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You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation
by Fletcher Hanks; edited and with an introduction by Paul Karasik
Fantagraphics Books, 232 pages, $24.99.
Perhaps it’s kismet, but Paul Karasik’s first collection of Fletcher Hanks stories, 2007’s I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets!, seems to have landed at exactly the perfect moment, taking advantage of a publishing trend where just about every classic comic strip and book (and then some) was being reprinted with lavish, loving treatment. Why not shine a spotlight on an odd, relative obscurity like Hanks? Who knows what imaginative power he might unleash on a modern audience?
It turns out quite a bit. Thanks to that book (and other works, like Dan Nadel’s Art Out of Time) Hanks quickly became something of a household name among comic book fans, to the point where his name has arguably eclipsed some of his previously lauded contemporaries. As Jog pointed out recently, you know a character has entered the public consciousness to at least some degree when Alan Moore is referencing it.
Now we have the companion volume, You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation, which, I believe, gathers all the remaining material that the alcoholic, abusive Hanks did during his brief tenure as a comic book creator in the late 1930s and early 40s.
This second book definitely has a “here’s the rest” feeling that confirms the nagging notion that Planets was more of a “greatest hits” collection than a promise of genius in every story on every page. It’s not something that most Hanks devotees will mind that much — there’s still plenty of weird and wonderful tales to delight and disturb — but those hoping for a sequence equivalent to the evil De Structo’s head being thrown into space and then absorbed by the body of the Headless Headhunter might feel a twinge of disappointment.
It’s very clear upon reading Creation that Karasik chose the cream of the crop for the first book. Perhaps it was overwork, perhaps it was Hanks’ rampant alcoholism, or perhaps the artist was attempting to adapt to what was quickly becoming the storytelling norms of the superhero genre. Whatever the case, many of these tales, especially the later ones, start to fall in lockstep with other superhero books of the period (though even then there are bizarre moments — Hanks couldn’t keep the lid on his id shut that tight).
There are, for example, few of the horrible and gruesome ends meted out to the villains here that so typified Planets, the sole exception being a poor jungle explorer who gets torn apart by his own savage gorilla army, limbs flying pell-mell and all. At one point the super-wizard Stardust actually turns an evil-doer over to the interplanetary police! (He sort of makes up for it a little later by ramming into a group of “fifth columnists” and turning them into dust.) There’s even a clumsy attempt to introduce a romantic interest and some costumed sidekicks for the hero. Even here though, the sequences come of as more off-putting and revealing about Hanks’ demons than as a paean to the kiddies.
That’s not to say that the book is without its share of surreal delights. To peruse these pages is to come across sequences where “Leopard Women” ride strange alien beings while lasers shoot from their foreheads. Mummies escape from their sacrophigi (sarcophaguses?) intent on world domination, only to be attacked by gorillas and elephants. Evil women stride across tigers in order to decrease the jungle’s female population. A man is attacked by a lion, then an elephant, thrown into a pool full of poisonous gnats, crushed by a boa constrictor, then kidnapped and tortured by an ape. After that he decides to seek revenge by creating a giant tidal wave.
And then there is Hanks’ decidedly otherworldly style, flat and stern with the characters’ faces never altering their expression. It’s decidedly unnerving artistic choice and has the habit of turning even the most staid adventure story (the “Big Red” tales easily fall into this category) into something surreal and nightmarish.
But there’s a terrible beauty on display here too. One of the things that marks Hanks’ work is his really genuine gift for caricature. His gallery of grotesques are a forerunner to those Chester Gould and Basil Wolverton would later excel in. What’s more, there are panels here that are rather stunning in their ability to create tension and drama. Hanks may not have been an expert in anatomy, but he understood composition just fine.
Providing an official prose introduction this time around, Karasik goes out of his way to make the case for Hanks as a journeyman artist, and not a naive outsider, like say Henry Darger or Ed Wood, whose name gets palled around with Hanks’ quite a bit on the book’s back cover blurbs. Via reproductions of his early work, we see that Hanks did indeed have formal art training, and thus was someone who stood well within the system and not apart from it.
But if we cannot file Hanks (who, it should be noted, wrote, drew, inked and lettered all of his stories by himself) easily away then under the “outsider” or “naive” artist label, then we’re faced with the question of how Hanks viewed his work. Was he on any level aware of what he was producing? Were his “mistakes” intentional or the desperate attempts of an alcoholic artist to get the work finished on time so he can have enough cash to head to the bar? Did he think very little of his work or quite a lot? Was he trying his best to creating his own Superman or was he barely trying at all?
Then again, does Hanks’ intent really matter that much at this point? The work remains strange, powerful, funny, terrifying and yes, at times beautiful, regardless of the author’s motives. Perhaps he saw his comic book work as just another way to make out a buck, but I suspect somewhere inside him he had to get this stuff out.