Thursday, February 18, 2010

So Bad It's...Well, Bad

Among the books I’ve accumulated over the past few years and am finally getting around to reading, there are the two collections of work by Fletcher Hanks, a writer/artist whose work appeared in such lesser-known titles as FANTASTIC COMICS in the late 1930s and early '40s. Reading in small doses – a couple of his stories go a long way – I have finished the first, I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets.

Perhaps Hanks' most famous creation is Stardust, who is featured in about half the stories in this volume. Stardust is the smartest, most remarkable man in the history of the universe and he has turned his powers towards fighting crime on Earth, which he monitors from far out in space. In each story, some cabal of criminals plots the destruction of the United States or the world in one outlandish way or another. Indeed, the title of the book comes from the proclamation of one such villain.
For example, in one story, the criminals stop the Earth from rotating and all the people on the planet are flung out into space. Except for these criminals, of course, because they have chained themselves to the ground! Oh, and only the people go flying into space... animals, inanimate objects, etc -- they are all apparently unaffected. Though thousands of people die, Stardust comes to the rescue and reverses the process. He uses some kind of mental power to lower every single person gently back to Earth at the same time. Is it any wonder that he is the most remarkable man in the history of the universe?
One thing that is standard in virtually all of the stories is that Stardust stops the villains, but not before thousands of people are killed. In another story, the criminals plant weapons all over the country that suck the oxygen out of the air. Simultaneously, their weapons are triggered in the White House, Congress, state government buildings, banks, military bases, and offices. Though many people die of suffocation, Hanks makes a point to show that President Franklin Roosevelt is saved in time by Stardust's reversal of the weapons.
As for defeating the hero himself, no matter what weapons the criminals have to use against Stardust, he’s always go some power that can defeat them… usually in one panel.

The Fantomah stories are similar, except the title character is the most powerful woman in the universe and she devotes her energies to protecting jungle life. Like the criminals Stardust battles, her foes use bizarre weapons on the people and animals of the jungle. And, like Stardust, Fantomah doesn’t do anything until hundreds or thousands are killed.
Fantomah, like many of the "jungle women" before and after her, is an attractive (I use the term loosely, given Hanks' artistic abilities) blonde. However, when she uses her powers, her face changes into a skull. No explanation; it just happens.

As for the art, Hanks’ style is, well, unique. The work is simplistic, the anatomy is way out of whack, and it is easy to see why Hanks’ stories appeared only in third-rate comic books. His standard flying pose for his heroes has them with arms tight at their sides and their backs to the reader.

Overall, the stories read like something a ten-year-old would dream up. And given that that was the average age of a comic book reader at the time, I guess they hit the mark.


  1. "Supermen," Fantagraphics' collection of superhero stories from 1939, also reprinted a Stardust and a Fantomah story. They certainly were... unusual. The formula was similar to the 1970s Spectre stories in Adventure Comics. The execution was, as you said, something a ten-year-old would do. In one story, an expressionless young woman who just saw her parents slaughtered by giant alien vultures happily accepts Stardust's offer to come live with him on his "private star." "It's like a dream come true!"

  2. Glad you liked my collections, Bob.

    As you now know, if you read my comics Afterword in Volume I, you may feel that Hanks drew like a demented 10 year-old, but he was, in fact, probably the oldest guy drawing comic book stories in 1939 when it was largely a game for semi-talented teenagers.

    The Introduction in Volume II amplifies the notion that Hanks was anything but the Outside some recent fans make him out to be.

    For those unfamiliar with his works, I suggest that you slide over to the BONUS page of my website for a full-length tale by the cartoonist whom R.Crumb called, "A twisted dude".