Some older fictional characters turn up again and again and again: Count Dracula and his foes, Victor Frankenstein, Dorothy Gale and the denizens of Oz. But Western literature's public domain is filled with excellent characters, many who deserve a bit more limelight.
Top image: Fantomah, Daughter of the Pharaohs, via Pappy's Golden Age Comics Blogzine.
Some of these characters are in the public domain due to the age of their stories or the date of their creators' death; others are treated as de facto public domain because their original publishers are no longer around to enforce their copyright. (Edit: I should clarify that these characters are abandoned because there is no one around to sue for ownership; if an copyright holder wanted to sue for copyright on a character whose stories were last published 60 years ago, they certainly could. A character that you own does not fall into the public domain because you don't enforce your copyright.) I It's also important to note that a character may be considered in the public domain in some regions, but not others, which can make things a bit complicated.
And this is not to say that there are no modern stories featuring these characters. (It's quite difficult to find a popular gothic hero who has escaped Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, for example.) It's just that they haven't enjoyed the same success as their more popular literary cousins. Once-forgotten characters like Black Terror and Miss Fury have enjoyed more modern success, and these characters deserve a chance as well. Don't forget to include your public domain favorites in the comments.
Let's start with a weird one, shall we? Fantomah is often billed as the first superpowered female comics hero, making her debut in Jungle Comics in February 1940, more than a year before Wonder Woman left Paradise Island. The original incarnation of Fantomah, created by Fletcher Hanks, is awkward to say the least. After all, she fits cleanly in the white savior trope. Hanks' Fantomah was a blond-haired, white-looking (like many "jungle girls" in Golden Age comics) goddess who lived in the jungles of Africa, protecting the villagers from evil. But her face turned into a skull when she punished evildoers, which is pretty badass:
Now, it might be possible to reclaim Hanks' weird, outsider art character in a less racist, "white lady saves us all" sort of way — or maybe even in a parody of it. (After all, there are some modern cartoonists who have played with the sublime strangeness of Hanks' character Stardust the Super Wizard.) There was a second, less racially-charged version of Fantomah, however, who may be better suited for reinterpretation (but with fewer blond people? Please?). Jungle Comics #29 introduced Fantomah, Daughter of the Pharaohs (with a new artist), a girl ruler of an Egyptian city who battles evil mummies with the help of her black panther companion. It's sad that she lost her skull face, though. Someone needs to bring that thing back.
2. Arsène Lupin
If you're familiar with the name Arsène Lupin, it's likely thanks to Monkey Punch's manga (and Hayao Miyazaki film) Lupin III. Arsène Lupin III is the grandson of Arsène Lupin, the gentleman thief from Maurice Leblanc's novels and stories. A gentlemen thief in the style of Pierre Alexis Ponson du Terrail's roguish Rocambole, Lupin was a generally good fellow who worked on the wrong side of the law with great flair. He even bested Sherlock Holmes (who is also now in the public domain in some jurisdictions), though he tended to have more fantastical adventures, involving plot devices like radioactive stones that turn people into mutants and the Fountain of Youth.
Technically, Lupin isn't so much overdue for a reboot (especially since Lupin III is a comic pastiches) as he is simply due. The stories recently fell into the public domain, and there is some rich stuff to mine. And some creators are already hopping aboard the Lupin train. Gundam artist Takashi Morita recently took on the gentleman thief in a manga series.
If you're more into sadism in your criminal characters, you can always go with Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre's masked villain Fantômas.
3. Carnacki the Ghost-Finder
Thomas Carnacki is the occult answer to Sherlock Holmes. William Hope Hodgson's creation was also a consulting detective, but he uses magic and science to investigate incidents of haunting. His key invention: the "electric pentacle," a device made from wires and vacuum tubes that prevents the user from wicked ghosts. In other words, Carnacki was a bit of a steampunk Ghostbuster.
An interesting element of Carnacki's stories is that the supposed hauntings weren't always enacted by real ghosts. Sometimes, there was a perfectly rational explanation for what was going on. In other cases, though, Carnacki had to employ some early 20th-century spiritualism.
4. Ann Radcliffe
This one's a little odd because Ann Radcliffe was actually a real person. Born Ann Ward in 1764, Radcliffe became one of the pioneers of the Gothic novel. Her works tended to follow a certain pattern: an apparently supernatural event would occur, but, ultimately, there would be a rational explanation for the phenomenon. She was a strong advocate of women's rights and the power of reason.
But in Paul Féval's 1867 novel La Ville Vampire, Radcliffe is cast as a proto-Buffy the Vampire slayer. Far from living in a world governed by pure reason, the fictional Radcliffe lives in a world full of vampires — and she's an adept vampire hunter. Féval's novel has Radcliffe attempting to save her friends from the nefarious Otto Goetzi by traveling to Selene, the vampire city. Take that, rational explanations for supernatural phenomena!
