A dreadful penalty

Fletcher Hanks: Superheroes Without Pity

Fletcher Hanks is a little-known comic book creator from the Golden Age of comics. He was a rare auteur for his era. We wrote and illustrated his works without assistance, often under a variety of pen names such as Hank Christy, Charles Netcher, C.C. Starr, and Barclay Flagg. He was a product of his time, and yet too unique to be completely a part of it. Although he wrote fairly standard superhero and adventure comic fare, his work is so magnificently weird that it merits further examination than the work of his contemporaries. Perhaps the most defining attribute of his work is that his characters exhibit a fundamental meanness that is highly unusual for the Golden Age of comics – his “superheroes” are even more sadistic than the grim ‘n gritty antiheroes of the 1990s.

Hanks was only active in comics from 1939 to 1941, but it didn’t take him very many publishing credits to make his mark on comics history. There was tremendous demand for comics at that time – the most popular title of the time (Captain Marvel) sold about 1.4 million copies per issue. This fever for superhero stories led to an ecosystem of publishing houses and work-for-hire comic book production shops. Hanks worked in one of these work-for-hire shops. He was employed by the Eisner & Iger comic book packaging company. His boss was the legendary Will Eisner. Eisner’s shop produced comic book stories en masse, then resold the tales to whichever publisher needed superhero content to sell their magazines.

By all accounts, Hanks was a punctual artist dedicated to his craft, but had a difficult personal life. Although there is very little biographical information about the man, it is known that he abandoned his family after years of mistreating them, was an alcoholic, and died penniless on a park bench in New York City in 1976. In his work, we can perform all sorts of armchair psychology. What kind of a man turns his heroes into sadists? What is going on with his fascination with punishment? What trauma persisted in his life that made him feel like children’s entertainment needed to be imbued with such violence? Although we lack explanations from the auteur himself, we can make our own inferences from examining his work.

His most popular character was Stardust the Super Wizard. Clearly a Superman analogue, Stardust was a giant of a man who came to earth from the stars to dispense rough justice upon evildoers. Stardust is portrayed as super-strong, super-intelligent, and possessing a variety of superpowers that allow him to administer whatever sadistic punishment Hanks could dream up for each issue.

You are now in the power of Stardust

Each Stardust story follows the same general outline:

  1. Bad guys hatch a nefarious plot.The anti solar ray
  2. Stardust is aware of their plan using one of his scientifically-advanced surveillance devices.The crime-detecting ray
  3. Bad guys execute the plot.The invisible vacuum
  4. Stardust intercepts them.The torso crush!
  5. Stardust spends the next dozen panels punishing the bad guys in a gruesome and mean-spirited manner.

Enter The Ice Chamber!

Most Golden Age superheroes are some variation on a macho power fantasy, but this just takes it to another level. There is no sense of justice here – only asymmetrical punishment. Stardust throws his enemies off cliffs, imprisons them on planets with century-long nights (but not before ensuring them that “special vitamins in the air” will guarantee them a long lifespan), and even rips off their heads and launches their still-conscious skull into space.

The death of De Structo

This is not the Superman of Saturday morning cartoons. This is a terrible Ubermensch that should inspire fear, not admiration.

Gaze at these spooky skeletons, you scoundrels

Before you dismiss Hanks as an over-masculine thug, I should point out that he’s also credited with creating the first female superhero. Fantomah, his “mystery woman of the jungle,” predates Wonder Woman by about a year and a half. Fantomah shares the same sensibilities as Stardust, though – only the setting and gender are different. Fantomah has more terrestrial origins, but she is no less omnipotent and vengeful. Her normal appearance is that of a beautiful blonde woman (who has for some reason taken on the burden of protecting the jungles of Africa), but when she manifests her powers her appearance changes to that of a glowing skull…with long blonde tresses.

