Fletcher Hanks: The Most Twisted Comic Book Artist of All Time

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Strangely, Fletcher Hanks has become one of the most famous of unknown comic book artists. From 1939 to 1941, he created characters that hardly anyone’s ever heard of. Stardust the Super Wizard. Fantomah the Mystery Woman of the Jungle. Big Red McLane, King of the North Woods. Hanks’ renderings of these stories have been described as clumsy, crude, incompetent hackwork and, most frequently, just plain ugly. Oh, and he was also allegedly a drunk who abused his wife and kids before abandoning them, as Paul Karasik has noted during his extensive research of Hanks.

Even praise for Hanks’ art has been, let’s say, qualified. Alternative comics artist Matt Madden’s wrote in BookForum that “Although Hanks’s ability to draw anatomy is feeble—his characters all seem to suffer from acromegaly—and his compositions are often unwieldy and random, he occasionally pulls off a stunning, beguiling image.” New Yorker cartoonist Karasik recently declared in Boing Boing that “Hanks comics are incredibly violent, incredibly stupid, and incredibly beautiful.” And consider this: Karasik is the editor of three – count ’em, three – Hanks collections over the past decade.

So let’s take a closer look at this deranged comics hack and his ugly, beautiful, feeble, occasionally beguiling images.

In many ways, Hanks’ skills—such as they were—were typical of his era. He practiced his brief cartooning career at the very dawn of superhero comic books.

Is Fletcher Hanks’ current cult following simply a revival of that 1970s “outsider art” foolishness or that “so bad it’s good” camp nonsense from the ’60s? Actually, Art Spiegelman deserves the credit – or blame for his resurrection when he reprinted “The Anti-Solar Ray,” starring Stardust, in Raw’s issue five back in 1983. And thus Hanks caught the eye of Karasik, who was Raw’s Associate Editor at the time.

“Turn Loose Our Death Rays…” cover

In addition to his cartooning career, Karasik is an educator. He’s on RISD’s faculty and has been teaching and lecturing about comics in Europe as well as the U.S. And his How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels, co-written with Mark Newgarden, was just released to wild acclaim both within and outside the comics and design communities.

Karasik’s 2007 I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets! and 2009 You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation! was also met with critical praise. Kurt Vonnegut himself has blurbed, “The recovery from oblivion of these treasures is in itself a major work of art.” And from Jules Feiffer: “Hanks was a primitive, a puzzle, and a mystery and the ever-discerning Paul Karasik goes a long way towards showing why his work is essential.”

Karasik’s most recent volume, Turn Loose Our Death Rays And Kill Them All!: The Complete Works Of Fletcher Hanks, is also the most comprehensive, compiling, he says, “all 53 of his batshit crazy tales.” The book concludes with “Whatever Happened to Fletcher Hanks?,” his own 18-page comics investigation into the man behind the panels. Karasik’s quiet and intimate story, drawn with a loose sketchiness, provides a welcome relief from Hanks’s own stiff, icy, brash detachment.

Karasik’s book is already expanding Hanks’ devoted fanbase. McSweeney’s review proclaims that Hanks is “the most bonkers comic book creator ever,” and that he “also produced one of the most distinctive, humorous, wacky bodies of work in the history of the medium.”

Karasik is, of course, Hanks’ biggest booster. And so, to try to make sense of this whole, peculiar phenomenon, in the following interview we explore the enigmas, the aesthetics, and the WOW! factor of, in Karasik’s words, this “messed-up, misanthropic, twisted, totally original” artist.

from Paul Karasik’s “Whatever Happened to Fletcher Hanks?

Michael Dooley: In the forward, Glen David Gold describes Hanks’ “childishly executed” art, arbitrary stylistic shifts and panel sizes, “non-existent pacing,” and plots that either never finish or conclude “for no particular reason.” And Gold was praising Hanks.

Paul Karasik: Glen wrote a marvelous forward and I am grateful for his finely crafted contribution, though I may not be in complete agreement. Let’s look at each of these assessments in order.

One, “childishly executed” art. For many years I was a middle-school art teacher and I consider the best kids art to be very thoughtful, intentional, fun, and uninhibited. So, in that sense, I concur.

Two, ”arbitrary stylistic shifts and panel sizes.” First: style.

A remarkable aspect of having all of the Hanks stories together in a single chronological volume is to see how swiftly he developed as an artist. All of his known comics work was done over a period of three years, and it’s easy to see how much confidence he gained in this very brief period and how much his style changed from story to story.

