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Friday 22 July 2011

Golden Age Comic Book Weirdo

The Jim Woodring comics I blogged about earlier this month initiated a renaissance in my reading, and since that post I have read voraciously through Charles Burns' Black Hole, Art Spiegelman's Maus, and Will Eisner's A Contract with God. I enjoyed the latter two especially, but anyone interested in comic books is probably aware of or has already read them. So I thought I'd give some airtime to a slightly more obscure artist, Fletcher Hanks.

Let's start with a disclaimer: I use the words "genius" and "masterpiece" a lot around here. I don't think I'm being hyperbolic, it's just that art I don't like has no place on my blog. That being the case, and this being a sort of followup to a piece on Jim Woodring, you might expect Fletcher Hanks to deliver another transcendental tour-de-force. No. Fletcher Hanks comics are crap, but it is crap of the highest order.

Hanks worked in comics from 1939 to 1941, churning out stories about cosmic wizards, jungle queens, and burly lumberjacks. According to, his total output amounts to fifty-one stories, which are now collected in two volumes, I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! and You Shall Die by Your Own Evil Creation! published by Fantagraphics. I'll need a break before I delve into the second tome, but I laughed my way all through the first.

I'm not a comic book historian, so I can't say exactly how representative Hanks is of "Golden Age" storytelling. Certainly the pulp elements we know and love are there - evil mastermind plots to destroy the planet, before an invincible paragon of goodness pulls us from the brink. What sets Hanks apart is the lurking perversion a familiar formula is laced with. In some ways it reminds me of outsider art, at least in the sense that the artist presents something deeply odd as perfectly normal. Time and evolving sensibilities can't account for all the weirdness here. My favourite evil scheme was spearheaded by the "Gyp" Clipp Gang, who vowed: "Our anti-solar rays will check all motion and thereby destroy the power of Earth's gravity... Do you know what that will mean? As soon as the motion stops, all the people will fly off the Earth's surface into outer space!" Before flipping the switch, they prudently decide to chain themselves to the ground and keep the water on the surface with a "hydraulic balance ray."

Of course, the Super Wizard Stardust would never let that happen. After destroying whatever apparatus they happen to be using, he punishes mugs with a twisted biblical vengeance that accounts for 9/10s of the reading pleasure. Gangster are transformed into rats, only to be chased off a dock by Stardust in panther form, who then agitates the water to drown them. He rescues the leader (who retains his human head), and delivers him to the FBI. Or Stardust might feed a criminal to an "octopus of gold," or tear off their head and toss it to an intergalactic headhunter. For all he's done for America, he's still a pretty sick bastard.

The four-colour drawings are crude but strangely evocative, the use of commas can be unusual, and the need to solve a global problem in one or two panels often results in some pretty bizarre work-arounds. In fact, the over-reliance on mysterious rays reminds me of another monument of strangeness, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness by D. P. Schreber. I probably missed a few, but I counted the number of times Stardust pulled a game-changing ray out of his sleeve, and the partial list included a reducing ray, a revolving speed ray, new spectral rays, an anti-gravity ray, a powerful boomerang ray, a magnetic ray, a suspending ray, a rarifying ray, a fusing ray, a gravity-control ray, a radiophonic thought-recording ray, a long attractor beam, a mysterious ray, a powerful agitator ray, a super-solar disintegrating ray, a superiority beam, a transforming ray, and a "secret ray that brings in front of the spies, the skeletons of innocent people, they have killed."

One never really gets the sense that Stardust has had to exert himself to save the world, but the deadening repetition combined with the outright surrealism gives the stories a disturbing aura. Or maybe the book is charged with radio-ionic pulp rays. According to some, Hanks also deserves credit for creating the first female superhero, Fantomah. Her punishments are as brutal as Stardust's, and since her face turns into a skull when she's angry, it's not really about eye candy. The progressive politics are diluted, however, by the fact that this flying white woman is solely responsible defending "the jungle" and "jungle-born" natives.

There seems to be a paucity of biographical information on Hanks, and what exists isn't exactly flattering. I'd suggest enjoying the mystery rather than flipping to the back and spoiling it like I did. Whatever happened in between, Hanks died in February, 1976. His frozen body was found on a park bench in New York City.

According to the dust jacket, Kurt Vonnegut and R. Crumb both dig Fletcher Hanks, reason enough to check him out. Like I say, you probably won't learn anything, but if you are susceptible to strange art by strange people you won't regret it either. Thanks to Hartley for the recommendation!


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