Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Sleestak Reviews: I Shall Destroy All Civilized Planets

I fully recommend the collection of the Golden Age comic book stories of Fletcher Hanks, I Shall Destroy All Civilized Planets by Paul Karasik. The title of the book is derived from a panel in a Buzz Crandall of the Space Patrol story in which the megalomaniacal and hyphenated Lepus-The-Fiend plans to ruin the universal peace through anarchy and chaos.

Simply put, the stories and art are insane enjoyment. It's a fun gathering of Golden Age tales from the early comic book industry and is perfect for anyone who is a fan of comic book history or just those interested in the pop-culture of another era.

Until the advent of the internet the output of Fletcher Hanks was mostly unknown or lost. It is only recently that Hanks has emerged as more than just a footnote among the mostly forgettable creators of what was considered cultural dross and disposable entertainment.

The two most popular and well known creations, that of Fantomah and Stardust are represented well in the collection by Paul Karasik. Brutal, unmerciful retaliation for real and one must assume, imagined slights, is the main theme of most Hanks stories. Stardust and Fantomah specialize in convoluted, impossible, horrifying acts of revenge that even taking into account unrealistic comic book reality defy any sense whatsoever. Several of Hanks characters are plainly modern gods of the type found in old textbooks describing the antics and meddling of the Greek and Roman pantheons. The heroic characters are forces of unstoppable nature. The villains in a Fletcher Hanks story are not just simply punished or brought to justice by a super hero. They are tortured unmercifully and often meet fates infinitely worse than death. The ridiculously outmatched antagonists of the stories are melted, transformed into vermin, grown to gigantic proportions and exiled to space, reduced to separated body parts to be crushed in the core of a planet or sentenced to eternal torment at the hands of other worldly beings.

Several of the tales reflect plots popular (and even required in the political climate, one could assert) in comics books of the era in which the hero battles fascism and aggressive foreign countries. Some elements of the Golden Age stories are timeless and still exist in comics even today. It makes as much sense trying to clear cut a jungle protected by Fantomah as it does robbing a bank in Gotham City when even the dumbest criminal knows Batman will intervene and beat them senseless.

Hanks variously created interesting and awful art. Unlike contemporary artist Basil Wolverton, who took great pains to ensure relatively proper perspective and anatomy was included in even the simplest drawing, the style of Fletcher Hanks is stiff and economical. The Tabu stories (not included in this collection) were drawn in a particularly hasty manner using laughable shortcuts in the layout. One tale featuring Tabu reveals the character not only in the exact same profile in each panel but mainly as a face peeping out from behind a tree or through foliage. Tree trunks and thick grass are apparently easier and quicker to draw than an entire human figure. Why do all that extra work? Conversely to the human figures, the jungle itself and the animals are drawn with fine and almost technical detail.

But it is the violent themes of the Hanks stories in conjunction with the simplistic art style that is the allure of the book. Paul Karasik explains in the back up strip about the search for the "real" Fletcher Hanks that Hanks was a much improved artist when not drawing in the style of comic books. The few samples shown in the collection lends some small credence to this when one notices in a very simplistically rendered office scene in the Big Red McLane story a much more detailed forest in a picture in the background and the Tabu jungle scenery. Fletcher Hanks apparently had a greater appreciation of the raw, untamed, uncompromising outdoors than polite society. If anything, then Hanks could be classified as a lazy or frugal artist.

The back up strip by the author is interesting and one could understand, if it is accurate, where Fletcher Hanks mined the rage from that seems to permeate much of his tales. Without the biographical story a reader could just assume that Hanks was a campy, creative author who was a middling comic book artist. Looking at the Stardust and Fantomah stories once you know what Hanks may have been like in real life and how he treated the people around him a reader could get the impression that his characters acted out Hanks' revenge fantasies. But I'd rather believe the little known character of Big Red McLane was a more accurate reflection of Hank's personality, not that the character is any more flattering to Hanks in comparison.

