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_This is not a review of the book of the same title. No, really, it's not. It's a manifesto, first espoused here on this semi-read blog, of how I, a mild-mannered thirty-something writer, considered polite by most, shall, in actuality, and with an abundance of commas, one day destroy all the civilized planets.

Seriously, that's what it is.

Why are you laughing?

Well, okay. It's not a manifesto, and I fully lack the world domination gene, so, I suppose... reluctantly and with much sighing... I should talk about the book of the same title. But this isn't a review.

I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets! is a collection of comic strips of the cult figure Fletcher Hanks. Hanks is a legendary figure among comics historians and aficionados. His work appeared under many pseudonyms and in many publications in the 1930's, when comics were still in their infancy. He has been routinely characterized as an "Ed Wood of the comics world", a grossly inaccurate metaphor and primarily only used because it sounds catchy. Hanks was more the nascent comics world's Kilgore Trout, the struggling, pulp science fiction writer of Vonnegut's novels (an alter ego of Vonnegut himself).

Collected in this volume (and its companion You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation) are the complete archived material of Hanks, including his most lasting and popular creation Stardust, a supernatural superhero with unlimited strength and intelligence. The plot lines are always thin and formulaic: a group of gangsters conjure the most convoluted and ill-advised schemes to achieve world domination--invisible fusing fluid to freeze all transportation in order to enslave all Americans and take over the world; the creation of a tidal wave to drown every living creature--plots which are usually defeated by Stardust, who travels from his home planet to stop the crimes. 

_The most characteristic element of Hanks' works were the wildly inventive and violent means by which the hero, be it Stardust or Fantomah (the female ruler of the jungle), or Big Red McClane (the honorable lumberjack) or any other two-dimensional stock hero, uses to stop the crimes. The elaborate tortures are the results of Hanks' depraved and haunted, destructive mind, one that the editor of the collection, Paul Karasik, reveals in his afterword.

Karasik, in his efforts to interview this long-lost comics hero of his, discovers an address of a man named Fletcher Hanks Jr., himself a decorated air force pilot and writer of a memoir about his time serving as a pilot in WWII. It turns out this was Hanks' son, who proceeds to tell Karasik the real story of his father:

According to a review and feature article in The Believer from August 2007, "Fletcher Hanks, nicknamed “Christy” after Baseball Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson, was, by all accounts, a louse. An alcoholic and a wife-beater, Hanks once kicked his four-year-old son, Fletcher Jr., down a flight of stairs. The punt and subsequent tumble left the boy unable to speak intelligibly for five years. 'My old man didn’t like runts,' explained the younger Fletcher. The boy was runty, to be sure, and suffered from rickets, but his dad’s rage was something beyond reckoning. 'My father,' he said, 'was the most no-good drunken bum you can find.'"

The senior Hanks abandoned his family in the 30's, stealing his son's money as he left. He was found frozen to death on a park bench in New York in the 70's.

The afterword, in fact, is the only semblance of emotion in the collection, other than the outsized rage and disturbing lengths of righteous indignation foisted upon the victims. Hanks did not rid himself of his demons on the page alone. It is an emotional reminder that sometimes the artist doesn't match up to the art itself. In the case of Fletcher Hanks, given the id-driven elaborate vengeance plots, we should not be surprised that the person and the art itself match. The work seems to be mostly a mechanism for Hanks to put on paper the more violently depraved machinations of his mind. The tragedy is that Hanks didn't stop at the page.

The work is strange, twisted, raw. But Hanks' influence on the future of comics cannot be minimized. The rise of Flash Gordon, the Justice League, much of the Marvel universe of the 60s can be seen as a result of Hanks' work, albeit much tamer.

In my trips to the library, I passed by this title in the graphic novel shelves frequently but would ignore it; it seemed raw, campy, D-list superheroes. However, I also like to consider myself a self-imposed champion of the obscure,  of the outposts of literature, those forgotten works that no one else knows about.

The eminently humane Kurt Vonnegut wrote of this collection, "The recovery from oblivion of these treasures is in itself a major work of art." I like to delude myself that I'm in good company for having read this collection.
 


12/08/2011 12:52

I was really hoping to learn how to destroy all civilized planets with an abundance of commas. Alas, I believe it is a sign of a very good book review if it makes me, decidedly not a fan of comics, want to read a book of comics.

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