There have been some strange comic books over the years. Wholesome teen Archie Andrews has tangled with space monster Predator. In a Grant Morrison story, Batman is revealed to be so clever and paranoid that he has a backup personality in case of psychic attack — and the backup personality wears a purple and yellow Batsuit. In a recent Transformers vs. G.I. Joe series by Tom Scioli and John Barber, a defeated Megatron seeks refuge in an alternate universe, ending up in the world of My Little Pony. Anything goes in comics.
But who among the geniuses and weirdos who came up with this stuff is the Most Bonkers Comic Book Creator Ever? I reckon the answer might be Fletcher Hanks, whose work is collected in a spanking new edition by Fantagraphics Books. If you’re looking for many dark laughs and a multicolored escape from reality, you must check out Turn Loose Our Death Rays And Kill Them All!: The Complete Works Of Fletcher Hanks. Not only is Hanks the Most Bonkers Comic Book Creator Ever, but Hanks produced one of the most distinctive, humorous, wacky bodies of work in the history of the medium.
Hanks is considered the first auteur in comics: he did the writing, illustrating, coloring, and lettering at a time (1939-1941) when comics were typically a piecemeal operation and often kind of a sweatshop. Even today, you rarely see a single creator do an entire comic for a major publisher, because it’s just too time-consuming. But Hanks, at the dawn of superheroes, was cranking out the whole thing himself at a preposterous clip. Damn, I wish I didn’t just use the word preposterous, because I’m going to need it in pretty much every paragraph of this column.
The true insanity of Hanks isn’t really his characters, though they’re a goofy bunch that includes Buzz Crandall, Space Smith, Whirlwind Carter, Big Red McClane — and, famously — Stardust the Super Wizard and Fantomah, the first (and weirdest) female superhero. Those two heroes are the main reason Hanks is a cult figure: they combine overexplained villainy, underexplained powers, disturbing imagery, and a focus on punishment and torture that would make even the Trump administration weep.
Stardust — one of many Superman knockoffs, yet quite distinct — has no known origin and is described like so: “Stardust, the most remarkable man who ever lived and master of interplanetary science, is devoting his superior knowledge and powers to busting crime on the planets.” A typical Stardust adventure goes something like this: “The Super Fiend of the Lost Planet” manages to set Mars (which is inhabited) on fire thanks to a “thermal ray spore.” This wipes out all Martian life (sorry, Elon Musk) and sends a now lifeless Mars hurtling towards Earth, which could be a problem.
The absurdity of super science hits a crescendo as Stardust travels to Earth via “tubular spacial on accelerated supersolar light waves,” which are words Neil deGrasse Tyson will never speak. Fortunately, Stardust diverts Mars just in time, beats up the Super Fiend, and, as usual, takes things a step further than Superman or even the Punisher would: he leaves the Super Fiend stranded on Mars amidst the bones of everyone he killed. Harsh.
In a tremendous Fantomah story, our heroine shows merciless punishment isn’t just for dudes to dole out, at least in the murky mind of Hanks. Her description is memorable: “Fantomah, the most remarkable woman ever born, has such keen insight and so many supernatural powers, that she foresees all the events of jungle life. Through her strange wizardry, she guards the jungle’s secrets and avenges the evil deeds against the jungle-born…” Among her powers, which are as unlimited as Hanks needs, she can turn her normal, beautiful face into a nasty, flying skull face, which threatens evil-doers and jungle-phobes. Silliness aside, Fantomah is not only the first female superhero, but the first environmental hero. Greenzo would be proud.
A characteristic Fantomah story features Angel Eyes, whose parents were killed in the jungle, perhaps by the wildlife equivalent of Joe Chill. Angel Eyes vowed vengeance on the jungle, like you do. But how would someone “terrorize and destroy the jungle-born,” as Fantomah puts it? With giant purple flaming claws, of course. These claws somehow murder all people and animals in their path, until Fantomah springs into action. After apprehending the scumbag, Fantomah suspends Angel Eyes from an enormous pole, and uses her unexplainable powers to send the claws after their creator — but she calls them off! Did a Hanks hero have a change of heart for once? Nope, Angel Eyes just “died of fright.” So Fantomah, in the spirit of Pulp Fiction’s cleaner, summons a waterspout to hoover up the body and hide the evidence. Yeeps.
If you like to drink, smoke pot, shoot heroin, play in the NFL, or alter your brain in some other way, fear not: you’ll never be confused by these stories thanks to the helpful exposition. A “criminal scientist” named “the Demon” declares, “There are too many people in the world—I’ll destroy every large city!” The dastardly Wolf-Eye madman-splains: “Turn loose our death rays and kill them all!” On the moon, The Thinker rants, “The Earthwoman shall become my empress-goddess, and the man shall be made into a headless vassal!” The heroes are just as likely to engage in bonkers exposition, like when Fantomah informs a foe: “Down below you is your army of demonized gorillas!” Good to know.
Can you imagine reading this stuff in 1940? I can barely believe I’m reading it today. These stories of demonized gorillas, loyal lumberjacks, super-interplanetary televisions sets, anti-Earth demolishing rays, and human-rat hybrids are portrayed with appropriately weird art that shows plenty of influence from Dick Tracy creator Chester Gould. Everyone, even the heroes, is grotesque or at least askew. I can give these comics the highest compliment: there’s nothing like ‘em.
Unfortunately, Hanks appears to have been a pretty bad human being who was abusive to his wife and children. Hanks abandoned his family, which was good fortune for them, and drank himself to death in 1976, when he was found frozen on a park bench in an uncanny real-life version of one of Stardust’s elaborate punishments.
Great art produced by a scumbag always yields a dissonant feeling, but I’m going optimistic and saying Hanks’ depressing, miserable life makes these comics even more remarkable. Back at the beginning of superheroes, when the rules were up for grabs, an angry drunk went on a creative binge that was weird, beautiful, cosmic, hilarious, and still worth reading today. Whatever was good in this guy went into these comics, and thank Stardust for that.