9.01.2009

Graphic Novel Of The Month: I Saw Lizzie Borden In Congress With The Devil

I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets! (Fantagraphics): It hit me with such palpable force. It seems inescapable how much the strips of Fletcher Hanks could have been the creative manifestations of his own psychosis. Stardust, Fantomah, and the “also-ran” strips are aggressive and violent, possibly mirroring Hank’s emotional bouts in his own life. Most of them come full of disproportionate, even grotesque, figures – possibly a physical representation of Hanks’ hidden disdain for himself. Consider for a moment the notion that he subconsciously crafted his comic book worlds after his own image of the world around him. Their creation may have been a psychological act of transference which supports the adage that art imitates life.

The Fletcher Hanks strips, particularly Stardust, are all fueled with a deep-seeded paranoia. When you factor in what little is known about Hanks’ personal life, it begins to paint a disturbing picture potentially worthy of clinical diagnosis. According to his son, he was an alcoholic, a thief, suffered from depression, had violent mood swings, was physically abusive to both his wife and son before abandoning them, and eventually was found frozen to death. I’m hesitating to offer my lay diagnosis as an armchair psychologist and hypothesize that the symptoms exhibited are the face of something like borderline personality disorder or paranoid schizophrenia, because the symptoms don’t fit entirely, but I would speculate that there exists some condition defined in the DSM-IV that would. And just to be crystal clear, this is my own supposition, nothing that’s revealed or even speculated upon during the Karasik interview – Karasik makes a wise choice to simply present the work and allow it to speak for itself. Me? I’m not the editor of the book, so I can afford to be a little more opinionated. In my interpretation, the creative mind here seems to exist in unstable halves, always battling itself, presenting with many of the dynamics that either Fletcher Hanks Jr. described to Karasik or that are themes actually found in the strips themselves. For example, there is one thread in the work that shows Hanks being compulsively drawn toward looming destruction by way of illogical paranoid conspiracies, while the other is obsessed with protection of the world’s greater good – freedom from persecution, by way of a mysterious, self-righteous savior. These sets of mirror image pairings are all over the work and really create the infrastructure that propels it forward. There are frequent and repetitive scenes of science vs. primitive paranoia, man vs. the natural world, destruction vs. preservation, and possibly the best example in the character of Fantomah, who is herself a dual nature construct. She is simultaneously the most beautiful woman alive and alternately depicted as a demonic skeletal visage.

There’s nothing subtle or unrestrained about Hanks’ work. For that it is truly brilliant, having been the artistic vision of a single creator prior to any sort of industry rules, standards, or guidelines existing, during the burgeoning days of the comic book. All of the ideas come in overpowering waves. If a city is bombed, it’s not just one plane, it is wave after wave of dozens of war planes that dot the horizon as far as the eye can see. The planes don’t just drop one bomb or even a single payload; they rain down bombs like the all encompassing fire and brimstone that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah (as we’d expect from the son of a minister, an interesting tidbit that Karasik revealed to Tom Spurgeon in a Comics Reporter interview). Even the science fiction postulating of the time is taken to an extreme, implausible level. Stardust is wearing a “flexible star-metal skin,” an idea that harkens back to the questionable Golden Age pseudo-science conjecture that was so prevalent. While that sounds little different than something like Thanagarian Nth Metal, Hanks doesn’t stop there with a relatively tame device. One conspiratorial plot involves the bad guys (an association of “terrorists” and general evildoers) shooting their ray to stop the Earth from rotating on its axis so that all the inhabitants will simply fly off. Not the cars or ships or structures of course, those are valuable. Nor do the bad guys themselves fly off; they simply chain themselves down to the ground in order to be impervious from the Earth suddenly stopping(!). The bad guys then somehow restart the mudball and take over the planet, and by default amass all the world’s money. It makes you wonder what good it would do; if you were the only person left on the planet, having all the money in the world wouldn’t actually be that useful. The ideas aren’t at all thought out, making them supremely powerful as the delusions of a manic creative force.

The most telling type of extreme behavior is Stardust’s treatment of the villains. This is more than adolescent male power fantasy; it’s almost as if Hanks has set out to right some universal wrong he perceived, attempting to expunge whatever personal demons he suffered from in the process. This is not mere justice, or even vengeance, the bad guys in Fletcher Hanks stories are being punished in cruel and unusual ways. As a digression, it’s interesting that carrying out their punishments is never caustic or joyful; it’s simply done without editorialization as a matter of course. But nevertheless, Stardust is ruthless to these criminals. No, they’re not just peaceably vanquished, they are skewered and left to die atop decaying palm trees, their consciousness presciently sent into the ice cold void of space in Hanks’ own version of “The Phantom Zone” to contemplate their actions for all eternity, turned into simplistic cavemen and left that way, all shown absolutely no mercy. Thugs like poor DeStructo have their shrunken miniscule bodies and normal sized heads jettisoned into space for use by the creepy headless headhunters. It’s as if Hanks’ torn personality is trying to forcibly reconcile the good and evil within him by acting out these dynamics on the printed page.

