07 January 2012

Fletcher Hanks: comics weirdo

I admit to being both ignorant of and fascinated by superhero comics--never read 'em as a kid, and am utterly daunted by the DC/Marvel decades of shifting mythology, but gosh they can be fun (and yeah, I prefer "fun" to "gritty." Which is why I prefer Superman to Batman. And the Flash to either). They can also be weird as all get-out, particularly in the embryonic early days (late 1930s-early 1940s). And I have it on good authority that no one was weirder than Fletcher Hanks, whose complete works can be found in the Fantagraphics volumes I Shall Destroy all the Civilized Planets! and You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation!.

Hanks wrote and drew for two years, 1939 to 1941, and then disappeared--apparently to a life of itinerant alcoholism--but he left behind comics which are stupefying in their brutal simplicity. Here's the usual plot: villain up to no good (alien, rogue scientist, fifth column) manages to put his evil plan into motion for long enough to kill quite a lot of innocent people before one of Hanks' bizarre heroes shows up and puts a poetic-justice stop to it. His two favorite good guys are Stardust, a space wizard who's also a crimefighter, and Fantomah, an ostensibly beautiful damsel and protector of the jungle who, uh, turns into a skull when she's angry. But then there's also several stories featuring Big Red McClane, who's just a logger who punches people a lot, kind of a bulkier Mark Trail without any pretense of loving nature.

The most confounding thing about Hanks' comics is how completely unappealing they are. The art is clunky, the characters deformed, the colors are garish, the writing strewn with deus ex machina (usually in the form of "rays"--disintegrating, anti-gravity, oxygen-destroying, etc.). And yet, I kept reading, and  I don't think comics historians are wrong for calling him a genius and a visionary. What's there, I think, is a mind totally uncluttered by influence--an unsophisticated, kitchen-sink kind of mind, playing with a sort of frantic delight with this new medium, just throwing things at the panels to see if they stick. Even the way he draws people--just barely recognizable as human through our brain's awesome trick of pareidolia--grows on you, especially the corrugated masks of his villains (at first, with my Old-Timey Media goggles on, I'm like, "Is this racist somehow?" but I think it's more misanthropic) and the way Stardust can grab said baddies by the shoulder and just crumple up their bodies like a coat. Essentially: Hanks' comics are fun in a pure, childlike way, like running around with your arms out pretending to be an airplane or stomping about making T-rex noises (which I certainly never do when I'm grumpy. Ask anybody!). Exactly what I look for in a superhero comic.

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