Hanks, Fletcher. I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! Ed. Paul Karasik. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2007. (Winner of the 2008 Eisner Award for Best Archival Collection, Comic Books.)
Hanks, Fletcher. You Shall Die by Your Own Evil Creation! Ed. Paul Karasik. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2009.
Between 1939 and 1941, Fletcher Hanks (1887-1976) wrote, penciled, inked, and lettered 51 stories for mediocre, largely forgotten comics with titles like Daring Mystery, Fantastic, Fight Comics, and Jungle — among the bottom tier of an expanding American comics industry, in which numbingly bad work was more the rule than the exception. The adventures and heroes of Hanks’s comics — Stardust the Super Wizard; Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle; Big Red McLane, King of the North Woods; Whirlwind Carter; Space Smith; and Tabu, Wizard of the Jungle — were as crudely-rendered and formulaic as most of this bargain-basement material. But, as these remarkable edited collections of Hanks’s complete oeuvre demonstrate, there are things compellingly, marvelously strange about the artist’s output that justify the attentions of a previously small circle of devotés. Cartoonist and editor Paul Karasik’s heroic recovery of Hanks’s comic art represents a major achievement in documentation of the early Golden Age, and a reintroduction for most modern readers to one of the Age’s visionary artists.
Not that we now know much more about Hanks’s career and life before or after his comics work. I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! — the title is the typical declaration of a Hanks villain — concludes with an account of Karasik’s effort to discover the artist’s fate, told in comic form. You Shall Die by Your Own Evil Creation! — a typical rejoinder of the Hanks hero — includes a short introduction to working conditions of the early Golden Age, a few tidbits about Hanks’s correspondence school training, and reproductions of some of his student drawings. (Yes, Hanks could draw accurate human bodies. The extreme primitivism of his art was as much an aesthetic choice as a product of a hurried production schedule or lousy printing.) Karasik’s meeting and collaboration with Fletcher Hanks, Jr., whom he at first mistakes for the lost comic artist, is both poignant and uplifting. Hanks, Sr., Karasik learns, was a degraded, violent drunk given to long benders and beating his wife and four children. He left them — stealing his son’s piggy bank — in 1930, reappearing only once more to demand money from his son. After 1941, he disappeared from comics and there is no evidence he was gainfully employed at anything else. Possibly homeless at the end of his life, he died of exposure on a park bench. (The son, a decorated WW II veteran, author, entrepreneur, and public servant, died shortly before the publication of the second volume. He appears in every way to have been the generous and compassionate human being that his father never was. Both volumes are dedicated to him.)
So we have pretty much only the evidence of the comics with which to gauge Hanks’s significance. Reproduced with Fantagraphics’ usual attention to detail and book design, these are beautifully presented on heavy paper stock in all their lurid, clumsy excess. With a few exceptions, the designs are primitive: a limited repertoire of frame layouts, minimally-detailed backgrounds, characters with static, malformed bodies and at most two or three facial expressions, every scene illuminated with the same unsourced light (there are no shadows in Hanks’s comic universe). The male heroes are hyper-muscular — cinched waists, huge necks, shoulders, and arms — but their torsos are weirdly compressed, and many of the muscles seem to be in the wrong places. The female heroes are shapely — Hanks favors diaphanous dresses that show a hint of cleavage and a bit of thigh — but their bodies are similarly compressed, heavy, and rigid. Other gendered markings are more ambiguous. Stardust (“the Super Wizard”) has a decidedly girlish face atop a caricature of a Charles Atlas body. When Fantomah (“the most remarkable woman ever known!”) changes from long-lashed blonde beauty to skullfaced avenger, she is more butch than any of Hanks’s he-men.
The stories follow a predictable pattern. The hero detects the plans of an evil scientist/criminal syndicate/jungle explorer/alien fiend, to destroy New York/overthrow the government/steal the gold/enslave the natives/destroy civilization. The criminals begin to unleash their mayhem. The hero arrives, via spaceship, “concentrated thought waves,” or “super-solar light waves,” smashes the malefactors, and sweeps them away to a place of punishment specifically made for them. There is never any question but that the hero will prevail, as her or his toolbox and powers are essentially unlimited. Stardust “wears a flexible, star-metal skin,” “carries artificial lungs that enable him to breathe under any condition,” “uses new spectral rays, that can make him invisible, or as bright as the sun,” and has at his disposal disintegrating, fusing, suspending, and transforming rays, as required. Fantomah miraculously can see all that happens in her jungle, has “thought-detecting” and “-directing” powers, a “paralyzing ray,” the ability to transform evil-doers into cavemen or lizardmen, control of the weather — and that freaky skullface-in-a-wig thing. And so on. The few characters without supernatural or technological powers, Big Red McLane for example, have always their unerring fists. (The Big Red lumberjack stories, which appeared in Fiction House’s Fight Comics, stand apart from the rest of Hanks’s work in their extreme simplicity, as they involve mostly Red punching a few deserving palookas.)
