Who is Fletcher Hanks?
If cartoonist and art educator Paul Karasik has his way, Hanks's name will be rescued from the dustbin of 20th century comics' history and included among the greats of the genre. With the publication of "I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets: The Comics of Fletcher Hanks," author Karasik has assembled a vivid anthology of the cult artist's work.
Fletcher Hanks worked in the late 1930s and early '40s, writing and drawing for old-time comic houses like Fiction House and Fox Features Syndicate. His work was characterized by all-powerful superheroes and elaborate punishments for villains. His creations carried lurid names like Tabu The Wizard of the Jungle, Stardust the Super Wizard, and Fantomah, one of the genre's first female heroes. In the '40s Hanks disappeared from the comics scene and was mostly forgotten in the ensuing decades.
According to Karasik, Hanks's obscurity is an error that requires correction.
"Fletcher Hanks is not just overlooked, he was never acknowledged in the first place," explains Karasik. "He is one of the greatest cartoonists in the history of the medium."
Hanks was part of a vanished breed of comic artists who did all aspects of the comic strip by themselves, versus the assembly line model where different artists sketch, ink, and letter the comic. "This method makes very good cars that last, but it does not make very good art," Karasik says.
A graduate of the Pratt Institute of Design, Karasik discovered Hanks's work 25 years ago while working as an editor at Art Speigelman's RAW magazine. The magazine reprinted one of Hanks's obscure works and Karasik was struck by the powerful artistry and bizarre tone of the story. "Once you see one of these stories it melts on to your cerebral cortex," he says. "It's hard to forget."
Five years ago, Karasik received an e-mail from a friend in the art world with a link to a web site that displayed one of Hanks's stories. The site rekindled his interest in the cult author and led him to a years-long process of unraveling the story of Hanks's life after his disappearance from the comics world.
The process of researching the Fletcher Hanks anthology led him on a cross-continental quest that included journeys into the basements of hard-core comics collectors. Karasik himself is no stranger to the world of comics (his graphic novel adaptation of Paul Auster's "City of Glass" was named one of the 100 most important comics of the 20th century by the Comics Journal), but he nevertheless was surprised by the collectors' degree of devotion. "This network of high-end comic book collectors is a whole new world," he says. "I met some, shall we say...very interesting comic book collectors."
Some allowed him to scan original Fletcher Hanks pages onto his computer as long as he donned sterile white gloves and treated the comics with surgical precision.
Little was known about the life of Hanks prior to Karasik's work on the anthology. "My book is essentially a true life mystery story because I found out what happened to this guy," says Karasik. "Not only is it a rediscovery of his work, it's a rediscovery of his man."
The last chapter of the book is a comic strip penned by Karasik himself where he portrays his discovery of Hanks's post-comics life. The strip captures Karasik's dumbfounded surprise when he discovers that Hanks isn't the iconic hero he expected but instead a deeply flawed man.
"I went into this project convinced Fletcher Hawks was one type of person," Karasik says. "He was my hero because I'd known auteur comic book artists and they're great guys, by and large. I leave this project realizing he is a complete scoundrel. Things are not as one assumes they are."
Two legends of 20th century art and literature lend their praise to the project. In a blurb on the back, the late Kurt Vonnegut writes, "the recovery from oblivion of these treasures is in itself a major work of art."
Underground comics legend R. Crumb opines that the anthology is "raw, powerful stuff. I'm glad to see a book like this. Fletcher Hanks was a twisted dude."