hero lover.
Purchase Super-Héros : Une Histoire Française from Amazon.
David Chapman is the author of Universal Hunks, American Hunks: The Muscular Male Body in Popular Culture, Venus with Biceps: A Pictorial History of Muscular Women, and Sandow the Magnificent: Eugen Sandow and the Beginnings of Bodybuilding.