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CSBG Archive

365 Reasons to Love Comics #299

Tomorrow’s the big 300th episode spectacular, but don’t gloss over today’s entry. Within, I discuss the best comic book creator you had never heard of before this year. Let’s hope you never forget his work. (Archive.)

10/26/07

299. Fletcher Hanks

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Fletcher Hanks, Sr. is truly obscure, but the comics internet has taken a shining to him recently, most notably because of the new collection of his work, I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets, put together by Paul Karasik. Here’s how Mr. Karasik described the work of Mr. Hanks in this Newsarama interview:

His work is everything that you want a comic book to be but so rarely is: weird, violent, stupid, fun and breathtakingly beautiful all at once. It’s like a memory of a comic book story you read as a kid, a story that got you interested in comics in the first place, but are now not certain whether it really existed or not because nothing else has ever lived up to that particular type of thrill. It really existed, believe me. And it was written and drawn by a guy you never heard of: Fletcher Hanks. Welcome home.

Dating back to the late 30s and early 40s, Hanks’ work reads like a fever dream, some mad hallucination that nevertheless fills the reader with wonder. His prose and dialogue may seem strange and over-the-top, and his grasp of anatomy appears nonexistant, but his stories are filled with evidence of an unbridled imagination unlike anything else out there. The characters are beautifully ugly, and their world really comes alive. I know I use these turns of phrase all the time, but I mean them. Fletcher Hanks’s work– and he produced work under a variety of names, from Henry Fletcher to Barclay Flagg– is like a portal to some surreal dream dimension. There’s an amazing sensibility about it that may be hard for some to appreciate. He’s been called the Ed Wood of comics. I don’t know if I’d say that, but if you happen to think of Ed Wood as an obscure and unappreciated visionary, then go ahead and make that comparison.

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Hanks created such characters as Space Smith; Fantomah, “Mystery Woman of the Jungle,” who filled the niche of “Egyptian princess revived as jungle queen who can turn into a super-powered zombie goddess” and might just be the first female superherp; and, perhaps most notably, Stardust, the Super-Wizard from space, a strange, omnipotent crime-fighting giant from beyond the moon. All of their stories are amazing– whether it’s Fantomah versus crazed gorillas, Stardust turning some dude into a bizarre giant head and hurtling him into a space pocket, or Lord knows what else. Fletcher Hanks was truly a unique comics talent who produced some brilliantly bizarre work.

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Hanks may have been a great comics creator, but he was not a great person. From all accounts, he was an abusive alcoholic who abandoned his family and died on a park bench. As author John Gardner once wrote, however, writers become better people when they’re writing. Such is also true, I say, for comic book creators. Fletcher Hanks may not have been a good human, but his work was excellent, and it’s his stories I choose to celebrate.

When Jules Feiffer, R. Crumb, and the late great mad genius himself, Kurt Vonnegut, tell you that Fletcher Hanks made comics worth reading, you listen. Really, don’t listen to me, but keep their words and opinions in mind.

You can find many more Stardust stories to read at this site. The site for Karasik’s book features a Fantomah story here, and you can also find stories featuring Space Smith and even Tabu, Wizard of the Jungle here. Many more links, some to further stories, can also be found on the unfortunately anemic Wiki.

15 Comments

I picked up “I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets” and I think the works of Hanks is the greatest example I’ve ever seen of “So bad it’s good.” Kind of like the films of Ed Wood. The anatomy is awful and inconsistant, the stories are druggier than anything written in the 60’s, and the retributions metted out to the villains are the kind the Punisher could only dream of. I’m not sure what was going on in Hanks’ head at the time he did these stories, but it must have been a scary place. Something later confirmed by his son, sadly. I recommend this book to anybody looking for something incredibly different.

Interesting to note, Stardust has apparently fallen into the public domain, and is being revived by Erik Larsen as part of his “Next Issue Project” over at Image. I’m curious to see if Larsen can re-create that trippy, somewhat deranged craziness that Hanks instilled in his strips…

So bad it’s good eh? Count me out, that kind of crap usually does nothing for me.

