Fletcher Hanks shows that originality and conventional notions of quality are sometimes at odds with one another.
When I was a kid, I read my fair share of superhero comics, but in truth I was never a real fan. The plotlines were too predictable, the art too boring, and the ideas all seemed pretty well-worn. The work of Fletcher Hanks strikes me as something I could have devoted myself to had I read it when I was eight or nine. I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets, a new collection of Hanks' works from Fantagraphics, showcases various stories written and drawn by this largely unknown artist. Hanks only worked in comics from 1939 to 1941, and little is known about his life or background. His work taps into the mystery and bizarreness of superhero comics in unexplored ways while maintaining the conventions of the genre. He shows that originality and conventional notions of quality are sometimes at odds with one another.
If an eight-year-old were to sit down and write a comic book, he would probably end up with something like I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets. Hanks' two main heroes, Stardust the Super Wizard and Fantomah the Mystery Woman of the Jungle, are at once both derivative and brilliant. Their stories are filled with the uncomfortably-delivered earnestness of a devoted, youthful comics reader, from narrative descriptions ("Fantomah's eyes search the jungle until she finds a hidden building mostly underground") to criminal's proclamations ("This is the night we're scheduled to bump off the president!"). The drawings are frequently awkward and distorted: limbs and torsos stretch and twist under the pressure of gravity, and characters are nearly always either expressionless or stuck in a permanent sneer. The adventures of Fantomah and Stardust are ridiculously formulaic, with each issue quickly falling into the format of the superheroes attacking a plotting villain, thwarting that villain, and then finally punishing him.
Yet for every comically bland convention of the superhero genre, there is an equally original, bizarre idea, delivered with the unflinching glee of a kid spontaneously making up adventures. Hanks' seemingly complete lack of understanding of science or law becomes an aid rather than a flaw. Once one wades through the layers of ambiguous fantasy science (Fantomah's "super superiority beam," Stardust's "transparent tubular spacial,"), the reader arrives at a place of pure, brilliant imagination, one in which evil villains train armies of gorillas to destroy earth and superheroes save the world by turning criminals into icicles. Even Hanks' own generic motifs are bizarre and brilliant: nearly every issue of Stardust features bomber planes obliterating New York, and pretty much every single story is concluded with either Stardust or Fantomah suspending the bad guys in the air or whisking them away to some remote location. Likewise, Hanks' occasional artistic inexperience at times creates haunting, mysterious landscapes, as in Org's Sacred City and Slant-Eye's green-and-red Fort Knox, both of which sprawl out in mysterious, unornamented emptiness, recalling de Chirico's metaphysical landscapes.
Hanks' real strengths lie in his disposal of any semblance of probability or fact. An invasion of "flaming claws" turns out to in fact be an invasion of "chemical men'' whose hands are their only visible part. In "Gyp Clip's Anti-Gravity Ray," a group of thugs plan to take over the world by robbing earth of all gravity and chaining themselves to the surface. The supervillain De Structo plans to take over America by using his patent Anti-Gravity Ray. Through their sheer impossibility and child-like inventiveness, Hanks' comics contain a vitality and richness that many other superhero comics of the era lack.
Hanks' punishments are even more amazing, recalling Dante more than Siegel and Shuster. With each story, Fantomah and Stardust fly the hapless villains to some new ring of befitting punishment. Stardust punishes Gyp Clip by sending him to a floating prison of ice where he can contemplate his crimes for all eternity. "Skullface Takes Over New York" ends in a punishment in the style of Tantalus or Sisyphus, in which Stardust takes a group of gangsters to a distant planet made entirely of gold that they won't be able to take due to the low gravity. In "Diamond Thieves," a group of hunters are vanquished to the "Jungle Pit of Horrors," which itself forms a kind of Inferno. In the purest Dantean manner, Stardust nearly always punishes criminals with a horribly bloated version of their own sin. He is both cruel and perceptive, at one point telling a condemned group of criminals: "Now I leave you to yourselves!"
Unlike many Golden Age comics, Stardust and Fantomah don't so much produce nostalgia for simpler, more innocent times, but instead produce a sort of relief that we are past the naïveté of those times. Like Henry Darger's The Realms of the Unreal, Hanks' comics live in a fantasy world removed from any time or history, and yet they are likewise born of a particular era's misconceptions and silliness. To appreciate either, it's necessary to strip away one's initial prejudice to appreciate the true underlying brilliance of the work. I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets proves that a text that is completely lacking in one region of quality has the ability to succeed in another. Hanks' work combines fallacy and imagination, the core materials of childhood creation, and makes them into completed masterworks.