I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets!
by Fletcher Hanks (Fantagraphics, 2007)

Fletcher Hanks' 1939-41 foray into comics was short-lived. Working under a number of pseudonyms for many companies, Hanks had to commit to several projects just to make enough money to survive. This probably accounts for why his strips have such roughness in both concept and execution, a rawness that hides a massive talent behind hastily rendered commercial art. It may also account for the rather primitive forces at work that, seen individually, probably don't seem to add up to much, but, collected into a single presentation, makes a strong argument for the correlation between madness and genius.

A legendary cult figure formerly known only to the most devoted aficionados, Hanks' work seems unpolished and childish by today's standards. The violence is of the most sadistic sort, while the plots somehow manage to be both convoluted and paper-thin at the same time. What's the redeeming feature, then? All of it. Genius doesn't stick to the mainstream.

Hanks transcended limitations again and again with stories that were off-the-chart weird but contained their own logic, combined with a peculiar, highly arresting visual style. His stories, featuring the intergalactic protector known as Stardust the Superwizard, or Fantomah, a mysterious sort of jungle queen, were dynamic enough that their crudeness was really secondary to their original, albeit bizarre, conceptualization. It's almost pure, unbridled imagination, of the kind that pushes boundaries and conventions in a way that advanced the form. It may be rather naive but it is also highly innovative.

According to the afterword, Hanks was a manic depressive, chronic alcoholic who was brutal to his wife and children. After abandoning them he froze to death on a park bench. His emotional state of being was an obvious match for the sadism and violence of his artwork, a prima facie example of art functioning as a release for the primal forces that drive us. Hanks was apparently driven by a strong if misapplied sense of oppression and justice, which practically flows off the pages in vibrant, palpable waves.

I wouldn't recommend this to someone who isn't into "way out there" kind of art. This is for people who have a good grasp of the absurd, who want to complete their pop culture education by delving into one of its more obscure but highly influential subjects.

review by
Mary Harvey

19 May 2012

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