Fantomah - Mystery Woman Of The Jungle

Fantomah’s modus operandi is unsurprisingly like Stardust’s. She is a force of justice that is both omniscient and omnipotent. She exacts “jungle justice” upon those who would exploit the riches of the jungle, or the denizens therein.

Die A Jungle Death!

In Fantomah’s adventures, we witness her condemn a jungle raider to a lifetime of eating mud and fire:

Farewell, you fool

Transform a pair of jewel thieves into grotesque creatures, then return them to civilization:

A strange transformation

Drop a mad scientist into a throng of bloodthirsty gorillas (special care is taken to depict his dismembered limbs flying in the air):

Dismembered by gorillas

And concoct an elaborate revenge wherein a gang of thieves is whisked away into a remote pit, combined into a single man, then enslaved by an underground race of monsters:

Punishment by combination

This list is not comprehensive, but you get the point.

A caveman fate

Hanks’ prolific work also included some protagonists that lacked superpowers, but equaled Stardust and Fantomah in their zest for creative and/or brutal punishments.

“Red McClane, King of the Northwoods” was a hulking lumberjack who solved all of his problems with his fists:

Crasho!

I consider myself a connoisseur of weird comics, but this is the only example I know of that falls into the “lumberjack adventure” genre. I wonder why this style never caught on. I really want to read more tales of this fist-fighting, flapjack-eating, rough-and-tumble son of a bitch.

Flapjacks!

“Space” Smith is a galactic adventurer who fights alien invaders with fisticuffs and casual racism:

You frankfurter-nosed creep

Tabu, the Wizard of the Jungle dispenses rough “jungle justice” upon evildoers (not to be confused with the more feminine brand of “jungle justice” practiced by Fantomah):

Learn the power of jungle justice

So what are we to make of this troubled man and his strange characters? Even golden age superheroes were no strangers to violence. But, there’s quite a difference between two-fisted justice and imprisoning foes in an eternal living hell. Since we lack a complete biography of Fletcher Hanks, it’s hard to tell. Comics were considered a fad medium at the time, so no one was performing any kind of serious historical assessment of the creators of the Golden Age. Hanks’ work does give us a small, hazy window into his psyche though. In this fictional world, Hanks must have felt free reign to exercise whatever power fantasies he could concoct, without limitation. It doesn’t take a lot of armchair psychology to conclude that a man obsessed with writing infallible, omnipotent, and cruel characters clearly had some issues in his life. Is this the work of a twisted sadist, or a man so obsessed with the injustice of the world that he imbued his heroes with a maximum drive for punishment? Or are we just reading way too much into some silly comic book stories cranked out a frenetic pace to make a buck?

For further reading, I highly recommend the omnibus of Hanks’ work, Turn Loose Our Death Rays And Kill Them All!: The Complete Works Of Fletcher Hanks, edited by Paul Karasik and published by Fantagraphics Books.

The Uncanny X-Men At The State Fair Of Texas

I grew up an eager, comic-collecting lad in the hinterlands of North Texas. There was an issue spoken of in hushed tones among my coterie of comic book geeks. A bizarre and exclusive adventure of the X-Men, set in our own back yard! Behold – The Uncanny X-Men At The State Fair Of Texas:

The Uncanny X Men At The State Fair Of Texas Cover

This issue was released in October 1983 as a free insert to the now-defunct Dallas Times Herald newspaper. Created to promote the annual Texas State Fair, the issue follows our merry band of mutants through the fair as they encounter a misguided equine-mutant youth, a nefarious plot by Magneto, and the giant “Big Tex” statue that might possibly be alive. It gets real weird, people. Let’s begin.

