By Fletcher Hanks, edited by Paul Karasik (Fantagraphics Books)
The work of troubled artisan Fletcher Hanks was lost to posterity until relatively recently rediscovered by comics’ intelligentsia in such magazines as Raw! His unique visual style and manner of storytelling resulted in only 51 complete stories created over less than three years (1939-1941) – but those were the make-or-break formative times that shaped the entire American comic-book industry.
Hanks was an artist and cartoonist plagued by a dependence on alcohol and a tendency to violence. He abandoned his wife and four children in 1930 and disappeared until the incredible commercial drive to fill comic-book pages saw him resurface in 1939 as part of the Jerry Iger/Will Eisner production “Shop” producing whole stories (script, art, lettering and probably even colour-guides) for some of the most successful publishers of the Golden Age.
Now coming to prominence as a key Outsider Artist (defined by critic Roger Cardinal as an English equivalent to the French movement Art Brut or Raw/Rough Art: art created outside the boundaries of official culture). Jean Dubuffet connected it especially and specifically to the paintings and drawings of insane asylum inmates but Cardinal extended the definition to include Naïve art, some Primitivism and sustained bodies of work by creators working at all fringes of the mainstream.
In his woefully short career the impact of those 51 stories were further reduced since he only worked in a few returning characters. This book follows on from and concludes the complete works compilation begun in editor Karasik’s I Shall Destroy all the Civilized Planets! (which I simply must track down and review too).
Presented in chronological order this book contains seven Space Smith adventures ‘Captured by Skomah!’ (Fantastic #1, December 1939), ‘The Martian Ogres!’ (Fantastic #2, January 1940), ‘The Leopard Women of Venus’ (#3, February 1940), ‘The Thinker’ (#4, March 1940), ‘The Hoppers’ (#5, April 1940), ‘The Vacuumites’ (#6, May 1940) and ‘Planet Bloodu’ (#8, July 1940), a single tale of Tabu, Wizard of the Jungle from Jungle Comics #1 (‘The Slave Raiders’, from January 1940) and a bunch of red-blooded lumberjack yarns starring Big Red McLane: ‘King of the North Woods’, ‘The Timber Thieves’, ‘The Lumber Hijackers’, ‘The Sinister Stranger’, ‘The Paper Racketeers’, ‘Sledge Sloan Gang’, ‘The Monk’s War Rockets’ and ‘Searching for Sally Breen’ from the monthly Fight Comics (#1, January 1940, and #3 to 9, September, inclusive).
The incomparable Stardust the Super-Wizard (whose slick, sleek costume surely influenced our own Mick Anglo when he redesigned Captain Marvel into the All-English Marvel Man in 1954!) is stirringly represented by ‘Rip the Blood’ from Fantastic #2 (January 1940), ‘The Mad Giant’ (#4), ‘The Emerald Men of Asperus’ (#8) ‘The Super Fiend’ (#10), ‘Kaos and the Vultures’ (#12), ‘The Sixth Columnists’ (#14) and ‘The World Invaders’ (Fantastic #15, February 1941), whilst sword-wielding barbarian hero Tiger Hart romped through the jungles of Saturn in ‘The Dashing, Slashing Adventure of the Great Solinoor Diamond’ from Planet Comics #2, February 1940.
From Daring Mystery #4 (May 1940) and #5 come ‘Mars Attacks’ and ‘Planet of Black-Light’ two exploits of brawny, clean-limbed Whirlwind Carter of the Interplanetary Secret Service whilst Yank Wilson, Super Spy Q-4 performed much the same role for the contemporary USA in ‘The Saboteurs’ from Fantastic #6 (May 1940).
But for me the biggest, most enjoyable revelation is the captivating batch of uncanny tales featuring the frankly indescribable Fantomah. The “Mystery Woman of the Jungle”, a blend of witch, goddess and animated corpse, used startling magic to monitor and defend the green places of the world against all manner of threats from poachers to mad scientists and aliens. Here her beguiling feats begin with ‘The Elephants Graveyard’ (Jungle Comics #2, February 1940) and just get wilder and wilder, continuing with ‘The Super-Gorillas’ (#4), ‘Mundoor and the Giant Reptiles’ (#5), ‘Phantom of the Tree-Tops’ (#6), ‘The Temple in the Mud Pit’ (#8), ‘The Scarlet Shadow’ (#11), ‘The New Blitzers’ (#12), ‘The Tiger-Women of Wildmoon Mountain’ and conclude with ‘The Revenge of Zomax’ from Jungle #14, February 1941
These stunningly surreal and forceful stories created under the pseudonyms Barclay Flagg, Hank Christy, Henry and Chris Fletcher, Charles Netcher, C.C. Starr and Carlson Merrick are a window into a different, bolder, “anything goes” era and the troubled mind of a true creative force. Seen in conjunction with Karasik’s insightful introduction and the many early sketches and illustrations from before that too-brief foray into comics present a fascinating man at a crossroads he was clearly able to shape but never grasp.
This is a magical book for both fans of classical comics and the cutting edge of modern art: and just in case you were wondering, the stories a re weird but read wonderfully.
It Must Be Yours!!!
All stories are public domain but the specific restored images and design are © 2009 Fantagraphics Books.