25 March 2008

The Most Remarkable Man

The best part of I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets!: The Comics of Fletcher Hanks is Paul Karasik's afterword in comics form. Of course, most people should sample Hanks's own comic-book work from the early 1940s once in a lifetime, just to appreciate the depths of human madness, but seeing more of it doesn't add up to more insight.

In contrast, Karasik's afterword about visiting Fletcher Hanks, Jr., does offer that insight. As a comics fan and chronicler, Karasik (at least the version depicted as a character) starts with high hopes that he might meet the legendary lost cartoonist, maybe even come away with some original art or enough material for a New Yorker profile. As in Art Spiegelman's Maus, the cartoonist depicts himself at work on the book we're reading, thinking about how to tell a story while trying to justify his comic-book interests to a parent.

As the afterword proceeds panel by panel, however, Karasik learns that the senior Fletcher Hanks was a nasty, violent drunk. Instead of being a planet-saving hero like his creations Stardust and Fantoma, Hanks was more like his stories' malevolent villains. Karasik inserts panels from those stories to show the parallels.

Fletcher Hanks, Jr., was happy to tell Karasik about his father, but the matter-of-fact, level-headed World War 2 vet was well beyond hero worship. Instead, he displays the heroic qualities that Karasik depicts himself as looking for.


Bill S. said...

I agree with your assessment, to a point. Karasik's afterword was definitely the highlight of the book -- I like how it almost feels like a continuation of the story that precedes it, by virtue of the final panel being reprised on the author's computer screen.

I think the rest of the book is fascinating. It's bizarre to think that these stories were once considered (relatively) mainstream entertainment for children. The stories feature the sort of "ugly" cartooning and surreal juxtapositions that I associate with, say, Crumb's work, rather than with Golden Age comics. I enjoyed this aspect, but found that I could only read a single story at a time, meaning that the length of time it took me considerably longer for me to read than a lot of other graphic novels.

J. L. Bell said...

I got my first look at Fletcher Hanks's work in Art Out of Time, and then found more on the web. So this collection didn't have the power of a new discovery for me.

Which is not to say that Hanks's work isn't powerful in its way. "Puzzlingly effective," as Jules Feiffer has said. Like you, I found that a little at a time goes a long way.

My analysis of Hanks's work is that during the first superhero comics boom, publishers were putting anything on paper, and hadn't yet developed standards of what was appropriate and/or good quality. That economic situation can produce some wonderful creativity (e.g., Jack Cole) and some simply weird stuff.

Anonymous said...

I too loved the afterword, but I had to read it several times because it was so disorienting at first. OK, Karasik finds Fletcher Hanks, and he is kind, unassuming, a war hero, helpful, just what you'd hope for in a superman -- but his birth date is wrong, it's too recent by about a generation. Then Karasik finds out that the Hanks he has met is the son, and that the father, the artist, was just an awful, evil man, for whom his son has no attachment and no respect. (Nor did I, when I read what the son had to say.)

So the dad, who could conceive of the superhero, was a horrible useless man, and the son, who wasn't interested in comic superheros at all, was someone altogether admirable. To me, the afterword was an astonishing story about the ability of the human spirit to seek the light.