Monday, March 31, 2008

Crime does not pay

My passion for the obscure and underappreciated in pop culture is seemingly boundless, extending well beyond just the world of film--and no less ardent on even those occasions when I have to begrudgingly share its objects with a large number of obviously cooler people who discovered them long before I did. Case in point: While I left comic book fandom behind me in my teens (when I sold my Spider-man collection to buy my first bass guitar, thus beginning my own journey to obscurity and underappreciation) I still found myself irresistibly and wholly predictably drawn to the work of Fletcher Hanks, a sort of comic book auteur who briefly both wrote and drew comic stories for lower rung publishers during the beginning of that medium's golden age, between 1938 and 1941. I'm obviously far from alone in that fascination, because soon after I stumbled across samples of his work over at the Stupid Comics website, I learned that Fantagraphic books had published a collection of Hanks' comics, I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets!, way back in the glorious summer of '07. Despite this overwhelming evidence that I did not personally rediscover the work of Fletcher Hanks--which, if I had, would have had to have been simply floating entirely of its own accord out there in that complicated system of tubes called "The Internet"--that won't stop me from crowing on about it like a clueless old man.

It's tempting to compare Hanks to Ed Wood, but while Wood hitched his technical incompetence to a palpable and infectious enthusiasm, Hanks combined his equally epic artistic shortcomings with an equally palpable paranoia and rage. Fletcher Hanks' comics, it seems, were his revenge against the world. The typical Hanks comic features an omnipotent and all-seeing super hero (such as his Stardust, The Space Wizard or the skull-faced Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle) who boasts powers that are both limitless in scope and wholly unexplained. Since any villain that appears in these comics is completely powerless against these god-like beings, the usual cliff-hanging exploits are dispensed with, freeing up panel space for what Hanks really excels at: Feverishly imagined and tortuously involved scenarios of grimly enacted karmic retribution. The intermittently microcephalic Stardust, for instance--whose nemesis is usually some kind of enormous, globe-spanning consortium of nihilistic racketeers or "gigantic fifth column"--will often use his amazing space powers to simultaneously project hundreds of his foes through space, perhaps to be frozen for a waking eternity within arms' reach of a fortune in gold, or combined into one man to be more easily fed to a golden octopus. Or, he might just take the gang's leader, make his body absorb into his head, then hurl that head toward a gigantic headless space creature who will then take that head and absorb it into his own headless body. Which is what happened this one time.

Fantagraphics' I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! is a lovingly packaged tribute that presents 15 of Hanks' complete stories in all their astonishing ineptitude and alcoholic fury. Editor Paul Karasik also provides a comic afterword that includes what scant biographical details about Hanks he was able to unearth--and it's almost as starkly depressing as Hanks' comics themselves. Yeah!

Fletcher Hanks I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! official website.


Paul Karasik said...

Thanks for the kind words about my book, "I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets: The Comics of Fletcher Hanks".

Readers unfamiliar with Hanks’ work may want to slide over to the BONUS page of my website for a slideshow of a full length Fantomah story that does NOT appear in the book:

Todd said...

And thank you for bringing this book into the world, Paul... and also for indirectly pointing out that I had the title wrong. (Sad, because I'm a big fan of "shall" over "will".) The error has been hastily corrected.