Regular readers no doubt are aware of my fondness for disused, forgotten comic book superheroes, so when I first heard about I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets (Fantagraphics; $19.95), I knew it would be a must-have. Before reading this book, I was only vaguely aware of Fantomah, having seen one of her stories reprinted somewhere, but I had never seen much of Fletcher Hanks’ work beyond that. Editor Paul Karasik took his interest in Hanks from early idle curiosity, to an attempt to find and meet the cartoonist, to the production of this book.
Karasik wastes no time before plunging the reader into Hanks’ fever-dream world. The stories starring Fantomah or Stardust, the Super Wizard, are crude and perfunctory, serving mainly as a platform for the art, and the art really does merit a second look. Hanks employed an artistic line reminiscent of Basil Wolverton, ugly yet beautiful. In Hanks’ world, criminals are barely human, as ugly on the surface as they are black of heart. Most of the stories follow the same formula: Twisted fiend attempts horrific plan; untouchable, multi-powered hero gets wind of said plan; hero exacts complex, "ironic" punishment. And what punishment! In one four-page sequence, Stardust uses his fantastic powers to change a group of fifth-columnists to ice; the lesser leaders melt right then and there, as Stardust turns the remaining (un-melted) thugs into rats. Then Stardust changes into a panther, chases the rats to the wharves, and into the ocean. There he reverts to Stardust and uses a ray to churn up the water, drowning all the rats save one, the leader. Finally, he gives this last rat its human head back and flies the creature to the grateful authorities. Nutty stuff indeed, and right up my alley!
Finally, Karasik writes and illustrates the story of his attempt to track down Fletcher Hanks in person. He instead meets the artist’s son, and finds that the mysterious Hanks was an utter bastard, nothing like the noble firebrand Karasik had pictured in his mind. The short story attempts to reconcile “criminally forgotten comics genius” with “alcoholic wife-beater,” a tale that should strike a chord with anyone who ever found out that their hero had feet of clay. Fletcher Hanks may have been a monster of a person, but his art was well worth a look, and should not be forgotten. With Fantagraphics usual superb packaging, I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets gives us that look and remembrance. Highly recommended.