Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Maybe You Can

One of my favorite movie quotes was from a bad Stephen King movie I saw years ago. About a car that killt people. During the film, a particular character, commenting on a crappy car a kid is trying to restore says: "You can't polish a turd." Vulgar, yes. But effective. I always liked that quote.

Late last year I heard about a book put out by Fantagraphics compiling the known published works of a man some consider to be one of the worst comic artists to have ever lived. That's one hell of a reputation to live up to, but this guy is definitely in the running. Apparently, his work was so twisted and so simplistic that he was considered extraordinary on that level. As if he were a kind of comic book equivalent of Ed Wood.

Out of curiosity, I ordered a copy of I SHALL DESTROY ALL THE CIVILIZED PLANETS!, which is the collected works of Fletcher Hanks, with an illustrated afterword by editor Paul Karasik.

The principal contents of the book are fifteen stories by Fletcher Hanks (sometimes under one of his pseudonyms) which constitute, I suppose, his known output. The stories are, indeed, exceedingly crude and bloodlessly violent, but extremely twisted for all of the lack of crimson and gore. They mainly feature his two best known creations Stardust (kind of like God if He were blonde and had a tiny baby head), and Fantomah (kind of like God if She were blonde and could turn her face into a blazing skull). Both of these characters watch from on high while evil men plot to carry out stupid and bizarre schemes that result in the deaths of many people. Afterwards, the hero dispenses with the bad guys in truly vengeful ways. There's not much to compare it with in comics with the exception of Michael Fleischer's scripts in the early 1970s on the DC comic The Spectre (but crude rather than nuanced).

Indeed, these stories are spectacularly bad, but are a vision that I suppose was worth preserving in this oversized trade paperback edition. As unsophisticated and weird as the main features are, the most bizarre and pointless of the stories contained in the volume is one called "Big Red McLane, King of the North Woods". It features a huge redheaded man mountain who works as a lumberjack who goes around beating the shit out of lesser, but more evil lumberjacks from a competing company. It's exceptional in its pointlessness. I can imagine the creator of such a work committing suicide.

However, Fletcher Hanks apparently never did commit suicide after his brief sojourn in the Golden Age of comic books (all of these stories appeared in the early 40s when crap like that could find a home). He lived into the 1970s and froze to death as a homeless drunk on a park bench in New York City. This is revealed in the best part of the collection, a sixteen page tale written and illustrated by the editor of the book. This is great comics journalism as Karasik locates Fletcher Hanks' son (and namesake) and gets the truth on what a lowdown bastard the senior Fletcher Hanks really was.

I highly recommend I SHALL DESTROY ALL THE CIVILIZED PLANETS! It had a strange fascination for me. I read it twice and it'll find a permanent home in my library of comics. I guess the guy in that Stephen King movie was wrong, though. Apparently you really can polish a turd.


Paul Karasik said...

Many thanks for your kind words about my book, "I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets: The Comics of Fletcher Hanks".

Readers unfamiliar with Hanks' work might want to slide over to the BONUS page of my website for a full-length Fantomah tale that does not appear in the book.

Byu the way, the 15 tales in the book do not constitutue the full body of Hanks' work...a second volume is in the works!

HemlockMan said...

Yow! Another volume!

Thanks for stopping by. I'll look for the next book!