This was hardly Féval's only vampire novel. He also wrote Le Chevalier Ténèbre and La Vampire, the latter introducing the vile and charismatic Countess Addhema.
5. Frank Reade
Frank Reade was steampunk before it was cool. Actually, he was steampunk back when people imagined we might someday have steam-powered robots pulling our wagons. (Science fiction critic John Clute coined the term "Edisonade" to describe such stories.) Imitating Edward S. Ellis' 1868 dime novel The Steam Man of the Prairies (which featured an inventor named, quite appropriately, Johnny Brainerd), Harry Enton wrote Frank Reade and His Steam Man of the Plains, which was serialized in Boys of New York, sparking a genre of inventor heroes. There were three more Frank Reade stories, and then a series of juvenile novels by Luis P. Senarens featuring Frank's son, Frank Reade Jr. Apparently, Junior inherited his dad's ability to piece mechanical bits together into improbable machines. You want your airship-building, robot-tinkering steampunk hero? The Reades are at your service — maybe with a bit less colonialism this time around.
Incidentally, Thomas Edison did actually turn up in at least one Edisonade of his own. He leads a group of scientists in the wake of a Martian invasion in Garrett P. Serviss 1898 novel Edison's Conquest of Mars.
6. Dr. Nikola
Guy Boothby's Dr. Nikola is the prototypical supervillain, complete with henchmen. Before Fu Manchu or Dr. Moriarty, Venice-born mad genius was portrayed as a master of science and the occult (although his abilities in the latter department may be more psychological than magical), who is financed by his vast criminal operations and seeks mystical powers and immortality with the help of his ruthlessness and his charm. He's pursued by more heroic figures, namely Richard Hatteras, who narrates the Dr. Nikola books, but after Boothby's 1895 novel A Bid for Fortune: or, Dr Nikola's Vendetta, interest in the cultivated, unscrupulous antihero was what inspired Boothby to write four more Dr. Nikola books.
Nikola is also a progenitor of the trope of the criminal mastermind who always travels with a cat. Dr. Nikola's is a black cat named Apollyon who always sits on his shoulder. Even the likes of Dr. Claw and Dr. Evil owe a debt to Dr. Nikola.
Jean de La Hire's superhero Leo Saint-Clair, a.k.a. Nyctalope, first appeared in the 1911 novel Le Mystère des XV, long before the likes of Superman and Doc Savage appeared on the scene. Nyctalope even had a few superpowers, including night vision and hypnotic abilities — plus he had an artificial heart. In his earliest adventures, Nyctalope thwarts a Martian invasion and battles the evil mesmerist Baron Glô von Warteck, who seeks to rule the world by blackmailing Europe's leaders. Think of Saint-Clair as Captain France.
The site Public Domain Super Heroes includes this note about Nyctalope's copyright status:
While Nyctalope stories published before 1923 are public domain in the United States, these stories may technically be under copyright throughout Europe until 2027.
Along with Victor Frankenstein, Coppelius, who appears in E. T. A. Hoffmann's 1816 short story "Der Sandmann," is the prototypical mad scientist. He's an alchemical experimenter and maker of automata, most notably his "daughter," the clockwork doll Olimpia. His experiments are so strange and unnerving that they end up driving the story's protagonist to madness.
Hoffmann's best-known story to English-speaking audiences is probably "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," thanks to the famous Nutcracker ballet. But his tales are downright terrifying and well worth a read if you haven't tackled Hoffmann's works before.
9. Jill Trent, Science Sleuth
There are actually quite a few female comic heroes from the Golden Age who could stand a reboot, and not all of them are as kooky as Fantomah. (I highly recommend Mike Madrid's book Divas, Dames & Daredevils: Lost Heroines of Golden Age Comics, which catalogues many of those forgotten fictional ladies.) We're rather partial to Jill Trent, Science Sleuth, who turned up in Fighting Yank and Wonder Comics in the 1940s. I mean, just look at that name. Jill Trent is a scientific genius who is turned down by various law enforcement agencies and decides to fight crime using her inventions — indestructible cloth, X-ray glasses, gas detectors, and the like.
Even better, Jill Trent is part of a female crime-fighting duo. She has an assistant, Daisy, who is a martial arts expert. And here are their sleeping arrangements:
Please, someone do something with this.
10. Doctor Omega
Doctor Who may not be in the public domain, but space traveler Doctor Omega is. Arnould Galopin's character from Aventures Fantastiques de Trois Français dans la Planète Mars travels to the Red Planet with two of his fellow Frenchmen and has many fantastical adventures there (as the title suggests). A lot of folks have noticed that illustrations of Doctor Omega often bear a passing resemblance to the First Doctor, portrayed by William Hartnell. (The image at the left comes from a 1906 edition, illustrated by E. Bouard.)
Be warned, though: you might have an easier time writing your own Doctor Omega story if you read French. The books are readily available in French, but the English adaptations you'll find have often been altered to contain deliberate references to Doctor Who.