Monday, May 9, 2011

REVIEW: Fletcher Hanks's I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets!

"This is a song about a superhero named Tony
It's called 'Tony's Theme'!
I can look at the sun
If you give me some bad sunglasses
I'm back on the road"

--The Pixies, "Tony's Theme"

Thanks for letting me take graduation week off, everyone. I had a lot of fun, got some good stuff done, and I've come back bearing treasures.

I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets is one of the most astounding comic books I've ever read. Not the best-- not by a long shot --but astounding in the literal sense. The fact that it was written, drawn, published, and collected staggers the mind; the comics within seem so strange and otherworldly that it's hard to believe they ever existed.

Fletcher Hanks was a drunk, a moonshiner, and a manic-depressive bastard who, despite having some decent artistic talent (the comic reproduces a nature sketch of some ducks that he did) turned his ambitions towards crude, insane superhero comics in the 1930's, at the dawn of the American comics industry. Like a lot of outsider artists-- Darger especially comes to mind, although Hanks's work is nowhere near as beautiful --there's this incredibly primal energy to his work, this pure drive by someone trying to tell stories and make up fantasies when they don't have the best grip on how the real world functions to begin with.
Jesus, that comic looks the way that Black Sabbath sounds.
Primal really is the word that leaps to mind here. The artwork is this bizarre mix of beauty and crudity--the colors are incredibly vibrant, the line work is strong and some of the cityscapes and panoramas are actually pretty good-looking, but every character has only one expression and the body language is painfully stiff. Similarly, the actual stories are bloody and mad and feel like this grindhouse blend of early Superman, Ayn Rand, and death metal lyrics. In nearly every story of Stardust the Super-Wizard, "whose scientific use of rays has made him a master of space," Hanks's main character, a cabal of the enemies of business and America hatch some scheme to take over the earth (the best of which being when they chain themselves to the ground, magnetize every car and plane and ocean to make them stay in place, and then stop the Earth's rotation in order to fling every other person into space and rule it alone), Stardust stops them with his "fusing ray" or "boomerang ray" or somesuch, and then spends literally half the comic-- almost always more time than the actual crime took --forcing them to suffer ironic punishments.
I'm sorry, did you think I was making that up?
There's an incredible anger to these works, and you get the feeling that Hanks, who was a chronic alcoholic and a violent man, is desperately trying to lash out at the people he blames for the state of the world. In every story, the corrupt industrialists, gangsters, and evil conspiracy leaders are seized by some all-powerful being and treated as filth like them deserve. The highlight is probably the punishment for the man who used an anti-oxygen ray to try to suffocate the president, congress, and every doctor and soldier in the US: his body is condensed into a giant head, thrown into "the space pocket of living death," and is then captured by a giant headless headhunter who attaches the gangster's head to his shoulders and absorbs it into him.

Seriously-- I cannot put into words how mad and beautiful this thing is. 50,000 panthers are unleashed on New York. Stardust turns his hand into an octopus so he can grab someone with it. 5 criminals are condensed into one man so that punishing them will be easier.
Thank you, Stardust the Super Wizard. That makes perfect sense.
The closest comparison I can make to anything contemporary is Axe Cop. And Axe Cop is deliberately over-the-top and written by a 6-year-old, whereas Hanks seems to have put a lot of sincere heart and soul into his madness. He's also an influence on contemporary cartoonists like the ever-wonderful KC Green, who also loves to mix absurd violence, blunt art, and illogical cosmic disaster. It's hard not to compare him to HP Lovecraft at times, too-- just some drunken madman, holed up in New York, churning out these insane stories that you're not entirely sure he believes are fiction.

For anyone who's into comics, or into weird, transgressive art, I can't recommend this anthology highly enough. It's a strange, shocking trip-- these are comics that unintentionally accomplish the ugly, shocking beauty that cartoonists like R. Crumb and Spiegelman's early work sought so hard to embody. They're magical and strange and every page is dripping with absurd wonderment and shock. They're incredibly fun, but also get pretty deeply unsettling at times. It's childish wonder and grown-up insanity, all condensed into one technicolor package.

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