Fletcher Hanks: I shall Destroy All Civilized Planets- Paul Karasik
This is a book that I only had a mild curiosity about initially. Fortunately for me, I ran across it in my local library. Don’t forget to check your library for comics, you may get lucky and actually stumble across things you wouldn’t have picked up otherwise. I will most likely buy the book now. Amazon has the paperback for under 14 bucks, which is a bargain. Busiek’s Astro City and Eisner’s Contract With God Trilogy are other examples of books I have bought / will buy based on getting them from the library first. I had never heard of Fletcher Hanks, never saw his work previously, and am not as much of a ‘Golden Age’ fan as some people are. I had seen the title a few times and was curious about it, but had no real preconceived notions of what it was. Just looking at the thing doesn’t give you much of a clue either. The book is like an M. Night Shyamalan movie (let’s say for sake of clarification that it’s like the Sixth Sense and not The Village). It really is the afterward to this thing, very nicely rendered by the editor, that kicks your ass and makes you want to physically move away from the book.
I Shall Destroy All Civilized Planets starts with a table of contents and divulges nothing but the title and the character that is featured in each of the 15 stories that follow. It also gives us the promise of an Afterward by the editor, Paul Karasik. It is followed by a dedication page that has a picture of who we must assume is Fletcher Hanks, Jr. holding a drawing of ducks. At this point I was not certain that Fletcher Hanks, Jr. wasn’t the Fletcher Hanks of the title, I mean the guy looked really old, and I had no prior knowledge of any of this stuff.
Nearly all of the 15 stories center on impossible heroes with limitless powers that seem to sprout up at their convenience, and bad guys with twisted faces and often racist undertones, bent on destroying civilization or wreaking havoc, or getting revenge against nature itself. The plot structure is a fairly solid formula. There is a twisted faced bad guy in a suit or jungle explorer garb. The bad guy sees a means to commit a crime against society or the jungle, or both, either employing readily available technology from some pre-existing arsenal, or by somehow corrupting innocent yet giant jungle creatures. The hero is aware of the crime and sweeps in and fixes the situation with a power that completely takes care of the situation without the need or possibility of any sort of fight. The part that makes Hanks’ work stand out is what happens once the crime is thwarted. Once the villain is defeated the hero condemns them to bizarre and sometimes fatal punishments, such as an ice prison where they will be frozen for centuries but aware enough to contemplate their crimes, turning them into monsters to be hated or killed when they are sent back to their people, left to be devoured by a golden octopus, etc. There are some exceptions to that formula, but not very many.
Most of the stories in the volume focus on Stardust the Super Wizard whose hands seem to inexplicably get big enough to go around a man’s waist here and there, although I guess being a super wizard is a sort of built in explanation, or Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle whose pretty face turns into a skull when she faces the bad guys, and is apparently touted as the first female superhero. There are two other characters who get one story each in the volume. They aren’t as compelling as the big two I guess. Each character is written under a different pen name, and without any introduction, my feeble brain was like ‘who the hell is Barclay Flagg and why is he in my Fletcher Hanks book?’.
The stories are a bit twisted and simplistic, and that is their charm. The art is a bit on the ugly gnarled side, but I don't have an issue with it except that it isn't very good for the most part. Some elements are great, but there are lots of examples of just sloppy or lazy work, I think. He is said to have always gotten his work done on time though, and was a one man show, so that doesn't really take anything away from it. Aside from the Fantomah and Stardust stories we have a space guy(Buzz Crandall) and a lumberjack(Big Red McLane). Maybe there aren't enough lumberjack heroes these days.
The real gut punch to this volume comes in the form of the afterward. Paul Karasik does a beautiful job of telling the story of how the volume came to be, and how he met with Fletcher Hanks, Jr., a charming 80 something year old former CNAC pilot in WWII and son of the artist, and learned that you don't have to like an artist to enjoy their art.
I will probably buy this sometime soon as I said. It think it's pretty inexpensive to get a good quality volume of some pretty neat and twisted early comics. I think the afterward helps sell it for me, but you may want to skip it or read someone elses copy if you don't have any interest in having examples of this sort of work in your personal library.
Comments? Questions? Agree? Disagree? Let me hear it. This is a discussion you know.