The Ed Wood of Comics

Here’s an essay that did not make the cut for either the print or Kindle versions of the book. It’s an aside on Fletcher Hanks, a strange and tragic character who produced outsider comic books in the early 1940s. Anything that is basically incompetent as most people define the term, yet manages to make it into public awareness always makes me happy. This article was originally posted on UFOmystic on July 1st of 2009.


Pop Culture Reject

Sunday night on Radio Misterioso, my co-host Walter Bosley and I discussed a 1940s comic book artist who was virtually forgotten until just recently. In fact, those who do know about him tend to heap derision upon his memory. Highly unfortunate in my opinion. This name of this misplaced genius is Fletcher Hanks, and to me, his work is the comic book equivalent of cinematic schlockmeister Ed Wood.

His artwork is barely competent, his stories are incredibly surreal, and his dialogue sounds like it was written by a second grader or an illiterate. It is of course amazing that someone deemed his work worthy of publication in the first place, but that is not the only reason why I love his comics so much.

He seemed to have practiced a lot on one type of male face (which looks like Buster Crabbe with an enlarged forehead) and female faces and anatomy (which all look like 1930s blonde starlets in lingerie.) He was also pretty good at depicting running and leaping lions and panthers. Every single line of dialogue (unless it’s a question) is delivered with an exclamation point.

Hanks’ comic book output is a pure distillation of pop culture at a basic level, without any rules or “talent” getting in the way, which I think is much more revealing of our tastes and desires than any “professional” efforts from the likes of Marvel or DC. Hanks lived in his own universe, and it doesn’t matter if he drew and wrote for recognition, some inner need to express himself, or just the money. Any or all of these reasons are good and valid.

For all his personal faults, or perhaps because of them, his vision of drama may have been some kind of tortured effort to exorcise his own demons. His simplistic storylines may also have been his vision of what was wrong with the world, and his own deus-ex-machina efforts to fix it.

Hanks was an alcoholic, and quite abusive to his wife and kids, which makes him a fairly tragic figure, at least as long as you weren’t in his family. This information was gleaned from Fletcher Hanks, Jr. who has a life story that is an adventure in its own right.

Fantagraphics Books published a collection of Hanks’ work (I have the third edition from 2007) with the catchy title I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets! Along with his mainstay hero “Stardust the Super Wizard,” the book includes the adventures of “Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle,” Big Red Maclane, King of the North Woods” and my personal favorite, “Buzz Crandall of the Space Patrol.”

According to Hanks’ wacked-out story, Crandall “lives on the highly civilized planet of Venus, and is in charge of the Interplanetary Secret Service for both Venus and the Earth. He has become the top crime-buster of the Universe.” Crandall foils Lepus The Fiend in his plan to “wreck planets with a ray.” Lepus chuckles with evil glee as he gazes at a viewing screen showing Venus and Earth (which are two orange circles) on a collision course. Hanks added two five-pointed stars in the corner of the screen, just so you know that he’s looking at a shot of outer space.

Apropos of nothing at all, but in a weird coincidence, there was a little-known contactee in the 1950s named Lee Crandall, of whom I have a bit of old film. In the short clip, Crandall runs away from his trailer park home with a space brother (who is conveniently never shown) and leaves a note to his parents which reads: “Gone to Venus. I am OK. Lee.”

According to Paul Karasik, who edited I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets!, Fletcher Hanks was found frozen to death on a New York park bench in 1970. Now that’s tragic.

A big hat tip to Kenn Thomas for hipping me to Hanks.