Nor is there any question but that the bad guys will be punished without hesitation or mercy. The only variable — and this is where Hanks enters into unforgettable territory — is the complexity and form of their just rewards. It’s quickly clear that the windup and the brief battle between the hero and the villains are only pretexts for the elaborate and specific codas of each adventure. Stardust foils the plan of “Slant-Eye” and his criminal gang to raid Fort Knox. He interrupts the raid and paralyzes the gang with “a mysterious ray.” Turning over everyone but “Slant-Eye” to the police, he clutches the gang leader in a distorted golden hand, and flies with him to a distant South Sea island. Using his “agitator” and “antigravity” rays, Stardust floods the island with a tidal wave, raises it out of the water, drops the criminal into an inland whirlpool that draws him into a tropical cave, then flips the island over and lets it fall into the sea. “Slant-Eye” is thrown up onto the surface of the inverted island, where he is drawn into the tentacles of a golden octopus. “This is your fate, ‘Slant-Eye’! You craved gold, so here it is!”
In another comic, Stardust defeats an “international racketeering mob” intent on taking over the United States with an oxygen-destroying ray that will suffocate “all the big shots” of government and industry. After he restores the nation’s air supply with his “counter-acting ray,” Stardust captures the mob leader with his “superiority beam,” then applies his “transforming ray” to enlarge the leader’s head so that it completely envelops his body. Stardust takes up the head, flies into deep space, and hurls the head into the clutches of the “headless headhunter, the hugest giant in the universe.” The head lands on the shoulders of the giant, and slowly sinks into the giant’s body. “You tried to destroy the heads of a great nation, so your own head shall be destroyed!”
“Tabu, Wizard of the Jungle” defeats a band of slave raiders with “jungle torment” and “jungle death.” Terrible winds extinguish their torches, and an earthquake topples them from a cliff into a nest of giant snakes. They flee into a quicksand pit. There, Tabu confronts them in the form of a giant gorilla, and then a monstrous vine that encircles and devours them. Fantomah captures another band of slave raiders, whom she takes to the “secret pit of jungle horrors.” There, she uses a magical ray to transform them into a single man, who is threatened by, successively, green fanged humanoids, a gigantic flying clawed fist, a fall from a cliff, a whirlwind, and a nest of giant white cobras. Fantomah seizes him just as the cobras are about to strike and suspends him in mid-air against the cliff’s rock face. A great green claw emerges from the rock and draws the man’s body into the rock. “In civilization, murderers die by electricity or by gas or by hanging, but in the jungle, they die by the forces of nature!”
And so on. The disarming outlandishness of it all is the point, of course. A plainly perverse logic undergirds every one of these stereotyped scenarios, in which the elaborate staging of retribution is given more attention and, in a peculiarly surly and childish manner, more passion than the execution of the rest of the story, dialog, or art. This investment in the staging of punishment is not original to Hanks; it’s a common structuring principle of superhero comics of all qualities. But in Hanks its regressive violence is fascinatingly, disturbingly out in the open. In this context, it’s noteworthy that the criminals of the stories are able to initiate their apocalyptic plans before the hero arrives. Cities are bombed, thousands of citizens die horribly, natives are enslaved, and none of those ills is repaired when the hero sweeps the criminals off to their gruesome destinies. In Hanks’s universe, justice doesn’t compensate for crime or prevent future crime; it only prolongs suffering in new and inventive ways.
This is grim, raw material, suffused with a nutty anguish that is only provisionally contained by the programmed dénouement. And in a peculiar, funny-not-so-funny way, it’s also beautiful: the colors are gorgeous, the inking is unapologetically, charmingly crude, the ridiculous dialog verges at times on fine crank poetry. Hanks’s visual and verbal style are as distinctive and compelling as those of a half-dozen other better-known artists of the period. Karasik’s splendid collections are essential reading for anyone interested in the underbelly of the Golden Age.