Comic-Con 2007: Fletcher Hanks, the batshit genius of Golden Age comics

In 1938, two Jewish kids in New York sold a story to Detective Comics Inc., and Superman was born. The idea of the “superhero” caught fire, and within a year dozens of publishing houses were blanketing America in “underwear pervert” titles.

During that initial boom of the “Golden Age of Comics,” many writers and artists toiled in obscurity, working under different pseudonyms for different authors. Some went on to greatness (at least in the world of comics), like Jack Kirby and Bob Kane. Others are remembered only by the most dedicated collectors.

But one was completely forgotten until recently, which is shocking – the stories and art of Fletcher Hanks are beautiful and terrible, gripping and maniacal, unintentionally hilarious and totally batshit.

Cartoonist Paul Karasik discovered Fletcher Hanks decades ago, while working on Art Spiegelman’s RAW magazine in the 1980s. The bizarre beauty of Hanks’ stories stayed with him for years; and recently he created a collection of Hanks’ best work, published by Fantagraphics.

In the process, Karasik discovered who the mysterious Hanks really was, why he only produced comics for three years, and what eventually happened to this mad genius.

Hanks created 48 stories over three years, which is 12-15 pages a month. That’s quite an output, if you’re writing, penciling, inking and lettering all by yourself.

He created two memorable superhero characters. One was Stardust the Super Wizard, who first appeared in Fantastic Comics #1 in 1939. Stardust is not in fact a wizard in any Gandalfian sense, but an Aryan-looking alien whose “vast knowledge of interplanetary science has made him the most remarkable man that ever lived.”

Stardust is nearly omnipotent and functionally omniscient, and lives “on” his own private star, which must be rather uncomfortable. His powers come from bizarre Seussian technology and his control of “rays” – an “attractor ray,” “suspension ray,” “shadow transfer ray,” “thought-recording ray,” “transmitting ray,” “fusing ray,” and “repelling ray” (and that’s all from just one story!).

Being an intergalactic superhero with near godlike powers, Stardust has turned his attention to fighting the greatest threat the known universe can face: racketeering.

No, seriously, racketeering.

Hank’s other great creation was Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle. Also omniscient and omnipotent, also Aryan, also a great fan of “rays,” Fantomah patrolled “Jungleland” in search of “jungle crimes.” These crimes usually involved crazy scientists trying to turn jungle creatures into monsters, rather than violations of the RICO act.

Stardust and Fantomah stories often followed the following winning formula:

1. Stardust (or Fantomah) uses omniscience powers to eavesdrop on criminals plotting a crime. Stardust (or Fantomah) pontificates on how evil the plan is, but does nothing to prevent it. (In all fairness, sometimes Stardust discovers the plan while on a distant “star,” and must travel by “accelerated supersolar light waves” to Earth. Einstein just spun in his grave.)

2. The villain explains his grandiose plan to (a) destroy democracy or (b) subjugate the Earth with jungle creatures. Stardust (or Fantomah) does nothing.

3. The villain puts his plan into action, and many Americans/jungle denizens are killed or forced to flee. Stardust (or Fantomah) does nothing.

4. Stardust (or Fantomah) finally glaciates into action. Verbally berating the villains, the hero sets into motion a series of increasingly bizarre and violent revenges against the evildoers, often turning their own schemes against them.

5. Then the revenge gets really bizarre. And it keeps going.

6. And going.

7. And going.

8. America/Jungleland is saved, and the citizens/natives bemoan they didn’t have the chance to thank their redeemer.

Check out this sample story if you don’t believe me. You definitely do not want to be a racketeer in Stardust’s world.

One of the things I love about the Stardust stories is the picture Hanks paints of organized crime in the 1930s. Apparently, mobsters formed armies of tens of thousands of America-hating solders, and used fleets of airplanes and high-tech rayguns to attempt to take over the country. I guess protection rackets and gambling dens got boring.

Hanks’ heroes do not believe in courts or due process. While Superman gingerly deposits criminals in front of the police station, Stardust crushes their bodies or turns them into living representations of their crimes. While Hanks the narrator insists his hero exists to protect democracy, Stardust’s willingness to eavesdrop on everyone, his disregard for the law, his eagerness to resort to violence and “eye-for-an-eye” brand of justice are most reminiscent of… well, in 1940 one would say “fascism,” but in 2007, one might suggest “Bushism” instead.

So whatever happened to Fletcher Hanks? Karasik was asked this during his panel presentation, but refused to answer. He insisted that the best way to learn the secret was to buy the book. Sure, that sounds like an author trying to get more sales. But I bought the book and read Karasik’s graphic story detailing his encounter with Hanks’ son. And you know what? The best way to find out what happened is to read the story. I won’t ruin it for you.

I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets: The Comics of Fletcher Hanks, edited and with an afterword by Paul Karasik, is only $13.57 on Amazon. I paid $20 at the Fantagraphics booth, but I got it signed.