I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets!

I've just finished "I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets!" Paul Karasik's anthology of comics by Fletcher Hanks.

Fletcher Hanks is a mysterious and obscure figure in comics history, the creator of WWII-era strips like "Stardust the Super Wizard" and "Fantomah: Mystery Woman of the Jungle." These strips were beyond terrible, filled with a kind of idiotic energy. Each panel tops the previous panel for freakish goofiness, each strip surpasses the previous strip for mind-croggling ham-fistedness.

Hanks's characters have seemingly unlimited powers (and extremely quirky anatomy), and yet they always seem to turn up after some racial bad guy (these heroes fight Kurds, "slant eyes" and shylock-looking Jews, among others) kills thousands of people. Then they tear them apart limb from limb in bloody revenge.

Here's a typical plotline: Stardust, the Super Wizard, uses his interplanetary eye to spy on "Master-Mind" Destructo, who is "wising up" his troops with their plans for a gigantic "take over" (all scare quotes are per the original). They are going to pull off a scientific grift, starting with the USA. Destructo has an oxygen-destroying ray that he's going to use on every big shot in America, suffocating them all at the same time. The Destructo mob uses astounding efficiency to conceal vials of oxygen-destroying rays all over the world. They release the rays using a radio-cabin on a pine-clad mountain. The president, cabinet, and congress keel over. So do all newspaper and magazine editors, the FBI, secret service, bankers, industrial leaders, doctors, Army and Navy officers, enlisted men, police, etc. Panic sets in.

Stardust bursts out of space, lighting up Destructo's radio cabin. He demolishes the radio with a supersolar disintegrating ray, then releases a powerful counteracting ray throughout the country. The president and a few others are saved.

Destructo conceals himself in a hollow pine tree. Stardust splits the tree in twain and transfixes Destructo with a superiority beam. Then he applies his transforming ray, growing Destructo's head to an enormous size. The giant head absorbs Destructo's body (Destructo: "Stop it!").

Now Stardust takes Destructo's head to the space pocket of living death, where the headless headhunter dwells (Stardust: "He's the hugest giant in the universe!"). He bowls Destructo's head into the pocket. The headless headhunter catches the head and places it atop his shoulders, whence it is absorbed into the giant's body.

Now Stardust uses an attractor ray to round up the rest of Destructo's gang. He converts them all into one person, then destroys gravity around the one person, and applies a revolving speed ray. They spin up and off into space. Then Startdust disappears. (Bystander: "He certainly saved America from an awful fate!")

They're all like this. After the fifth or sixth one, I entered an altered state of consciousness. I scored this book off the recommended table at LA's Secret Headquarters comic shop, and Dave, the proprietor, assured me I'd never read anything like it. He was right. (He's not the only one — on the back cover, Kurt Vonnegut testifies: "The recovery from oblivion of these treasures is in itself a major work of art.")

He also told me not to miss Paul Karasik's afterword, and he was especially right about that. The afterword is in the form of a Hanks-esque comic, in which Karasik hunts down Hanks's son and interviews him. It turns out that his son, a flying ace, was totally estranged from his father, an abusive alcoholic, and that they'd burned all his art except for one piece. He didn't even know his father had written these comics.

Karasik's maintaining an excellent Fletcher Hanks website with some examples of Hanks's artwork — especially noteworthy is the page of interviews Karasik has conducted about Hanks's work.