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"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

Superheros on a Slant

Carol Borden
Posted June 21, 2007

Justice pared down to punishmentI 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 heros, 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.

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.

Justice pared down to punishmentAnd 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.

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 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 Kurasik 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.

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


12 Responses to “Superheros on a Slant”

  1. Anonymous
    June 21st, 2007 @ 2:46 pm

    >I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets!
    “Quick! Descend into barbarity, and they’ll leave us alone!”
    When I saw that plot about crashing Venus and Earth together, my first thought was:
    “Immanuel Velikovsky, thou art avenged!”
    Also, will let you look at the first few pages of that collection…
    It’s so bad, it’s good.

  2. Carol Borden
    June 23rd, 2007 @ 11:10 am

    hey anonymous person–
    sadly, i never knew about immanuel velikovsky until now. thanks for mentioning him and also for posting the link. i don’t think i’ve even come close to doing justice to fletcher hanks. people should see for themselves.

  3. Mr.Dave
    June 24th, 2007 @ 7:39 pm

    Just reading some of the crazy plot-lines described in your article made me laugh out loud!
    I do love the raw simplicity, the unpretentious directness, of early comic books. Even the more reputable/famous comics of the 1940’s like Superman and Batman have some unabashedly zany stuff going in their early issues.
    Among the many things I discovered after reading your Stainless article, was an interesting review of the Golden Age Wonder Woman and how crazy these seem by modern standards. But they are nothing in comparison to what you have found here by Fletcher Hanks!

  4. Ian Driscoll
    June 26th, 2007 @ 11:35 am

    The mammoth death tolls and enormous invading armies you describe remind me of “Operator 5″ pulps. I remember first reading the descriptions of the magazine in Don Hutchison’s essential “The Great Pulp Heroes” – full of phyrric victories, entire cities reduced to rubble by the invading armies of the Yellow Vulture or the Purple Empire, Canada and Mexico under vandal rule.
    But this sounds awesome. Must get a copy. Fantagraphics does it again. They truly are the electric orange.
    Funnily enough, I just recently learnd of Velikovsky for the first time, too. I picked up a back issue of Analog magazine (October, 1974, I believe). Under Ben Bova’s editorial reign, this was Analog’s special Velikovsky issue and includes an anti-Velikovsky essay by Isaac Asimove (entitled “Crackpot”). A pretty awesome find for $1. Found a listing for it here.
    Keep watching the skies.

  5. matthew (tomorrowboy)
    June 27th, 2007 @ 10:41 am

    this sounds completely insane.
    and I just sent you an email (just saying the above really) and it bounced? what’s the deal?

  6. Chuck
    June 27th, 2007 @ 11:45 am

    Hey Carol, Cory Doctorow posted a review of I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets!
    People are going to make Fletcher Hanks rise from the grave or something.
    — Chuck

  7. Carol Borden
    June 27th, 2007 @ 11:59 am

    hey mr. dave–
    thanks. while both marston and hanks reveal a lot about themselves in their work, what hanks reveals isn’t as fun. marston is way more like ed wood. i’m not sure who i could compare hanks too. a crazy old alcoholic who decides you’re a character in his angry, punitive hallucinations?
    btw, i found this neat wonder woman pitch via your links.
    hey ian–
    i’ll have to track down those “operator 5″ pulps. they sound fantastic. and thanks for the link. abebooks rules. that’s where i got my copy of the great comic book heroes, complete with comics for $8.
    as for velikovsky, anything isaac asimov thought was crackpot science sounds like fun to me.

  8. Carol Borden
    June 27th, 2007 @ 12:17 pm

    hey matthew–
    sorry about the bouncing, it shouldn’t anymore.
    i wonder if he’d be better as a zombie or not? thanks for the review, i’ll go check it out.

  9. Paul Karasik
    June 28th, 2007 @ 9:26 pm

    Glad that you liked my book and thanks for the kind words. It was a labor of love from start to finish and took over four years to produce.
    For readers unfamiliar with Hanks work, may I suggest that you go to the BONUS page of my website and see the bizarre Fantomah story that is NOT included in the book:

  10. Carol Borden
    June 29th, 2007 @ 8:25 pm

    hi paul–
    it really is beautiful work. thanks so much.

  11. Chuck
    July 3rd, 2007 @ 5:00 pm

    So I bought the book.
    I’m most of the way through the thing, and the current source of amusement for me is that Stardust uses his vast knowledge of planetary sciences to bust up criminal rackets.
    But that got me thinking about the kids reading this stuff in that era. Maybe there was a kid living in a neighborhood plagued by mob activity; perhaps someone close to him had been bumped off or disappeared on the orders of a mafia boss.
    The kid wants revenge — not just for the personal tragedy that touches his life, but rather he wants to cleanse society, as a whole, of all mob influences.
    One day, while reading some comic books, he comes across the racket-busting, crime-fighting super wizard known as Stardust. For years after that, the kid remembers the example set by this super hero.
    After high school, the kid has a chance to go to college; his desire to bring down the mob still burns in his heart. So what course of study does this kid pursue?
    You guessed it…
    Eventually he lands a position in the profession. But the other planetary scientists start wondering about him when he says things like…
    “Yes! We’ve successfully mapped the erosion patterns in the canyons of Mars. Now how do we use this to bring down the Sicilian mob’s olive oil monopoly?”
    …or, later…
    “It’s confirmed. There are lakes of methane on Titan. The Russian mob must be quaking in its boots right now.”
    I think my subconscious is fabricating a story about a planetary astrophysicist who brought down John Gotti in a bizarre asymmetrical campaign. But my subconscious isn’t sharing much.

  12. weed
    July 5th, 2007 @ 4:39 pm

    Hee hee hee! Chuck, I like your idea of unlikely crime-fighting occupations, like a professional equestrian against international arms dealers, or a kindergarten teacher bent on bringing down big oil. How about a pet stylist fighting human trafficking?
    Anybody else got suggestions?

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