Dark imagery


POSTED: Sunday, July 12, 2009

The “;invention”; of the comic book in the mid-1930s snapped the leash on the mad dogs of this nascent creation. Suddenly, what had been trapped within the confines of daily newspaper pages could spill out in epic narratives, limited only by the creators' imaginary horizons and self-absorptions. Particularly, after “;Action Comics”; made Superman a newsstand smash, publishers couldn't crank out comics fast enough.

Naturally, much of the early stuff wasn't very good, often because the storytelling grammar of this new medium was still, as they say, in development. There were new rules, but they were hazy and ill defined. The main thing was to get those stories on the street, and the artists and writers who met punishing deadlines were the pioneers who defined the field.

One of these guys was Fletcher Hanks. He came out of nowhere, created 51 stories in three years, then vanished. And they weren't classics. Do you recall “;Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle”;? “;Stardust the Super Wizard”;? “;Big Red McLane, King of the Northwoods”;?

Thought not.

Hanks was a one-man band. He wrote, drew, inked, lettered and created color call-outs for every story. That's rare enough, but he managed to crank them out on time with no fanfare. Although he worked in Will Eisner's production line, Eisner had little recall of the man. When Hanks dropped out of the comics world, his creations did, too. They apparently had no life beyond his work ethic.

Seventy years later, however, Hanks is getting a new appreciation. Two compilation books have reprinted all of his stories—”;I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets: The Fantastic Comics of Fletcher Hanks”; and ”;You Shall Die by Your Own Evil Creation!”;—thanks to the efforts of comics educator Paul Karasik.

CREATING COMICS is a solitary occupation, done in a dark room in the dead of night, with limitless opportunity for psychological spillage and artistic Freudian slips, and Hanks' groove, taken back to back like this, is unsettling. It is a glimpse into the mind of an angry, frustrated man. Generally every story has the same plot—hero discovers villainy, takes pages to react, then does so in a brutal and callous fashion. It can be downright creepy.

Generally, when you talk about a comic auteur's “;issues,”; you're talking page count, not whether he has his head screwed on straight.

It's multiplied by Hanks' art style, which at first seems crude but is actually quite stylized and consistent. Many images, such as troupes of unfortunates flying in hurtling, screaming weightlessness, have the impact of nightmares.

Karasik's research revealed that Hanks as a person was just as unpleasant as you might imagine. The last time his 10-year-old son saw him, he had kicked the boy down the stairs and stolen his piggy bank. In the '70s, Hanks passed out on a New York City park bench while drunk and froze to death.

Sometimes artists and writers aren't nice people. But all they leave behind to speak for them are their creations. And the twisted comics universe once inhabited by Fletcher Hanks is eerie and unsettling, and fascinating in what it reveals about the man with the pen.

I've often thought creating comics should be utilized by psychologists for chasing out demons. Fletcher Hanks showed us how it's done, although it took 70 years for us to figure it out.