The stage is set, in classic bronze-age X-Men fashion, with a scene in the Danger Room. We learn for the 1000th time who the X-Men are, and what they can do:

The X-Men training in the Danger Room

The team lineup is the standard one from mid-80s X-Men: Cyclops, Storm, Colossus, Wolverine, and Nightcrawler. We also get an unusually self-loathing appearance from Kitty Pryde. Everyone refers to her as “Ariel” despite the fact that she told Professor X that name sucked back in Uncanny X-Men #139:

Ariel Sux

The training session is interrupted because Cerebro has detected a new mutant…*clap* *clap* *clap* *clap* deep in the heart of Texas! The X-Men depart for the Lone Star State. They are beaten to the fair by Magneto, who has plans of his own for the young mutant. Plans which include harnessing his inner brony to connect with the horse-obsessed youth:

Friendship Is Magic

Friendship Is Magic

Young Daniel Wiley grew up on a horse farm outside of Dallas, and longed to connect with his equine friends. One night, his mutant power manifested, allowing him to transform into a “centaur”:

Behold, A Centaur

Well…okay? I guess as far as mutant powers go, it’s not the worst. And I guess centaurs have wings now? So we’ve got a young mutant with a slightly creepy obsession with horses, an evil mutant with a definitely creepy obsession with Daniel, and a hazy understanding of Greek mythology. So far, so good.

Magneto plots to recruit Daniel into his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Because nothing strikes fear into the heart of Homo Sapiens like the sight of a bare-chested, half-equine youth. I guess he’s technically naked in his centaur form? That actually is pretty terrifying now that I think about it. It’s bad enough being attacked by an evil mutant, it must be a lot more frightening when they’re doing it in the buff.

The X-Men finally arrive at the fair and try to locate their mutant quarry. Cut to a clearly staged set of panels to highlight the various attractions at the fair! Lena Horne! The Age of Steam Exhibit! Big Tex! Big-ass American automobiles that strike Peter Rasputin with awe!

Texas State Fair Attractions

Alas, the Texas State Fair contains far too many attractions to witness in a single day. Charles Xavier admits defeat and vows to return the next day:

Too Many Attractions

Magneto continues his seduction of innocent Daniel with a trip to the Cotton Bowl:

A gesture of friendship from a fellow horselover

WERTHAM WAS RIGHT

Uh…too much information, Magneto.

Xavier’s mutant mind detects Magneto’s sketchy intentions, and the pursuit is on! Shadowcat/Sprite/Kitty Pryde/Ariel catches up to the fleeing Daniel and Magneto, but Magneto tricks Daniel into thinking the X-Men are attacking him instead of saving him. Daniel turns heel, defends Magneto, and is rewarded with a lame moniker befitting his lame powers – Eques!

Noble Eques

Eques decides that Professor X isn’t crippled enough and decides to serve up a Christopher Reeve special:

The 'ol Christopher Reeve special

Nightcrawler saves the Professor in time. The metal-powered duo of Wolverine and Colossus fight back against the Master of Magnetism, with predictable results:

Metal monstrosity

The fight rages on, with Magneto basically handing Cyclops and crew their collective X-asses. At least until Magneto’s attack nearly injures some horses, and then says exactly the wrong thing:

Idiotic horses

“YOU SON OF A BITCH, YOU TOLD ME FRIENDSHIP WAS MAGIC!”

Magneto dun goofed

Magneto lands near the feet of Big Tex, and this happens:

Big Tex boots Magneto

One Texas-sized ass-kicking later, Magneto is defeated. Xavier invites Eques to join the X-Men. Daniel politely declines, preferring Dallas and horses to a lifetime of thrilling adventures with everyone’s favorite mutant team. Having spent years of my life in Dallas, I can say that Daniel is objectively incorrect in his choice. Everyone has a 1980s-cartoon-ending-ha-ha-moment where everyone is confused about whose mutant power caused Big Tex’s boot to kick Magneto:

Big Tex wink

So in Marvel canon, the state of Texas is guarded by a giant, semi-benevolent golem clad in western wear. Sure, why not.

Some key takeaways from this story:

  • Centaurs have wings, I guess.
  • If you’re being tailed by the X-Men and you need to lose them, dazzle them with a wide variety of attractions that cannot all be observed in a single day.
  • Magneto seems way more evil when he’s doing the “creepy uncle” act than the “mutant terrorist” act.
  • If you’re an evil mutant and you start trouble at the State Fair of Texas, Big Tex will WRECK YOUR SHIT.

