The Hidden S in Phone Booth

The Hidden S' Favorite Things: The Immortal (and bad) art of Fletcher Hanks... If one of the characteristics of post-modern art is the appreciation and even elevation of “bad” or “low” art into the rareified pantheon of “good” or even “fine” art, then the work of cartoonist Fletcher Hanks is exhibit A in this process of re-evaluation. As readers of the Hidden S might know, one of his favorite conversation starters is tracing the rise of comics from an unappreciated art form into something that is taken more seriously socially, artistically and economically. This process was for the most part gradual as the work of Gold and Silver Age maestros like Kirby, Ditko, Adams, Kubert, et al had slowly risen in artistic and financial value in a measured way. These guys were innovative and good artists, able to be appreciated even by non-comic fans. What about the “bad” comic artists then? How are we to judge their work, their legacy or even their financial worth? Many of the early, and Golden Age artists were “bad” if you measure their figure drawing, draftsmanship, perspective, etc. Even well known and venerated comic creators like Bob Kane left a lot to be desired as comic artists. Again, what then to make of “great” comic creators like Kane whose work would not get their foot in the door at even the most low end comic publisher today? These early Golden Age artists may not have been good, but their art is fascinating. And, in comics being a fascinating artist is probably more important than being a technically gifted artist. One of the interesting footnotes in comics is the weird career and creations of Fletcher Hanks. Hanks had one of the oddest careers in comics. First off, he was born in the Victorian era in 1887 and his career as a cartoonist consisted mostly of a three year period in the late 30s and early 40s when he was approaching his fifties. He did some work for Fox Comics (the home of second and third tier heroes like The Blue Beetle and Phantom Lady) where he helped create characters such as Stardust, an alien from an unnamed planet (sometimes referred to as a star) who comes to Earth to fight crime. Stardust resembles in some ways the Silver Age hero Captain Comet (and possibly The Martian Manhunter) whose intellect and psychic powers are combined with extraordinary physical perfection and strength. His other noteworthy creation was Fantomah, a female superhero who predates Wonder Woman. Fantomah was an immortal Egyptian princess who guarded the jungle. Fantomah had many powers, most notably the ability to transform objects and levitate things. When her powers were in use her face would transform into a blue skull. Also of note is Big Red Mclane, a strange combination of lumberjack and superhero (the only one I know of). Hanks’ work resembles less the work of traditional comic artists and is more in the line with outsider artists like Daniel Johnston and Henry Darger. There is a surreal and perverse quality to his work with Stardust meting out bizarre punishments, like turning racketeers into rats that he (Stardust) then drowns. Hanks' men were easily identified by their huge, overblown physiques (a bit of a rarity in comics in the 40s) and their small heads and limited facial expression. Little is known about Hanks’ life and there has been much Internet speculation that he may have suffered from mental health issues of one kind or another. Hanks’ reputation has undergone a real renaissance as of late with the publication of I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! (Fantagraphics) in 2007, which unearthed and analyzed some of his startling work and introduced him to a 21st century audience. Another volume, You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation! (Fantagraphics) is set to be released in the spring. This volume will collect the remainders of Hanks’ work and both volumes will contain the artists’ work in full (until more is found?). It is hard to say what Hanks’ artistic legacy is. There are some comic artists with limited skills who make interesting, striking imagery (Frank Miller comes to mind as does Kyle Baker). However, Hanks was such an obscure, overlooked artist for so long it is hard to say if anyone was terribly familiar with his work on any level until very recently. Hanks is often compared to Ed Wood for being a genius of terrible art. This is a fairly good comparison and like Wood history is treating Fletcher Hanks quite well. (The artist has a site maintained by Paul Karasik, Editor of the two books on Hanks' life and work The Hidden “S”