Fantomah, Big Red Mclane, Stardust, Space Smith, Yank Wilson, these are the characters that made up the mind of Fletcher Hanks one of the greatest comic book talents you’ve never heard of. Working in the earliest years of comics (1939-1941) Hanks’ contributions walked on the darker side of comic books in a way that managed to take on a timeless quality.
Some publications like to say Hank’s work was “so bad it was good” or try to brush him off as the comic equivalent of Ed Woods but they’re missing the point. Hanks vision of incredible weirdness was so far off the radar from what anybody was doing at the time an argument can be made that he was the forerunner to the underground comic movement of the sixties and seventies.
Here to help prove the genius of Fletcher Hanks is “You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation” a collection of Hanks’ works and the sequel to “I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets”. In this collection is the work that makes Hanks so incredibly special to the world of comic books. The physiognomics of his evildoers, the strange retributions they suffer at the hands of the heroes, is all really powerful stuff.
It’s as if that pissed off loner kid in the back of the classroom who drew bloody scenes of people dying at the hands of sword wielding demons had grew up and got a job drawing comic strips between sips of cheap whiskey. In a way this stuff was counterculture to the world of comic books though Hanks himself was amongst the rank and file of comic book creators in that time.
You Shall Die is not only a wonderfully put together tribute to a great artist but it also seems to fit with the theme of Fletcher Hanks life. As talented as he was this was not a kind man or an easy man to be around. From his well documented drinking problem to his abuse and abandonment of his son (Fletcher Hanks JR never knew his dad drew comics) Hanks seemed to share some of the cruel harshness of his characters.
The collection begins with a history of the man and ends with a photocopy of his death certificate. In between are 36 comics that represent the rest of Hanks’ work, which seems oddly fitting. In life it appears that Fletcher Hanks really only lived when he was creating comic books and that everything else had a grim sadness to it. The collection has the same thing and, like the man it represents, only helps to make it that much more fascinating.
On a personal level I have two favorites from this cast of misfits. The first is Stardust the alien human who protects the Earth from organized crime. I’m not sure what I love the most the character, maybe it’s the truly sadistic punishments he deals out or the fact that the most powerful being in the universe spends all of his time busting up “rackets” on Earth. I guess maybe it’s the idea of a sadistic Superman that appeals to me.
I also love Big Red Mclane mainly because he’s a reminder of a time when fistfights and tough talk could entertain comic book fans all over. Mclane is a logger, a mans man tough guy who beats up bullies and takes out corrupt men who interfere with an honest guy making an honest living. These days’ comic books have huge story arcs, heroes with increasingly incredible powers as well as intricate storylines. McClane is a simple story about a guy who can fight out to do the right thing; it’s really the essence of a superhero when you think about it. He also has great lines when he fights like “Step in, get it and like it” or “Jump on and bounce off”.
You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation is an incredible testament to what comic books were once capable of. As we mire in a modern world of Event Comics and movie tie-ins these simple and layered stories show off an era of comics where experimentation and inventive ideas were the rule not the exception. Hanks mixed the best elements of art to tell his stories using not only larger than life drawings but also tripped out colors, harsh cross-etching and dark shadowing. If you want to understand the essence of comic books in their purist form then pick up You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation and learn.