Nearly 40 years after freezing to death, alone on a park bench, a poetic end to a life of abuse and creative obscurity, Fletcher Hanks has finally been discovered. The embracing of the man’s short window of work, sandwiched between equally forgotten adventure stories in nickel anthologies, has occurred in a manner surely no one could have predicted.
The publication of Paul Karasik’s I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets has turned Hanks into something of a mythic figure in his own right, his work being regarded with equal parts reverence, repulsion, and confusion. Depending on both who you ask and when you ask them, Hanks was either, a visionary, a lunatic, or the ultimate outsider.
Karasik, an artist in his own right, makes it clear that he regards Hanks as the former. Despite the overwhelmingly negative impressions Karasik was able to glean from Hanks’s personal life, he makes it clear that, if nothing else, Fletcher Hanks’s work reflected the personality of the artist more purely than any of his contemporaries who tended to wear as many masks as the heroes they would create.
Fantomah is something of a precursor to the femme fatale character in comics. Didn’t she predate Wonder Woman?
Yeah, I guess she was one of the first comic book superheroes. She’s earlier than Wonder Woman. She’s got this alter ego. She starts out looking like Jean Harlow on page one, and then she turns into a detached skeleton.
Sort of an early Ghost Rider.
Yeah. She’s got transformative qualities.
It’s interesting having this strong female character from someone like Fletcher Hanks, who very clearly was something of a bastard, and wasn’t likely the biggest proponent of women’s lib.
Yeah. I think Fantomah was his creation though. She was subsequently drawn by other artists. I think she went well into Jungle Comics number 30 or 40—36 or something. She’s drawn by someone else later, and never turns to Skeletor. She looks like Jean Harlow all the way through.
Have you done any superhero work yourself?
I’ve done no superhero work.
Having worked for so long with these old books, do you have any desire to try your hand at it?
I actually thought about doing a Spectre story. I was sketching it out a couple of years ago. I only though about doing it because I liked the work of Bernard Baily and the very early issues of the series. I don’t know if you’ve seen the earliest Spectre stories, but they’re the most akin to Fletcher Hanks stories of any other cartoonist at the time. Thy really stand out on a certain level in the same way that the Fletcher Hanks stories stand out.
At the time Bernard Baily was not that good a draftsman, so they’re kind of campy and charming, but I think that Fletcher Hanks was a very confident cartoonist. Since this book has come out, there’s been a lot of chitchat on the Internet about Fletcher Hanks being an outsider cartoonist, or the guy couldn’t draw his way out of a paper bag, but the fact of the matter is, if you compare him to most of the other cartoonists working around the same time, Fletcher Hanks could draw circles around them—Joe Schuster or Bernard Baily or Bob Kane or any of these early guys who were doing comics.
And, he could a story much more coherently. His storytelling skills are very, very good. They’re sharp and very clearly told. People get distracted by the figure drawing and the mis-proportioned bodies, but the work is very well wrought.
In terms of the storyline and the powers that these characters have, would you say that they’re any more outlandish than your standard superhero story?
Well, on the surface they are somewhat more outlandish in that most of the actual stories have to do with this violent Old Testament retribution, and most of the “plots” are the superhero torturing and beating the shit out of the villain. But they’re not so much different from your other stories at the time.
But what is a-typical is a certain level of passion borne of rage that lies just under the surface of these stories, and I think there’s a real misanthropic quality to them, and a rage that’s just barely noticeable there in the first reading, and the longer you soak in the stories, the more you get a sense that the person writing these stories is invested in them in a different way, personally—not artistically, but personally, than your average person who is writing these types of stories.
Is that something that came more to the front for you when you discovered the sort of guy that Fletcher Hanks really was?
That’s one of the stories from the book. That’s one of the alchemies that I hope will occur, for a reader coming to this stuff cold. One of the reasons why I purposefully left out any extra material, other than his story and my story is because I sense that, over the course of reading these stories, by the time you finish the last one, you’re really wondering, ‘who the hell is this guy?’ Because the sense of him as a creator is really palatable.
If you read 15 Spirit stories by Will Eisner, I don’t think you’d walk away wondering, “what kind of guy was this?” You read 15 Fletcher Hanks stories, you’re wondering what the psychology of this guy is. And at the end, you read my story, I think a certain resonance is created. For me, it was a revelation.