As to the panel sizes, remember that the first issue of Action Comics predates Hanks first work by only a few months. Publishers popped up overnight and there were no hard and fast rules regarding format. This is a reason why most comic books from 1938 to 1940 are so much fun to look at. Readers of the Complete Hanks will see the format evolve over the course of those years. Panel sizes were wildly varied at first and became standardized, no doubt in part because it made it easy for publishers to instigate the assembly line process by standardizing the layout. And even when the layouts became standardized, Hanks used the steady rhythm of uniformed panels to create amazing layouts.

And finally, “non-existent pacing” and plots that either never finish or conclude “for no particular reason.” Hanks’ stories are paced, they are just not paced in a standard way that one is familiar with in a typical super-hero comic. In a Superman story from that era, the plot might be that some bad guy commits a series of crimes and it takes Superman a while to catch them in the end and send them to jail. However, in a Hanks story, the villains do some serious damage, are caught by mid-story, and then proceed to be tortured and mutilated for the rest of the tale. It’s a differently shaped story arc. Hanks is as concerned, or even more concerned with the punishment than the crime.

Dooley: You say of Hanks that “His compositions by any standard of graphic art are bold and brilliant.” Would you amplify on this?

Karasik: Milton Glaser once said, “There are three responses to a piece of design—yes, no, and WOW! Wow is the one to aim for.” Story after story, page after page, panel after panel: Hanks hit WOW. Good design is simultaneously simple, elegant, and clearly communicative. That’s Hanks.

Dooley: You also credit Hanks for creating “the most twisted comic book stories of all time.” How did you go about determining this? And who would come in second?

Karasik: R. Crumb was the man who called Hanks “a wasted dude.” I came to my conclusion based on a systematically scientific study founded on the squarely empirical approach of having wasted years of my life as a kid reading hundreds, perhaps thousands, of crappy superhero comics.

From this position of authority, I can subjectively claim that Hanks stories are the best super hero stories of all time. They have everything a superhero story requires, plus they have a strong, personal point of view and artistic style missing from almost all superhero comics.

Using this subjective process, I’d go further to say that they’re the most twisted of all time within any comic book genre.

Hanks was a true original. His work was not riffing off of previous superhero comics because there were no earlier superhero comics. He wasn’t trying to conform to some rigid standard. Of course he knew the required elements of standard heroic pulp fiction, but he took that punch list and punched-in his own buttons. He created comics with a specific voice. That voice happened to be messed-up with a serious misanthropic strain simmering just beneath the surface—and a bizarre sense of retribution—but that is precisely the fuel that memorably sets his work apart.

On the “most twisted comics” list, Rory Hayes might come in second. He was another guy who really didn’t give a shit but just hadda make comics.

Dooley: In what ways would Hanks’s art be superior to the likes of, say, Basil Wolverton and Boody Rogers?

Karasik: Wolverton and Rogers are two guys whose work I also like a lot. It’s important to note that all three—Hanks, Rogers and Wolverton—were one-man bands who wrote, pencilled and inked their own stories. In the history of comic books, the best works tend to be one-man bands, although there are obvious exceptions.

Wolverton’s Spacehawk tales have a stylistic affinity with Hanks: stiff torsos and grim visages. Although there’s no evidence, I strongly suspect that Wolverton was aware of Hanks work which had come out only months before the first Spacehawk story. When I spoke with Will Eisner about Hanks, he recalled him as “…the guy who drew kind of like Wolverton.”

Basil Wolverton, Fletcher Hanks

That said, Wolverton is much more refined than Hanks. Connoisseurs may prefer a aged bottle from a hallowed vineyard, but a cheap table wine at a raucous table of chums can do the trick with gusto and more fun.

As to Rogers, he might be the guy with the closest affinity to Hanks, although their points of view could not be farther apart. Rogers wacky drawing shares a certain devil-may-care energy with Hanks that leaves the tightly wrought Wolverton in the ticket-holders line. Rogers and Hanks also have an appreciation for how in comics one can stretch and mutilate the plasticity of the human form and yet the mutated form continues to be sentient within the world of that particular comic.

Fletcher Hanks, Boody Rogers

Dooley: Having published Complete Works, what’ll be your future involvement with Fletcher Hanks?

Karasik: I keep thinking that this story is over, and then…

Out of the blue a few months ago, Hanks’ niece was cleaning up her dad’s shed and came upon a painting by Hanks that his brother had stuffed away under some 2′ x 4’s. This image haunts me. Who is this grim man? Is he a Native American? Why is he outside in the tall grass at night? Why is there the hood of a car lurking in the lower right hand corner? This large painting, like the life of
its creator, raises more questions than answers.

And those questions are unsettling.

left: painting by Fletcher Hanks

About Michael Dooley

Michael Dooley is the creative director of Michael Dooley Design and teaches History of Design, Comics, and Animation at Art Center College of Design and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He is also a Print contributing editor and author.

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