Friday, September 4, 2009

Fletcher Hanks pours the hate-o-rade

As soon as I finished I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets!, the 2007 overview of the work of golden age comic book madman Fletcher Hanks, I found myself pining for more of Hanks' patented stew of rage, paranoia and technical incompetence. Luckily for me, the gods, in the form of Destroy editor Paul Karasik, heard my prayers and responded with a new volume of Hanks' fevered four-color fulminations entitled You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation!

Apparently -- and thanks to Karasik's efforts -- being a Fletcher Hanks completist is one of the more low maintenance manifestations of obsessive compulsion you could adopt, because this latest 224 page volume contains pretty much everything by Hanks that wasn't already included in Destroy. As such, we get to see a wider range of the artists' stable of recurring characters -- Destroy being pretty heavy on the adventures of Stardust, The Space Wizard and Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle -- including the likes of half-hearted Flash Gordon knock-off Space Smith; Tabu, Wizard of the Jungle (who basically just seems to be a male version of Fantomah, though without the whole transforming-into-a-flaming-skull business), and Big Red McClane, who's the type of thuggish, strong-arm enforcer for corporate lumber interests that any boy could look up to.

This broader view of Hanks' work also really underscores just how much his inspiration was fueled by fantasies of vengeance. His attempts at conventional, plot-driven narrative tend to be cursory and prosaic, and it is only when depicting his villains' nihilistic schemes and the karmic retribution they provoke that his imagination really takes flight, pouring on the perversely elaborate detail with obvious relish. What also struck me particularly with this volume was the staggering isolation of Hanks' heroes. With the exception of a few serially-imperiled damsels, there are seldom sidekicks or supporting players here, and while there is the occasional villain with an actual name and recognizable countenance, these never hold their place on the stage for very long, with the hero's nemesis just as likely being depicted as a faceless horde, often seen only in long view as insect-like huddles drawn with no attention to individual detail. It is almost as if the presentation of any kind of one-on-one interpersonal relationship was beyond Hanks' capabilities.

All of the above -- as well as much of what has been written elsewhere about Hanks' comics -- might lead you to believe that a collection like You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation! would not be your type of thing -- that it would, in fact, be kind of a downer. And it's hard to argue with that. This is indeed a hard look into the mind of a man consumed by bitterness, rage and despair, albeit one rendered in brightly colored splash panels and emphatically worded speech balloons. I myself find it absolutely compelling. Because of its broader scope, it lacks the focus of the previous volume, but still provides a vivid portrait of a jarringly distinctive artist, one whose emergence might only have been possible during the "Wild West"-like formative years of his medium. Recommended.


Prof. Grewbeard said...

have the first volume, been meaning to pick up the second. i had to read the first one three times in a row just to believe what i was seeing. chilling, really. the comparisons to Henry Darger are apt.

Todd said...

You know, I had to remind myself who Henry Darger is -- and get creeped out all over again -- but you're right.

Keith said...

They really are hypnotic stories, aren't they? I miss the days when one could depend on an omnipotent space wizard to take on an army of hatchet-faced gangsters with their own fleet of biplanes.

If you haven't already, check out the book Supermen, a collection of old "Me too!" superhero stories that came out in the wake of Superman's success.

Paul Karasik said...

Thanks for the kind and thoughtful words about my books.

Pardon the plug, but:

I even put out a mini-Fletcher Hanks coloring book. Presently the only way to get the coloring book (with a swell cover by Charles Burns) is to either order “You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation!” via Fantagraphics (the value of the coloring book to you may be worth the difference of ordering through Amazon plus you support Fantagraphics):

Or get a copy by showing up at one of my signings.

At these signing I will be presenting “The Fletcher Hanks Experience” narrated by Fletcher Hanks, Jr.

September 16, 7:00 The Strand Bookstore, NYC, NY
September 27 SPX, Small Press Expo, Bethesda, MD
October 18 7:00: Politics and Prose Bookstore, Washington, DC

BTW: The book got a nice review over at Publisher’s Weekly:

“I must have this book for my library.” -R. Crumb

Todd said...

Paul: Suddently regretting getting the book through Amazon. Any signings planned for the SF Bay Area?

Keith: I've had my eye on that Supermen book for a while, but now I'm going to see if there's some way I can get it with a free coloring book.

Samuel Wilson said...

Fantasies of omnipotence were what the Golden Age of Comics were all about and Hanks is that fantasy in purest or most virulent form. Stuff like this reminds me that the first superhero comics were coming out around the same time as the Stalinist purges in the USSR, the rise of Hitler as an international menace, and calls for the U.S. to go in a fascist direction. The way early superhero stories focus on forcing criminals to confess sometimes gives me the historical creeps. By comparison, Hanks's heroes are refreshing in the way they just intervene and annihilate their enemies without any pretense.

Paul Karasik said...

...yeah, but not before a lot of innocent people get scared, maimed, killed or float away from Earth helplessly.

Sorry, no plans to come to the Bay area unless you know of a school that might want me to come out to do lectures or workshops.

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