Big Red McLane is another brutal Hanks character who solves problems with his fists. A lumberjack by trade, Big Red prefers to beat up people until they come around to his way of thinking. This is a trait common with all the Hanks characters (though on a less cosmic level with Big Red) and might be a revealing window into the Hanks personality. In the story Big Red McLane, King of the North Woods, Big Red offers to "clean up" a rival lumber camp he suspects is sabotaging his employer. When the company demurs the offer, replying that violence and aggression is not how things are done, Red marches off into the forest and assaults the employees of the other lumber camp anyways.

Big Red beats the hell out of the saboteurs and the result is that he earns the respect of not only his rivals, but the admiration of his pacifist employer. Big Red is uncompromising and not given to introspection, probably sees nothing wrong in his behavior and knows he is just misunderstood if anyone questions his actions. He quite literally forces the world to share his viewpoint and expects that everyone else will also see things his way eventually, especially once a little force is applied to the situation. If any of the characters I have read thus far are representative of the reportedly abusive Fletcher Hanks it may be that the obliviously selfish, egocentric Big Red McLane is the closest match.

My only real critiques would be the layout of the book. The Fantomah stories in particular show a sort of continuity and evolution that is not apparent in the collection. Following publication chronologically, Fantomah progresses from defender of nature to cruel demi-god. The other thing about the book that makes me cringe is the choice of a mostly blank all-white cover. The white cover is understandable in keeping with the minimalist art style of Hanks, but as a collector I find the book is remarkably susceptible to being defaced by stains and marks from handling.

My only real disappointment is that the book lacks any in-depth background on Fletcher Hanks. Not taking the risk that any foreword on Hanks might turn the book into a dry treatise makes this effort more of a niche book that people not already interested in comic books may not feel motivated to purchase. A layman picking up the collection in their local bookstore won't really find anything immediate in the way of explanation to grab their interest. Supplying some anecdotal trivia to impress guests with as a coffee table book may have help with impulse sales with the non-comic buying public.

The book is selling briskly anyways, I understand, and deservedly so. For myself I would have liked to read some more background, as my interests in old comics also include wanting to read the history of it. It may very well be that what Karasik introduced in the back up strip is really all that is known about the comic book artist. Heading right into the action by skipping a lengthy exploration of Fletcher and the medium of comics in general was probably the best way to approach the Golden Age stories.

Regardless, the collection is a fine example of the comics of a by-gone industry that was in its infancy and hopefully there will be other volumes. There are a few more Fletcher Hanks stories out there that were not included in this collection that are just as revealing and entertaining.

You can, and should, get your own copy at Fantagraphics.

Disclosur: A copy of I Shall Destroy All Civilized Planets was a gift from Bully of Comics Oughta Be Fun. I enjoyed it so much I bought a copy and gave it to a friend.



  1. Wow, nice write-up!

    I'll have to go check this out.

    I have an old RAW magazine that contains some reprints of some of Basil Wolverton's old Powerhouse Pepper strips.

    Thanks for the heads up -- I won't expect the same amount of genius one finds in Wolverton's work, but I'm sure there will be plenty of interesting stuff.

  2. Superficially, the work in this book looks a bit lot the Sci-Fi comics that Wolverton was doing at the same time as Hanks. There is a huge difference. Wolverton was by all accounts a nice guy and decent huiman being.

    Just simmering under the surface of the work of FLetcher Hanks is a venomous anger that fuels his graphically brilliant storytelling.

    I have been stunned by the reception that my book has received! The 1st edition is completely sold out and we are awaiting the arrival of the 2nd edition.

    If you are unfamiliar with Hanks’ work, I urge you to wander over to my website, go to the BONUS page and see the slideshow of a Fantomah story that does NOT appear in the book:

    -Paul Karasik

  3. I find those Tabu panels with his face sticking out from between the trees

    quite striking and eerie, like some weird modernist painting. They make a point in the story, too: he's like some woodland spirit, whose essence is wound up with his environment. Hanks may have made a lot of choices for the sake of economy, like pretty obviously tracing over a single drawing to portray many of his characters, but it's funny how well they serve the story. Angel Eyes winds up being pretty memorable, doesn't he?


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