Sunday, 5 April 2015

I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! The Comics of Fletcher Hanks Review (Paul Karasik)


Stardust is the most remarkable man ever! He’s a Super Wizard who flies around the cosmos in a yellow condom but tends to focus his attention towards America! His powers are whatever the story demands! 

Fantomah is the most remarkable (Fletcher Hanks loves this word) woman ever! She’s a Jungle Protector who flies around the jungle in a white condom and her powers are whatever the story demands! 

There’s also a couple of one-off, remarkable beefcakes called Big Red McLane (he’s a lumberjack and he’s ok…) and Buzz Crandall (note: Crandall is not a good name for anyone, especially superheroes). 

This is the work of Fletcher Hanks, an obscure cartoonist who produced these comics from 1939 to 1941 before disappearing. 

I like superhero comics but I rarely read beyond the Modern Age and almost never from the Golden because the writing is so, so bad. Hanks’ writing is no exception. The villains are always saying aloud their plans: “We’re out to get the money in all these New York banks, and the jewels in every mansion! We’ll take over all the wealth in the city!”, because that’s how people talked back then. 

Really, every panel could be quoted as an example of bad writing, but the plotting is even worse. We are talking insanely simplistic stories where nothing makes sense. Take this Stardust comic: some bad guys are going to stop the motion of the planet which somehow means everyone will float off into space. The bad guys actually manage to do this with what looks like a few globes on a treadmill - AND EVERYONE ON EARTH FLIES OFF INTO SPACE! But not the bad guys who’re tethered to the ground with chains. 

Stardust’s powers are never explained, but, like I said before, they are whatever the story demands. You’ll never read more contrived comics than these, I promise you. Stardust uses rays to capture everyone from Earth - who somehow haven’t died in space yet - and take them back to the planet. Then Stardust throws the bad guy into space (he’s killed the other two), and puts him in a floating ice prison in space (it’s just a regular prison with icicles on the outside in space - who built it, why ice?!). Like the dialogue, every plot could be used as an example of how not to write a story. 

But I know, these are Golden Age comics and you have to keep in mind that superheroes were a brand new genre. Nobody knew what superhero comics were, nothing was fully defined yet, and so anything was possible. It’s also not clear whether Hanks - who was 52 when he created these comics - was writing down to an audience he believed would be children (the belief that comics are still only for kids persists today), and that’s why he put almost no effort into sensical stories, or whether he was just that bad a writer. 

It’s also worth noting that back then creators had to do everything so Hanks literally wrote, pencilled, inked, coloured, and lettered all of his comics. And if his situation was like a lot of comics creators at the time, he usually had to knock these out in a couple days, so didn’t have the luxury of streamlining anything. 

That’s why I’ll give this guy a pass on many of the faux pas in the book. That and the fact that I haven’t smiled so much at a superhero comic in some time. They’re so, so stupid, they’re charming in a way, and sometimes very funny. Like in Buzz Crandall where the evil alien, using a couple of levers and dials, is able to make entire planets switch orbit and fly around like a Newton’s cradle! 

The art is also really good. There’s a quaintness to them that’s quite wonderful and some of the imagery is quite unnerving like seeing thousands of people lifted off-planet by some invisible force, and the repeated wartime imagery reflects the times in which they were created. I really like Fantomah’s design with her head turning into a human skull when she uses her superpowers. It’s also worth noting that she predates Wonder Woman as a female superhero by a couple years. 

By far the best comic is the editor (and a cartoonist in his own right) Paul Karasik’s Whatever Happened to Fletcher Hanks? afterword that closes out this book. It explains how this book came to be, borne out of Karasik’s fascination with the obscure cartoonist and his desire to put his work out there, though it also sheds some light on Hanks’ real life via his now elderly son, Fletcher Hanks Jr. 

Turns out Hanks was a piece of crap. When he wasn’t beating up his wife, he was beating up his kids, all while dead drunk. He even pushed the then five year old Fletcher Hanks Jr down the stairs, just because he was a mean bastard who beat on his family. It’s unclear why he stopped making comics after only a couple of years in 1941, or even what he did for the years after, but he kept drinking and wound up a broke, pathetic drunk, frozen to death on a Manhattan park bench in 1977. 

Obviously if you like Golden Age comics, you’ll enjoy this, but for those who don’t, this one isn’t going to convince you that they’re great. The art is fine but the writing is so confoundingly bad it actually makes modern day hacks like Dan Jurgens, Rick Remender, Ann Nocenti and J. Michael Straczynski look good. It makes a nice change of pace from the slick productions of today though, and shows us how things once were, especially if you’re interested in the evolution of the superhero genre. I’ll recommend it as a novelty read more than anything.

I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! The Comics of Fletcher Hanks

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