Friday, November 14, 2008
I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets
I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets
by Fletcher Hanks, ed. by Paul Karasik
Hillary Brown: Usually, when people go on and on about how weird something is, it's not really that weird--it's just unfamiliar to them. I've certainly done this myself with large chunks of Japanese culture. But calling Fletcher Hanks weird doesn't quite do justice to the comics artist/writer's, um, unique vision. I've been wanting to pick up I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets for at least a year, so pairing it with Herbie was a good excuse. The thing is, Herbie is a thoroughly competent creation--it's just kind of goofy. ISDATCP, on the other hand, would be a real testament to the artistry of the strange outsider, a kind of portrait of Fletcher Hanks as Henry Darger, if it weren't so incredibly lazy. That's the thing: is obsessive repetition the hallmark of an interesting brain or is it really more of a sign flashing "don't get into a conversation with this guy"? I'm still not even sure what I think of this compilation or of Hanks. Every issue of his creations represented here (Stardust the Super Wizard, Fantomah, and Big Red McLane) follows exactly the same path: trouble is detected by superman/woman; hero/heroine takes surprisingly long to arrive, despite having known what was going to happen for some time, during which thousands of people die; "poetic justice" is enacted, often involving levitation of the bad guys. It's utterly itself, but is that self good?
Garrett Martin: Fuck yeah that self is good. Not good like Peanuts or Acme Novelty Library, and not "so good it's bad", but inherently fascinating and entertaining it its own way. Sure, a way that's often disturbing and depressing, but still, completely valid. These strips are striking not just because of the repetition and the flights of ridiculousness (the latter of which I shall admit is the main appeal), but because they're so blunt and savage, and completely unconcerned with (or unaware of) the fact that their target audience is ostensibly a bunch of kids. Yeah, Batman killed some dudes his first year or so, and folks died all the time in Dick Tracy, but Hanks' stuff is particularly violent and vengeance-crazed for the time period.
A lot of folks call what Hanks did "outsider" comics, which is kinda dumb on a few levels. I'm only comfortable with that tag when it's applied to somebody that means well but isn't quite competent, like the Shaggs, or BJ Snowden. Hanks wasn't an outsider, he was just a lazy alcoholic, like you said, and as the editor, Paul Karasik, points out in his comic strip post-script. Yeah, Stardust and Fantomah strips are a bit incompetent, but that's not from a lack of talent so much as Hanks' total disregard of comics as a medium.
HB: You mean Hanks isn't an outsider because he actually did publish these stories? Did they appear in reputable (or as reputable as comics got) publications? Or was it the kind of nonsense most city magazines publish today in order to have something to sell ads alongside? It's hard for me to contextualize them. Basically, I'm trying to figure out in what way he's "competent"? They're lettered in comprehensible English? I mean, each comic tells a story, but it's the same story every time, with minor details changed. The art may differ even less. Is that competent or in-?
GM: Stardust appeared in comics from the Fox company, who published Blue Beetle and early work from well-known, long-time pros like Lou Fine, George Tuska, and a certain li'l fella named Kirby (thanks, Wikipedia!) It was definitely low-rent stuff, but not quite the same as a dude calling himself a video game critic 'cuz he writes 150-word reviews for an unpopular free newspaper. And I'm basing the competency claim on Karasik's strip; it's been a while since I've read it, but doesn't he find a more serious Hanks drawing that doesn't look hastily tossed-off? That kind of impresses Karasick? Okay, maybe it's incompetent, but it's a thoroughly distinct and unique style, both artistically and philosophically. But since we're hung up on that word, let me ask you, do you think Darger or Finster are "competent"?
HB: Well... That's a good question. I guess I do, but then they're not trying for a narrative, or at least Finster's not and Darger's story is mostly in his crazy-ass novel and not so much in the pictures. I'd like for there to be a more direct point of comparison between them. You can probably argue that Hanks's art is competent, if weird and repetitive, but I don't know if you can say the same for his storytelling. This is terrible, though. I'm coming off as though I don't like or appreciate Hanks's stuff, which isn't true. I might be confused by it when I try to think about it deeply, but I did enjoy the unique voice at work. Maybe I should stop trying to analyze potential reactions to it so much.
GM: "Outsider" is such an open-ended term, anyway, it might as well be meaningless. So let's screw that discussion and talk about something better; namely, why this book is so damn awesome. 'Cuz, hell, it is awesome, right? I don't need to know Hanks' backstory to know he must've been one seriously angry dude, all I gotta do is read this book and get beat over the head by the totally cavalier attitude both he and his omnipotent characters hold towards both society and humanity in general. Sure, maybe Hanks held comics and their readers in contempt, or at least didn't care about the quality of his own work, but you can't deny the guy had an amazingly vivid and sordid imagination.
HB: Yeah, it's pretty awesome, even if it's a little Leni Riefenstahl at times, which is fairly awkward, considering that these books were produced between 1939 and 1941. I mean, maybe there's a reason they fell by the wayside, with their blond heroes and heroine stomping on the ugly of the world. Hanks's desire to see death and destruction, too, would soon become reality, with both fire- and atom bombing of civilian populations. Maybe that time felt as weirdly apocalyptic as our own, or maybe he was just a pissed off, violent drunk.
GM: Well, the economy was still pretty god-damned depressed when Hanks was making comics, so there's one sorta parallel to our current situation. And yeah, this stuff is fairly fascist. I generally tune out when somebody attacks superhero comics for being fascist, but it might be irrefutable in the case of Stardust. But, really, there are no politics in this book. Sure, many stories revolve around intrigue and sabotage from the Fifth Column, but, like almost every facet of Hanks' work, there's so little similarity to anything even remotely possible in the real world that it's completely incorrect to call it political. Hanks' conspiracies are "political" in the same way as Major League Baseball using satellites to spy on the American people in that Simpsons episode. His comics are like the Golden Age equivalent of Ed Anger.
HB: It's more political in the way that the letters of raving loonies to
the newspaper are political... Is that what you're saying?
GM: In terms of content, sure, although I have no idea if Hanks shared the paranoia evident in his comics.
HB: True. We don't have any evidence for that. He's still a mystery, and while it's possible that makes his comics better (through not providing more reasons to hate him as a man, which could extend to disliking his artistic creations), they really do have a strange power. The advantage of experiencing a work of art by someone who is probably crazy is that it's continually surprising, which these comics, despite their repetitiveness, are.