As if the action wasn’t thrilling enough, Professor X also appears throughout the issue in activity content apart from the story. He demands that the reader complete feats of mental agility, such as finding words hidden upon his glimmering forehead:

Find words on Charles Xavier's chrome dome

Ordering us to stop the search for Magneto, and instead hunt for words:

WORD HUNT

He implores us to identify mysterious animals:

Prof X sez name the animals!

As if Professor X’s demands aren’t enough, we also get Cyclops threatening to injure the reader if they don’t immediately stop what they’re doing and draw his visor:

Cyclops needs his visor

I certainly don’t remember children’s activities being this pushy in all the other 1980s ephemera I’ve read…

The story of this issue is a below-average X-Men yarn, but the real entertainment value from this book is in the ads. I have no idea whether to credit Marvel or the local businesses for the unintentional hilarity of the ads, but kudos to whoever it was. In this issue, we learn:

The Hulk 1) had a Mama Hulk, 2) wore boots as a Hulk-child, and 3) obtained his simultaneously Hulk-sized and child-sized boots at Boot Town:

Mama Hulk buys boots

This simple line of ad copy brings up a lot of continuity questions. Did child Hulk grow up as a separate entity as Bruce Banner? Is this just a manifestation of Banner’s latent multiple-personality disorder? Is he remembering his mother as a hulking monster, yet gentle and caring when it came to western footwear? Boot Town holds no answers for us.

Storkland Maternity implores us to “show your comic book for 15% off all Leotards and Tights.” This conjures up a mental picture of a wild-eyed teen brandishing a comic book in a store full of pregnant women, yelling “GIVE ME TIGHTS!”

An ad recruiting local youths to deliver papers for the Dallas Times-Herald has an eerily prescient warning for Millenials:

Handouts from your folks

Spider-Man shills for RCA television sets:

Super Spider Man saving

Ol’ Webhead also reminds us that home theater in the 1980s was CRAZY EXPENSIVE:

Crazy expensive 1980s home theater

And on the back cover, Spider Man has evidently decided that he’s had enough of this crazy issue and is eloping with Don Morgan on a lasso. They were last seen shopping for a cozy bungalow in Boot Town.

Don Morgan <3 Spider Man

Bonus page! I love this one-page summary of the X-Men:

Meet The X-Men!

I especially love Cheerful Wolverine who is “pure dynamite”!

My Top 10 Comic Books For 2017

For the inaugural post of this blog, I’d like to break down my top 10 comic book series of 2017. Listed in reverse order, to build suspense:

Honorable mention: Doomsday Clock – Watchmen is unquestionably one of the finest literary works in sequential art. But DC can only make so much money on reprinting Watchmen every year. What’s the solution? Bring the Watchmen characters into the main DC continuity and let Dr. Manhattan fistfight with Superman! Or…something. While I think it’s right to be cautiously optimistic about extending the Watchmen story (really, it’s a perfect 12 issues and doesn’t need any prologues or epilogues), DC does appear to be making an honest effort to put out a story that will at least attempt to rival the original. I was thoroughly impressed by the first issue (the kick-ass lenticular Rorschach cover certainly helped), but I feel like I can’t fairly include it in my top ten because there’s only been one issue so far. I’m interested to see where this series is going. Watchmen was a landmark work in comics, but it also ushered in about 30 years of grim ‘n gritty storytelling that has probably played itself out as a trend. Can Dr. Manhattan’s omnipotent cynicism conquer the very paragon of optimism that is Superman? I hope to find out in 2018.

