Neither editor Paul Karasik, nor his publisher, Fantagraphics, could have seen this coming. After all, projects such as this one have a tendency to wallow in the same obscurity as the works of the author on which they’re based. Thanks to a good amount of bloggy and word of mouth buzz, however, I Shall Destroy All Civilized Planets managed to surprise just about everyone, selling out a few weeks after publication.
Were he still around, Fletcher Hanks would have no doubt been amongst the most surprised. However, the artist met with the kind of end that puts the deaths of fellow self-destructive, posthumously-appreciated artists to shame, having frozen while sleeping on a park bench. In the book’s comic afterword by Karasik, himself a celebrated cartoonist, the author tracks down Hanks’s son, who knew nothing of his abusive old man’s comic book ambitions.
A quick glance at the pages of I Shall Destroy All Civilized Planets reveals almost immediately both why Hanks received no recognition in his time, and why he is being regarded as something of a lost visionary, all of these years later. Fletcher Hanks was, for better and worse, and true original, in a time when his field studiously promoted those who could best fulfill the status quo.
We spoke to Karasik about Hanks, and how an obsession with a long-forgotten artist grew into one of the year’s best-received books on the form.
This book has been hugely successful. You couldn’t have seen this coming.
No, the success has completely taken myself and Fantagraphics completely by surprise. I worked on this project for over four years in my little studio, and I never saw this coming. The book sold out in the first three weeks of its release, and now we’re waiting for the second edition to show up. It’s really thrilling.
The vast majority of the people purchasing this book had almost certainly never heard of Fletcher Hanks.
Yeah, and I think that that’s a large part of the reason for the book’s early success. Whether it has any legs after this rush of discovery has yet to be seen. But I think a lot of what people are reacting to is the discovery of his work. People haven’t been exposed to it until now.
It had to be a bit of a crapshoot going into it. The fact that no one had heard of Hanks could have certainly spelled the doom for book.
Sure, there are many people who have been discovered who were probably best left undiscovered.
Did that make it tough to go on? The thought that perhaps no one would have really cared all that much?
Sure, absolutely. It was done out of pure self-indulgence. Just because I loved the stuff, I couldn’t assum that anyone else would love it. But I was compelled to do this book after learning the story of what happened to Fletcher Hanks and then I began to find the other Fletcher Hanks stories. I don’t think I had seen but one Fantomah story, prior to putting this book together. And then I discovered all of these gorgeous Fantomah stories, and one would be more fantastic than other. Ultimately, I had no choice but to do this book.
Is there an existing fanbase? Are people there people out there actively collecting Hanks’s stuff?
No. as a matter of fact, most of the collectors that I was in contact with to get copies of these different stories had never heard of Fletcher Hanks. I met some very interested characters—“interesting” might be a euphemism for weird. It often is. I went to one fellow’s house who could not stand the work, so I had to spend the day traveling to get to his house, and brought my own scanner and laptop.
He literally didn’t even want to touch the work?
I’m not exactly sure what the reasons were. Perhaps it was as simple as he wanted someone else to enjoy his collection. So I went down to his house. He looked like a perfectly normal guy and it looked like a perfectly normal ranch house, but when I went down to the basement, I saw the comics den. I explained what I was looking for and he brought out these early issues from his stupendous collection, and he pointed to a couple and said, “isn’t this fantastic? Look at that condition!” I said, “yeah, that’s very nice, but the guy I’m interested in starts on page 36.” And when I’d open the book to a Fletcher Hanks story, he’d kind of shrug his shoulders.
I was met with this kind of reaction from many of the collectors through whose work I scavenged, because the virtues of Hanks’s work have never really been exposed, examined, or put on display, and he’s largely remained a mystery. Books are filled up by more prominent cartoonists whose work is nothing special.
His virtues are certainly different than those of many cartoonists of the period.
To me it’s so unique and powerful. And certainly unlike anything surrounding it in any particular issue of Jungle Comics, but the fact of the matter is, his work is surrounded by so many pages of truly awful cartooning that I think it was hard to believe that among all of this four-colored trash, there could be this living jewel.
People weren’t really going out of their way to promote original thought in those early books.
I’m just talking about over the subsequent years. The collectors. I’m surprised that more collectors haven’t noticed that this was an individual artist doing strikingly original work.
In your afterword, you’re confronted with two people—your mother and Fletcher Hanks’s son—who shrug the work off. What sort of arguments do you present people who immediate write his stuff off? How do you explain these virtues to them?
Well, I think it’s one of those things where, either you get it at first glance, or you just won’t get it. My mother has very discriminating taste. She’s very visually literate. For instance, she thinks that Harvey Kurtzman is a genius. But she just doesn’t get Fletcher Hanks. She just can’t get beyond the fact that it’s stupid superhero comics. Either your eyeballs spin into the back of your head, or it just leaves you like a cup of cold Sanka.
He was really grinding away in the clichés of the times: superhero, jungle, et al.
Sure, but Fantomah wasn’t just the white jungle goddess. There are a bunch of those like Sheena. That’s another part of the reason for this camouflage of obscurity. But once again, I just find it stunning that no one had found out about him before, that he hadn’t had an earlier champion, other than the cartoonist Jerry Moriarty, who showed his work to myself, five years ago.
[Continued in Part Two.]