Mm. I’m also not quite as comfortable with separating life and work as this entry requires.

I mean, ‘not a great person’ I can live with. ‘Pushed his son down the stairs in an alcoholic rage’…I really, really don’t want to give that anything close to even tacit approval.

#299, eh?! Not too shabby. Thanks for the kind words about my book, “I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets”.

Note to Stealth: As much as I appreciate the kind words of Mr. Reed, I must beg to differ with part of his assessment.

I believe that Hanks’ work really is so good it’s good.

Listen, who are the best comic book artists of all time: Jack Cole, Carl Barks, John Stanley, Robert Crumb (the list goes on). What do these guys have in common with Hanks? They were all auteurs who wrote, pencilled, inked, and (in Hanks’ and Crumb’s case) lettered their own stories. This level of control and involvement works much better than the usual Ford assembly line approach in creating first-rate comic book stories.

Hanks’ tales are weird and twisted. His approach to anatomy is unique. But his tales are told in a straightforward fashion with distinctive and powerful style. This stuff is solid…and a hell of a lot more fun to read than 99% of anything else in comic books…ever.

Note to KM: You are not giving tacit approval of Hanks’ wretched behavior by reading this book. The guy is long gone and his son (now in his late 80’s) is tickled with amazement that anyone likes this stuff.

In my comics Afterword, the 16 pager, “Whatever Happened to Fletcher Hanks”, all is explained and hopefully the reader will begin to understand why these stories are so peculiar, simmering just under their newsprint surface with righteous fury. Knowledge about what a louse Hanks was actually deepens ones’ appreciation of his work.

-Paul Karasik

Thanks for taking the time to respond, Mr. Karasik. I do respect your POV…and I do realise that no-one is being overtly harmed by a recognition of Hanks’ work.

Let’s just say that in principle I have serious issues with putting the man on my personal list of Reasons to Love Comics, and agree to disagree. :)

[…] Holy crap, #300. We’re in the home stretch now! (Be sure to check out #299, which is now up.) Tonight’s regular-sized super-extravaganza features a character I’ve been meaning to write about for a few hundred columns now. Who better to talk about in the epic #300 than the weirdest, wackiest comic book character of them all? (Don’t knock it till you archive it.) […]

Thanks for dropping by, Paul! Don’t get me wrong, here– I think Hanks’ work is so-good-it’s-great, myself. I love his cartooning style and I swoon at the brilliant ideas within his pages. (And don’t fret about any positioning on the list– they’re all equally worthy of love, and not ranked in any way).

And I agree, km: it’s very difficult to appreciate the art, but not the artist himself. The life of Fletcher Hanks is a strange one. I think we’re far enough removed from that personal past to be able to view his work for what it was, and his life for what it was, and not have the two mingle– but I understand where you’re coming from. Hey, we’re in a place now where people hate certain creators just because they’re jerks– so it can be tough to wrap one’s head around featuring a bad guy like Hanks as a reason to love comics, but I’ve done so, hence the disclaimer.

I bought this thinking it was a new graphic novel by someone parodying old style art work. I was in a buying mood, flipped through a few pages (probably saw the end pages out of the corner of my eye) and thought, yep this is cool.

To find out it was actually old reprints, and then to read the last story about the guy who finds the artist’s son and talks to him, wow, it just brought everything together.

I collect a lot of old reprint comics and this volume is one of the best I’ve obtained in a long time.

Amazon finally got this back in stock and it is on its way to my house as we speak. My LCS never got any copies in, which is disappointing. But ever since I heard of this and saw some of the samples, I knew I had to own it. I’m even more eager to receive it now.

Jazzbo, sorry for the delay. Nobody, least of all myself, had ANY idea that the first edition of this book would sell out in 3 weeks.

