Review: Why Fletcher Hanks was much too weird for comic books

Anyone lucky enough to have read the first Fletcher Hanks collection, I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets (2007), instantly knows the insane joys to be expected in the much-anticipated second volume, You Shall Die by Your Own Evil Creation! (Fantagraphics, $24.99).

Crude but powerful drawings; an eye-shattering color palette; helter-skelter plotting, often with anticlimactic, fall-off-a-cliff endings; unintentionally manifested author obsessions; stupendous indulgence of schadenfreude, terror and glee at the misery of humanity, salted with some token morality.

Yes, that's the Fletcher Hanks formula for a unique, unforgettable, Golden Age comics masterpiece, and all these bizarro traits are indeed on glorious display here, thanks to the scholarly, loving exhumation conducted by editor Paul Karasik, and also thanks to the gorgeous design sensibilities of the folks at Fantagraphics.

Karasik rightly aligns Hanks with his more-famous peers Chester Gould and Basil Wolverton. But I'd toss in fellow travelers like pulp artists Frank R. Paul and Wesso. It's obvious in the interplanetary battle scenes from the "Space Smith" stories, for instance, that Hanks has read his Doc Smith. Likewise, the tale involving Tiger Hart of Saturn bespeaks the influence both of Hal Foster's Prince Valiant and, quite possibly, of E.R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros (1922), whose setting and premise are similar.

Overall, though, I'd favor the comparison of Hanks to A.E. van Vogt. Both men achieved resonant weirdness with superman protagonists, jackrabbit narratives and oneiric storytelling. Van Vogt was the superior craftsman, of course, and had a vastly more rewarding and productive career. Hanks—whose biography as revealed by Karasik reads like a Salvation Army cautionary sermon—was too prone to undisciplined fever dreams. What in the name of all misogyny is responsible for beautiful female hero Fantomah regularly turning into a skullface, anyhow?

Hanks turned out only 51 stories in his brief career, all collected in these two volumes, which merit essential status for any fan of SF weirdness. You have not really lived until you've croggled at the awesome sight of the Leopard Women of Venus riding giant saurians through space!

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