When Fletcher Hanks’ work is placed in context within comic book history, we see that its influence has almost come full circle. Like many strips in the 1940’s Golden Age, they are raw and rough by modern standards. The use of perspective is flawed, the proportions are comical at times, the coloring can be garish, and the print quality poor – yet they bristle with life, with the type of avant-garde creative energy that fueled the Silver Age boom in the 1960’s. During that Silver Age and Bronze Age plethora through the 1970’s, more uniformity was sought from the big two publishers in order to make their creations more palatable to the masses. This continued through the 80’s and the bust of the 90’s. At that point, there was a growing desire to differentiate products from the stale marketplace, we see this continual cycle of copycat imitators attempting to do what sells and then true innovators breaking the mold, setting the new standard for what will be copied, over and over ad nauseum. The attempts to push the boundary are cyclical, new boundaries become entrenched around once fresh ideas, until the cycle repeats anew. If you take that thread to today (within the superhero paradigm) you get something like The Boys as a descendant of Fletcher Hanks’ work, which is equally violent and aggressive and raw, though it’s still more controlled, done deliberately as conscious fourth wall meta-commentary, while I Shall Destroy…! provides unintentional commentary about the author, the time period, and the market in which he lived.

I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets! is truly a book that Paul Karasik deserves some credit for creating, beyond basic editorial duties. This isn’t merely a cataloguing of otherwise lost strips. His investigative and exploratory interview with Fletcher Hanks Jr. sheds a lot of light on the broken creative personality behind it all. He’s created a much deeper appreciation and understanding of the work, even though it’s still inconclusive about the mystery of his life itself. It’s difficult to simply say I liked the strips themselves because the appreciation goes beyond the ostensibly simple enjoyment of their kooky period verbiage and manic ideas. I very much liked the project holistically. The work itself proves that Hanks had a well developed sense of style that got lost in the flurry of new properties gushing onto the market at the time. The project as a whole is a brilliant examination of how a creator affects their own work product in unintentional and powerful ways, and can still yield profound impact nearly 70 years later. Grade A.

4 Comments:

At 9:14 AM, Anonymous Rafael Diaz said...

Hey man, interesting ideas on this weird book. Will you be talking about the second volume?

 
At 10:24 AM, Blogger Justin said...

Hi Raffi,

You know, I did buy You Shall Die by Your Own Evil Creation! at SDCC and had every intention of reviewing it, but after this I really feel like I said all I had to say about Fletcher Hanks. And the strips do get a little repetitive thematically and formulaic in their execution after you read enough of them. Not to denigrate the work or anything, it’s just an observation that I think is pretty factual.

But my lack of review isn’t any indication that it’s not worth checking out. Paul Karasik’s introductory essay is a particularly excellent, concise, effective, and detailed analysis of the work. It’s definitely worth picking up for that alone.

Thanks!

J

 
At 5:42 AM, Blogger Paul Karasik said...

Thanks for the kind and astute words. You did exactly what I had hoped for in creating the first volume: you came to your own conclusions by combing information from the Afterword with a deep reading of the work itself.

I look forward to reading what you have to say about the second volume.

Pardon the plug, but:

I even put out a mini-Fletcher Hanks coloring book. Presently the only way to get the coloring book (with a swell cover by Charles Burns) is to either order “You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation!” via Fantagraphics (the value of the coloring book to you may be worth the difference of ordering through Amazon plus you support Fantagraphics):

http://www.fantagraphics.com/index.php?page=shop.product_details&flypage=shop.flypage&product_id=1589&category_id=396&manufacturer_id=0&option=com_virtuemart&Itemid=62

Or get a copy by showing up at one of my signings.

At these signing I will be presenting “The Fletcher Hanks Experience” narrated by Fletcher Hanks, Jr.


September 3, 5:00: West Tisbury Library, West Tisbury, MA
September 16, 7:00 The Strand Bookstore, NYC, NY
September 27 SPX, Small Press Expo, Bethesda, MD
October 18 7:00: Politics and Prose Bookstore, Washington, DC

BTW: The book got a nice review over at Publisher’s Weekly:

http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6677232.html

“I must have this book for my library.” -R. Crumb

 
At 8:32 AM, Blogger Justin said...

Hi Paul,

Thank you for the feedback. The coloring book sounds fun, I tried to get it at SDCC when I bought the books, but Fantagraphics sold out quickly at the con.

The signing sounds like fun, a shame I won't be in that neck of the woods. I used to travel to Massachussetts and New Hampshire frequently at my last job, but no more.

Best,

Justin

 

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