Monday, November 23, 2009

You Shall Die by Your Own Evil Creation

You Shall Die by Your Own Evil Creation
by Fletcher Hanks (edited by Paul Karasik)
Fantagraphics, 2009

Hillary Brown:
Oookay. So, having read and reviewed the first volume of Fletcher Hanks's reproduced work (I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets), why would we want to do another one? I'm not sure, but it wasn't just a need to finish that kept me reading. This volume feels like more of a slog than the first, and it certainly presents very little that's new (mostly more Stardust, "Big Red" McLane, and Fantomah, with a good bit of "Space" Smith this time and a few others). It's the same weird-ass vision that the first book contained, which testifies to the comics formula just as much as to the auteur theory. I guess there are more aliens this go-round and fewer mobsters, but other than that it's the same mayhem and mass destruction, with a lot of rays and gases. Do you see any differences you'd like to point out? Paul Karasik continues to argue, in his introduction, that Hanks isn't an outsider artist, and I still think he is, but we pretty much covered that ground last time too. In short, what's to talk about?

Garrett Martin: We can talk about how this second volume makes what once seemed crazy feel mundane. Hanks is so lazy, with basically one plot for each character repeated over and over, that it really is hard to find something to talk about. We should translate our first post into Korean via Babelfish, translate that back into English, and post that in response to volume 2. We could talk about the difficulty of following up a book whose greatest selling point was that most folks would find it comically awful. Those people suck, but they made the first one a hit. Can they still find the time to mock Hanks? Or are they too busy ironically appreciating romance comics, or Akee Wise and Essence, or whatever else?

HB: Good point. It's easy to get jaded in a hurry about Hanks's casual violence, facile equation of ugliness with evil, and simplistic plotting. He is lazy, but that laziness is also kind of fascinating. For a while, at least... I haven't seen a ton of press on volume 2, and the positive reviews I have seen read like they're by people who didn't get around to volume 1. Karasik is clearly still enthusiastic about the material (will there be more, or did this clean out the Hanks archives? Ending with his death certificate certainly gives it an air of finality), and I see why Fantagraphics wants to publish it (it's important in an archival sense, as the documentation of a unique vision), but does it have mass appeal? Not so much. Will this be our shortest review ever?

GM: I believe the Hanks train has pulled into the station. Or more like it's plummeted into a lake after the Fifth Column destroyed every bridge in America with their anti-bridge rays. Every comic the man created is in these two volumes, at least everything that's been found. I'm glad to say I have the complete Hanks bibliography sitting on a shelf in my dining room, but I am a stupid completionist collector dude since elementary days. I think you've hit on something: if you come to this volume first, you will love it, at least until you pick up the first one. If you're just rounding off your Hanks collection, then you won't mind that this books is less powerful. It makes sense that the first book would be loaded with the best stuff, of course, even if they were planning from day one to release two volumes. The biggest problem here is that the most frequent strips simply aren't as entertaining as Stardust or Fantomah. The standard Space Smith strip isn't nearly as shocking or perverse as Hanks' more infamous characters, and that makes up like half the book.

Will this be our shortest review? That's entirely in your hands now. What say you?

HB: I say that you could make a great condensed Fletcher Hanks out of the best strips from both books and leave the complete version for the completists. It would be half the size of either volume 1 or volume 2 and pack a maximum of loony, id-driven entertainment between its covers before blissfully departing and leaving you wanting more, which you'd then be free to pursue or happily forget about and use your time for better things. How 'bout it, Fantagraphics?


Robert said...

Is part of the problem the fact that this stuff was all scattered around different books? Because, see, if you're looking for Hanks, and you just read a strip here and there in different books, then it's not as much of a "slog" as it seems when it's all conveniently laid out like this. I have not read the 2nd collection, but I loved the first. I had the same problem as Hillary seemed to have with the DC Showcase collection of "The War That Time Forgot". I remember really liking that stuff when I was reading it as back-up stories in "Star Spangled War Stories" that I bought from dollar bins or whatever. But that much of the same damned story, even if it's the same Andru and Esposito story can grate on the nerves after the first hundred or so pages.

Jacob Covey said...

I like your approach to this review and respect your dubiousness about the necessity of the second volume. I should note at the outset that I designed these books so I'm biased for all the obvious reasons. But I'd rather point out that I'm the designer so I've really immersed myself in the work and I post this comment out of zeal.

I hesitate to call Hanks "lazy". I'm not sure that's applicable here. Not to defend the predictability of his wrathful (and always entertaining) plot lines but to say that his obsessiveness is part of what makes the strips "Art." I wouldn't sit down and read through the volume in one sitting- which could be tedious- but rather turn to it intermittently to experience the way he worked out his (batshit crazy) angst on the comics page. Hanks was lazy inasmuch as he didn't much change things up but he was mind-blowingly honest (presumably out of valid ignorance that anyone would ever pay attention to what he was doing on the comics page) and he was willing to meditate on his neuroses within the fledgling "superhero" format. He did this unconsciously, mind you, but he did it and it's amazing.

I consider this work beautiful to look at, and a great reflection of how comics can be meditative and cathartic. That's kind of amazing from superhero comics of the 20s and 30s. Hanks deserves the shelf space for sure.

Plus I should point out that these two books couldn't have been collected into one volume from the outset because nobody was "collecting" Hanks. He was just another hack (or something less-than a hack since his skills weren't recognized as skillful) among thousands of anonymous pages. The second volume is a result of a lot of obscure work coming up after the first volume raised awareness of Hanks. This stuff is far more precious than gold if you tried to collect the original comics.

hillary said...

Good points, Jacob, and let me say that I think it's a very well-designed book. It could have used a little more proofreading in the text sections, but some of that is probably just personal preference wrt some stylistic things and coming, of course, from an anal retentive proofreading person. I think both you and Robert are right in that this stuff is valuable read in smaller chunks, and I love the look of individual pages. There's something about Hanks's work that recalls earlier American self-taught artists like Edward Hicks more than 20th- and 21st-century self-taught artists, who tend to be quite a bit messier. I don't think that either Garrett or I mean to suggest we think the stuff shouldn't have been collected, but at the same time, it's more archivally than entertainingly important.