If you like it, why not bring the book to your LCS and wave it under the owner’s nose (or, better yet, his eyes) and insist that he order a truckload or face the frightful wraith of Stardust the Super Wizard.

This is one of those rare Reasons to Love Comics where I have to disagree completely.

After all the praise for this collection, I was quite excited to pick it up. Once I got it home and read it, I was surprised at how bad it is. This book seems like a caricature of what non-comics readers often expect from comics – plots that don’t really make any sense, zero character or situation development, bad art – these stories are just incoherent messes. Every aspect of this thing was just terrible.

There are a lot of comics that I may not like, but I understand why others like them. But, with the exception of people who nostalgically recall first seeing these stories when they were 3 years old, I actually can’t figure out what anybody sees in them. It’s almost like all the praise for this book is some kind of elaborate hoax. Well, the emperor has no clothes.

I am now prepared for the fanboy assault. But, in addition to insulting me, if you could take a moment to explain what it is that is actually good about these comics (since Comics Should Be Good), I’d honestly be interesting in hearing it.

“But, in addition to insulting me, if you could take a moment to explain what it is that is actually good about these comics (since Comics Should Be Good), I’d honestly be interesting in hearing it.”

Hey, Tyson…no need for anyone to insult you…but did you read the column you’re responding to? I thought Bill spelled out why he felt it was good fairly decently:

“fills the reader with wonder
unbridled imagination
unlike anything else out there
the characters are beautifully ugly
world really comes alive
like a portal to some surreal dream dimension
a unique comics talent
brilliantly bizarre”

Why don’t you start from there and either challenge those assertions or explain why you think that isn’t enough to make a comic good?

Paul –
Here are my responses to the lines you selected:
“fills the reader with wonder”
I wondered why anyone would print this. I could see that it would be

appealing to a very small child, but I would think that parents would object

to their child reading something so violent. (I know, different times and

all, but I’m thinking of the reprint.) I wondered whether there was

something here I just wasn’t getting. But no “sense of wonder” in the good

sense.

“unbridled imagination”
Complete lack of causality or sense would be more accurate. When I’m

impressed by someone’s imagination, it’s when they think of something crazy

and make it work. Just having everything happen randomly, and not following

any rules or logic or internal consistency in your stories doesn’t strike me

as particularly imaginitive.

“unlike anything else out there”
That’s probably true, but that might just be because this is so bad that it

did not have much influence on what came later.

“the characters are beautifully ugly”
You know, I’ve written

about the idea of the interaction of ugliness and beauty in art, so I agree

that it can be important. But Mr. Hanks art is just ugly.

“world really comes alive”
Couldn’t agree less – there is no character developement. No plot point

ever unfolds – it’s just dumped onto the page, often with little or no

connection to anything that came before or after. There’s no sense of life

or movement or flow, it’s just a sequence of static events.

“like a portal to some surreal dream dimension”
Okay. Good art can have a dream-like quality (like The Sandman), or it can

just seem like a random, meaningless dream (like Fletcher Hanks’ work).

“a unique comics talent”
Unique – true. Comics – True. Talent – I disagree.

“brilliantly bizarre”
One of the fun things about comics is their ability to really make the

bizarre work in a way that is difficult in most mediums. But bizarre for

bizarre’s sake is unappealling to me. (And it should be clear by now that I

don’t agree with applying “brilliantly” to this work.)

Thanks for pointing those lines out. Other standouts were:
“weird, violent, stupid”
“reads like a fever dream”
“his grasp of anatomy appears nonexistent”

And in the first comment we see:
“So bad it’s good”

And, thank you for not insulting me. Last time I disagreed with one of the

Reasons I was insulted by different readers, but very few actually responded

to my comments. I really do appreciate your response.

Man, WordPress must hate me – I tried to submit that and had it disappear twice, and now it’s got all those extra carriage returns. Sorry for the poor formatting – I’m not sure what happened there.

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