Graphic Lit: Fletcher Hanks
In many ways, the early days of the American comic book market resembled a Wild West town. Nobody quite knew what they were doing or what would sell. There was no precedent for this sort of material.
Anyone could come in and get a job drawing comics, since it was such a low-paying job and product needed to be churned out regularly.
One of those anyones was Fletcher Hanks, who between 1939 and 1941 produced a multitude of some of the most surreal and innately disturbing comics ever made.
Hanks’ work had long been neglected and forgotten but has now been salvaged by author and cartoonist Paul Karasik, who has collected 15 of Hanks’ best stories in “I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets: The Comics of Fletcher Hanks.”
“Once you see a Fletcher Hanks story you never forget it,” Karasik said during a recent phone interview from his home on Martha’s Vineyard. “It burns into your cerebellum like a branding iron.”
All of Hanks’ stories are variations on a basic theme, regardless of whether the central character is the all-powerful space wizard Stardust or the skull-faced jungle goddess Fantomah.
To wit, a group of evil villains is attempting some heinous crime, say infiltrating Fort Knox or attacking a secret city filled with jewels.
Once they’ve set their fiendish plans in motion, Stardust or Fantomah enters the picture, sets things to right using their godlike powers and then enacts a horrible vengeance against the evildoers.
It’s the details, therefore, that make Hanks’ work so utterly unique and gripping. In one Stardust story, for example, the villains’ goal is to stop the Earth’s rotation, thus sending everyone hurtling off into space, leaving themselves (tied down of course) as masters of the planet.
In another, a man who attempted to assassinate various heads of state has his own body shrunken down by Stardust until nothing is left but the head. Stardust then flings the head into “the space pocket of living death,” where it is ultimately absorbed into the body of the giant “Headless Headhunter.”
“There’s a certain seething misanthropy and rage just bubbling right under the surface,” said Karasik of Hanks’ work. “It’s not just poetic justice that’s being wrought here. It’s really Old Testament, flaming-sword-style justice.”
At first glance, it might be tempting to dismiss Hanks’ work as camp or overly crude. His characters’ proportions often seem off, with overly large heads and little if any variation in facial expression (I’m not sure Stardust ever opens his mouth even once).
The dialogue, too, is borderline ridiculous (“We must end democracy and civilization forever!” one miscreant states), so that many critics have been tempted to compare Hanks to campy filmmaker Ed Wood or outsider artist Henry Darger.
“It’s not the kind of work that’s so bad it’s good, and it’s not campy. If you approach it like that you can appreciate it, but you’ll never experience what makes it so good,” said Karasik. “He’s a very good storyteller. The stories are tightly and crisply told. More importantly, it’s not what’s on the surface, but what’s under that makes them indelible.”
In a fitting epilogue to the book, Karasik writes and draws the story of how he tracked down and met Hanks’ eldest son, Fletcher Hanks Jr. His discovery is bittersweet, however, as he learns that the artist whose work he so admires was considerably less worthy as a human being.
“If there was a gun in the house I woulda killed him dead,” Hanks Jr. bluntly states at one point.
The revelation that Hanks Sr. was a horrible, abusive alcoholic is not really such a great surprise considering the nature of his stories. There’s an almost egomaniacal desire to impose one’s will upon an uncaring universe reflected here, an immature need to have might equal right.
However inexcusable Hanks’ behavior was, there’s no question he was a stunning auteur, writing and drawing powerful, dreamlike tales that were unlike anything being produced at that time, and which pack an emotional wallop to this day.
It’s just tragic that he couldn’t keep his violence contained to the pages of his comic book stories.
Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007