Superheroes On A Slant

hanks head punishment cropped

I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! brings back fond memories of the passionate works of maniacal genius I’ve occasionally scored at book fairs and zine shows—tracts with titles like “Thousands of Degrees Hot!” and minicomics like “Linda Saves Detroit” or “The Brain Parasites.” Fletcher Hanks’ comics are crazier, more inspired and more disturbing than I can convey.

I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! is Fantagraphics’ new collection of Fletcher Hanks’ comics. Written between 1939 and 1941, his work shares the conventions of its time but somehow end up a little skew. Over and over saboteurs and mobsters devastate New York—or plan to—and thousands die. One gang plans to stop the world from spinning so that everyone flies out into space. (The gangsters chain themselves to the ground as part of their evil scheme). And given the number of rays his main heroes, the Super Wizard Stardust and Fantomah, a skullfaced, Sheena-like protector of the Jungleland, deploy, I wouldn’t be surprised if all the spy-mob gangs wrapped themselves in aluminum foil. Hell, I might and I have no intention of destroying even a couple of the civilized planets.

fantomah transformation

The villainous schemes are elaborate, but the real focus is on punishment with very little in between the revelation of the plot and the resultant punishment. Frequently, plots are unfoiled or mostly foiled but with the thousands of deaths necessary to justify Stardust or Fantomah’s wrath. Thousands die before Stardust saves New York and Fantomah waits to act until giant royal panthers have been loosed on the same already bombed out city. The heroic part isn’t saving people or standing up for what’s right or foiling the plot in the nick of time. Heroism and justice are pared down to punishment. And the focus of the stories is the hero’s execution of awe-inspiring poetic justice: turning a villainous mastermind into a giant head and giving that head to a giant headless space headhunter; throwing spy-mobsters out a window, then suspending them in mid-air with “the skeletons of innocent people, they have killed [sic]” (6). And evildoers should ponder what they’ve done, usually for all eternity.

hanks rat transformation cropped

And since for Hanks more was scarier, his gangs and his casualties are frequently phenomenal. In “Skullface Takes Over New York,” the gang numbers 300,000. I can’t help wondering what gangs, spy-mobs and fifth columns with such numbers and resources like bombers, “super tommy guns,” atom smashers, super tanks, death rays, tornado making machines and all need with secret plans and the methods of organized crime. Why does the millionaire with a fleet of transport ships, hundreds of trappers and a bomber squadron need the giant panthers of Jungleland to destroy New York? It reminds me of kids’ competitive storytelling—”Oh yeah, well, my gang has hundreds of transports filled with thousands of supertanks and giant panthers!”

Massive numbers might create dramatic problems for other artists: Are 300,000 really scarier than 5? Is the death of thousands more tragic than the death of one? For Fletcher Hanks, the math becomes a problem of calculating satisfactory retribution. In one instance, Fantomah fuses several men into one and gives that man over to green demonic guys at the Pit of Horrors who then execute him via white cobras and a giant claw. Stardust also fuses a bunch of villains into one punishable guy.

Sometimes they use some sort of punishment Bell curve. So in a story of fifth columnists plotting to undermine America on the orders of a nameless European dictator, most members are turned into icicles and allowed to melt, guiltier members are turned into rats and driven off a pier while the ring leader, Yew Bee, survives as a soaked rat with a human head and is turned over to the G-Men.

hanks rat transformation yew bee

One of the most difficult parts of the Stardust comics for me is that the G-Men aren’t more disturbed by Stardust’s methods. They complain they didn’t get to thank him for the squicky human-headed rat. But while the retribution fetish is disturbing, Hank’s comics are also strangely heartening. They reveal that superhero stories–other superhero stories–aren’t everything Fredric Wertham worried they were. In a genre that’s so often understood as being about power, control and punishment, a set of non-parodic comics that are completely about power, control and retribution come off as unsatisfying and, well, bizarre. Seen on the slant, superhero comics aren’t just about the thrill of punitive power.

The collection itself is as pretty as you’d expect from Fantagraphics. I’m particularly fond of the simplicity of the cover with Stardust on one side and Fantomah on the other. Along with curating the collection, Paul Karasik contributes a graphic afterword, “Whatever Happened to Fletcher Hanks?” His integration of Fletcher Hanks’ work into his own is lovely, but read it after all the other comics for extra effect.

hanks terribly upset

~~~

Carol Borden, whose vast knowledge of interplanetary science has made her the most remarkable woman that ever lived, devotes her abilities to crime-busting.

(The essay was originally published at The Cultural Gutter on June 21, 2007)

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