Greetings once again, or more likely for the first time, since I doubt anyone’s been here except for little ole me….
I have to start this entry by stating that I was never a comic book kid. This is not to say that I never read comic books, but rather that I never developed any lasting connection to comic books or the characters therein, like so many people I know.
Back in the day, when I was in those prime “comic book years” – right on the cusp of adolescence – the stuff I was drawn to was on the oddball end of the spectrum, with either a supernatural bent (like the Twilight Zone comic digests) or oddball stuff from the bigger publishers like Power Man & Iron Fist.
Now – as two of the tattoos on my arms will attest – I was enamored of comic book characters (i.e. Batman), but only via their video incarnations. When I checked out Batman comics later in life – both the early Bob Kane stuff as well as modern incarnations – I was shocked to discover that they lacked all of the pop art genius and campy fun of the TV series. When I think of the Joker I prefer Cesar Romero’s wild card as opposed to the criminally insane villain of the comics (same goes for all the stock Batman bad guys).
As an adult (using the term as loosely as possible) I got into comics, but only in the artsy, post-modern underground stuff (like Dan Clowes genius ‘Eightball’, and Peter Bagge’s ‘Hate’) and the reprints of the dark Japanese ‘Lone Wolf & Cub’. These allowed me to experience high quality cartooning (a “profession” I once yearned to follow) and retain my own version of alt-slack snob appeal, where I got to sit back and chuckle condescendingly at guys my age that were still reading Spiderman.
Years went by – in which my prized collection of ‘Eightball’s disappeared during some move or other – and I started to wander by the “graphic novel” section of the local book barn. If memory serves this was spurred on by a review of a graphic novel (I don’t remember which one) in which the book in question had been hailed as a kind of ‘anti-comic’, i.e. a book, illustrated in a comic book style, but with a much heavier story (non-superhero in nature) and a more adult storytelling style.
The first graphic novel I remember really digging was ‘Blankets’ by Craig Thompson, and then a little later Chris Ware’s ‘Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth”. Both of these were at least as “heavy” as any non-pictorial novel, and I found myself captivated by authors who were able to deliver a plot in both words and pictures.
Since then, I’ve made an effort to check out new graphic novels when I can find them (the local comic book emporium, where I used to grab ‘Eightball’ and other like books pretty much only features slick “novelizations” of Marvel/DC superhero stuff, wherein the graphic novel’s co-optation of the comic world had been re-co-opted).
Some of these, like Warren Ellis’ ‘Fell’ have delivered excellent storytelling along with edgy visuals. Others, like ’30 Days of Night’ (both beautifully illustrated by Ben Templesmith) read more like an inflated screenplay fragment.
Last month, completely on impulse I picked up Joann Sfar’s ‘Vampire Loves’, which led me to pick up ‘The Rabbi’s Cat’ (amazing) ‘Little Vampire Goes to School’, ‘Klezmer’ (all written and illustrated by Sfar) and ‘The Professors Daughter’ which was written by Sfar but illustrated by Emmanuel Guibert.
Sfar’s loose and wonderfully inked visual style is paired with real talent for storytelling.
Anyway…here I am in the middle of a major graphic novel “phase”, really digging the interesting things that artists are doing with comics these days, when I happen upon a strange and twisted relic of the early years of comic book art.
Thanks once again to the folks over at Boing Boing, I was hepped to a new collection of the long-forgotten work of the twisted mind (and pen) of Fletcher Hanks.
Not much is known about Hanks, other than he wrote and drew some of the weirdest comics ever committed to low quality newsprint back in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s.
The best of his work is collected in the new Fantagraphics collection ‘I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets’, edited by Paul Karasik.
To say that Hanks’ worldview was “unusual” would be a drastic understatement. Had this not been originally published commercially, I would go as far as to classify him as an “outsider” artist. His artwork, while unlike much of what we consider to be ‘classic’ comic art, isn’t exactly crude, but has a kind of grotesqueness to it that sets it apart. While the likelihood is that Hanks was trying to work in an accepted style, there’s a real weirdness to his drawings (of heroes and villains alike) that looks like someone took one of those back page novelty ads (selling x-ray specs, hot pepper gum and the like) and expanded it into an entire comic book.
That said, Hanks was not an untalented artist, as there are many examples in his stories or beautifully designed panoramas in a single frame.
Now, if Hanks’ art was the only issue here, he would have probably remained in the dustbin of comic history. Because as odd as his pictures are, they pale in comparison to the twisted nature of his stories.
It helps to start with his “main” character, one Stardust the Super Wizard, whose name alone would be enough to draw most people in. Stardust, “whose vast knowledge of interplanetary science has made him the most remarkable man that ever lived” (I shit you not) is a giant from space that bears an uncanny resemblance to Buster Crabbe as ‘Flash Gordon’, is Flash had been a professional wrestler instead of a spaceman. The plots of the Stardust comics (eight of which are included in the collection, along with Hanks lesser creations like Fantomah: Mystery Woman of the Jungle – coincidentally the “most remarkable woman that ever lived” – Big Red McLane – a massive avenging lumberjack (?!?) and Buzz Crandall) bear the marks of what I would charitably call a monolithic imagination.
The plots can be broken down as follows:
a. Some gang of internationally minded racketeers (many of whom, including ‘Slant Eyes’ seem heavily ethnicized) cooks up a cockamamie plot to take over the earth, or more specifically the wealth therein, by either disabling, or completely doing away with literally everyone else in the world.
b. Their dastardly plot is set in motion, wherein multitudes of innocent folk are annihilated
c. Stardust the Super Wizard (safely tucked away on his private asteroid) gets wind of the plot and hurtles toward earth in his “transparent tubular special”, never before the huge casualty count, but always just before the completion of the evil plot
d. Stardust manages to concoct some unbelievable convoluted (but surprisingly apt) punishment for the lead villain that usually includes a truly odd and often sadistic twist (note the Dick Cheney-esque visage of the manrat below…)
The writing, which is stilted but wholly original is really the best thing about these comics. The world domination plots all presage the James Bond vibe by decades, with each gang of evildoers in possession of some ray, bomb or superweapon, that they always take the time to explain in excruciating detail before putting it into use. The stories are filled with expository asides that boggle the mind, such as:
“Stardust carries artificial lungs that enable him to breathe safely, under any condition – He uses new spectral rays, that can make him invisible, or as bright as the sun –He wears a flexible star-metal skin, controlled through rays from a distant sun and rendering him indestructible by chemicals, or by electrical or violent force.”
That, and the fact that Stardust the Super Wizard (it’s fun saying the whole name, n’est ce pas?) seems – in the style of Courageous Cat – to have a weapon up his sleeve for any occasion, including a suspending ray, fusing ray, gravity control ray, disintegrating ray, panoramic concentration unit, simplified television unit and the eerily Nietzschian “superiority ray” (also used by Fantomah).
This is heavily weird stuff, and I recommend it highly to fans of all strange things.
Weirder still is the afterword (in comics form) where Karasik tracks down Hanks’ son, who reveals that the artist (the son was unaware that his father had ever drawn comic books) was a psychotic, wife-beating drunk who froze to death on a park bench, sometime in his 90’s (?!?), and oddly enough never worked in comics again after 1941.
PS That’s Stardust the Super Wizard in the logo up on top….