I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets!
Fletcher Hanks, writer/artist
Paul Karasik, editor, afterword writer/artist
Okay, so obviously the thing that strikes you initially is that these stories are completely insane. They treat the basic structure of superhero comics–”villain commits crime, hero captures villain,” as Karasik’s mother puts it in the afterword–like the bare necessities for a spirited game of Calvinball–all you need is Calvin, Hobbes, and a ball, and the rest is up to your imagination. And Fletcher Hanks’s imagination was twisted beyond description. It’s not just that the demises his godlike heroes Stardust and Fantomah cook up for their villainous prey are brutal, it’s that they’re needlessly baroque. So Stardust doesn’t just feed a racketeer to a giant golden octopus–He wraps up the bad guy in his giant flexible hand, whisks him away to a desert island that he first overwhelms with a tidal wave, then lifts up into the air, drops the guy onto, flips over, and puts back down, after which the guy is flushed through an underground lagoon onto the shore, and then and only then does the golden octopus eat him. Similarly, Fantomah doesn’t just toss a ring of diamond thieves to a pit of cobras–she whisks them away to the jungle pit of death, where she fuses them into one person, who is terrified by the creatures of an unfound world, flees up a mountain only to find a dead end, gets scared off the cliff by a giant floating paw, and gets caught by a whirlwind that blows him into a cave filled with giant albino cobras who kill him, after which Fantomah floats his body out into midair, where the unfound world creatures summon another disembodied hand from the cliff surface to grab it and drag it back into the cliff, where it presumably remains to this day. The picture of Hanks as a naive dispense of two-fisted justice doesn’t do justice to these comics at all. They have a stream of consciousness feel to them that makes Final Crisis seem straightforward and restrained. They’re more than just goofy and violent and mean, though they’re certainly all of those things–they’re unrestrained, unhinged.
But even more than that, they’re things of great beauty! I can’t stress that enough. Hanks may have been a lot of things, but he truly was a wonderful visual stylist. A favorite tactic involves suspending his various thugs, heroes, corpses, jungle creatures, weapons of mass destruction etc. in mid-air, an effect that is dynamic and still at the same time, suggestive of great power and great restraint simultaneously. There’s a lovely panel of multicolored planes dropping matching bombs, another of a red sky filled with the floating silhouettes of giant panthers. Indeed, any time Hanks gets to draw a lot of the same thing at once is a good time to be a comics reader. That aforementioned albino cobra pit, an army of giant disembodied flaming pink claws–they’re almost always beautifully arranged within their panels and dazzling in their multiplicity, a signature effect as recognizable as Kirby krackle or Ditko hands. Hanks wasn’t a perfect cartoonist by any stretch–anatomy, obviously, was not his strong suit, and it’s those goofy underbites and mircrocephalic heads that give him his Ed Wood rep–but what he did well, he really did well.