Fletcher Hanks, Sr. was an artist and writer during the earliest period of what is commonly called the Golden Age of Comics (1939 - 41) during which he turned out a number of characters for Fox Features Syndicate. Fox's title FANTASTIC COMICS ran strips by Hanks featuring Stardust the Super Wizard, an 8 foot tall man from outer space who could literally do anything and who was notable for the often surreally bizarre punishments he meted out to evildoers such as turning one enemy into a worm and feeding him to the evil giant birds the villain had created. Fantastic Comics also featured Hanks work on Space Smith, a crusading spaceman who often saved the universe in a rocketship that resembled a heavy-riveted boiler from a pre-war tenement apartment, and for Fiction House, JUNGLE COMICS ran the adventures of Fantomah, Hank's creation considered by some to be the first female superhero who protected her jungle home with her ability to transform from a beautiful woman into a supernaturally powerful blue-gray skinned, skull-faced horror. Fantomah and Space Smith both went on to be continued by other artists, but after Hanks departure were editorially tilted more toward the mundane, with none of the inventively surrealist or earthy seat-of-the-pants originality of Hanks' hand.
Hanks created much of his work under a variety of pseudonyms, some his own, such as "Henry Fletcher," and "Barclay Flagg," and others merely company pseudonyms which seemed to exist simply for use on one strip or another and featured the work of whatever artist was doing the strip that month, such as "Hank Christy,” "Bob Jordan," and "Charles Netcher." Among Hanks' other creations were such varied manques as the North woodsman Big Red McLane, Buzz Crandall of the Space Patrol, and Tabu the Wizard of the Jungle as well as the boxer "Moe M. Down" for Great Comics. Much of this work was typical of the sweatshop-like piecework of comic-production shops of the day, where a strip was sold and whatever was necessary to fill the pages every month was done, by whoever was awake enough to fold a pen and brush to do it. Given these deadline strictures, Hanks work --which he did entirely himself, from the writing to the drawing and inking down to the distinctive lettering-- remains remarkable for the absolute singularity of his vision, even under the "kick out the work" pressure of the day. It also remains equally remarkable that the editors of these books didn't look closer at the absolutely surreal weirdness of much of Hanks' work, whether it was the brilliant absurdity of his plots or his penchant for giving his heroes such ludicrously colossal pectorals and massive, redwood-thick necks with such tiny heads propped atop them.
Much of Hanks' comics work varies broadly between humorously crude and intricately detailed. Panels feature huge heads with minimally cartoony features, while others feature minutely detailed renderings of multiple characters, all identical, and in the same position, drawn in varying sizes. This aspect suggests Hanks might have worked extensively from photographic reference (but then, so did Alex Raymond) --intrepid researchers are invited to check the gorillas in one of his Fantomah stories against contemporaneous images in National Geographic, for example-- and further suggests he may have traced and re-sized his reference material on a machine such as a Lucigraph.
Hanks abruptly left the comics industry in 1941. Some of his "ghosted" strips continued, under the same pseudonyms but as merely pale reflections of the singular work that Hanks did before them. The unique STARDUST, however, could never be easily grasped by another artist and the character vanished from the comics pages after Hanks' departure. Decades later, Hanks frozen corpse was found on a park bench in New York City in 1976.
His output in the Golden Age has recently been rediscovered by a fans. Independent Art-comics creator Jerry Moriarty, (Jack Survives) a teacher at New York's School of Visual Arts, and long a collector of Hanks' work, showed it to Art Spiegelman who then used it in his ground-breaking art-comix journal RAW, where Hanks' wonderful STARDUST story from FANTASTIC #7 was reprinted in 1980. Artist Paul Karasik was working for Spiegelman during that time, and thanks to the further research of Karasik into Hanks life, Hanks and his unique work and brief career have come to the attention of a new generation of the fans of oddball-comics, many of whom consider Fletcher Hanks “the Ed Wood of comic book artists.”
In 2007 a collection of some of his public domain works, edited by Karasik, entitled “I Shall Destroy All Civilized Planets!” was published by Fantagraphics. Its sequel "You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation!" also edited by Karasik, appeared in 2009. The books demonstrate other examples of Hanks' non-comics work, which show him to be more skilled than his determinedly crude comics work would suggest. Karasik's in-depth research revealed many heretofore unknown biographical details about Fletcher Hanks, some quite disturbing, including the above end-note about Hanks' corpse being discovered frozen to death on a park bench in New York City.
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