10. Ultimates2 – If Marvel is not going to give me an ongoing Fantastic Four series, I at least need an outlet to get some crazy-as-hell conceptual cosmic stories in my subscription list. In 2017, Ultimates2 by Al Ewing was the cosmic methadone to my Fantastic Four heroin addiction. Ewing really built up some interesting concepts and storylines, but the series was unfortunately sidelined by two “tie-in” issues for Marvel’s tepid Secret Empire event. Just as Ewing’s first Ultimates series lost momentum due to an unnecessary Civil War II tie-in last year, Ultimates2 got slightly derailed this year and Ewing seemed a bit rushed to wrap up his narrative. Still, we got to see Galactus adjust to a new cosmic role in service of life instead of death, Ego the Living Planet growing a giant body, and the heaviest hitters in the Marvel cosmic pantheon slugging it out for dominion over the very ideas that structure reality.

9. Seven To Eternity – Rick Remender has proven to be an adept scribe when it comes to interweaving narratives that play with the theme of family, duty, and revenge. I’ve noticed that he sticks to these themes pretty consistently, but loves to vary the setting. In this one, a group of disgraced, superpowered knights apprehend one of their own who has enslaved a world. They transport him away from his stronghold and then things get…interesting. Spoilers abound, so I’ll keep it vague. The real highlight of this one is Jerome Opena’s and Matt Hollingsworths’ absolutely stunning artwork. Together with Remender’s script, they create an intricately detailed high fantasy/sci fi world that surrounds the characters like a lush landscape.

8. God Country – Donny Cates has hit the comics world this year like a Texan thunderbolt. This is the series that put him on the map. In this story, an ailing, aging patriarch of a West Texas family acquires a magic sword from a fallen thunder god. The sword grants him power, and more importantly, clears his mind of the fog of dementia as long as he holds it. Just as he starts to enjoy the clarity and reconnect with his family, an alien pantheon comes to Earth to reclaim their weapon. His response is “come and take it.” This series is so quintessentially Texan that I’ve often wondered how much I would like it if I wasn’t from Texas myself. You could ponder that, or you could just read a fun story about a badass old guy with a magic sword.

7. Moon Knight – Moon Knight is one of my favorite Marvel characters – think Batman with multiple personality disorder. This intensely flawed character is a really interesting springboard for creative stories, but I feel like too many writers have hammered on the “lol, he’s crazy” angle to the point where those stories just aren’t interesting anymore (looking at you, Jeff Lemire). Enter Max Bemis, who somehow managed to go from the lead singer of Say Anything and the writer of a few lesser-known miniseries to writing the best series in Marvel’s new Legacy initiative. Moon Knight #188 is probably one of the best one-shot issues I’ve ever read. Seriously. The beauty of it is that Moon Knight is barely even in the issue. Instead, it focuses on the origin of the Sun King, a new nemesis that Bemis is creating for our protagonist. We get a deep dive into the psyche of the man who will become the Sun King, as well as Dr. Emmet, the psychiatrist who is trying to understand his madness while being unhealthily obsessed with the titular Moon Knight. In issue #189, we meet The Truth, another new baddie who is terrorizing New York with a unique brand of psychic warfare. So we’re still playing with themes of mental illness, but external of Marc Spector’s personal affliction. The series is only two issues in, but it’s already my favorite Marvel ongoing at the moment.

6. Batman – Tom King is on fire right now. His series The Vision is probably the only 12 issues from the last few years that I would consider worthy of entering that pantheon of graphic novel essentials, sitting on the shelf alongside Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, The Invisibles, and the like. Somehow, Marvel let King slip through their grasp and DC just handed him the keys to the kingdom. He’s been writing one of DC’s main bat-titles for a while now, but this year was the first time I paid attention. One long Thanksgiving weekend and a binge-read of four collected volumes later, I was hooked. His work does suffer a bit when thrust into the open-ended narrative of an ongoing series of indefinite length, playing steward to a high-profile character that can’t deviate too far from the norm. I much prefer his stories with a c-list character and 12 issues, where he has both the creative freedom to explore the character in uncharted directions, as well as a tight story arc to take care of business. Even so, he finds a way to make it work with Batman. King’s Bruce Wayne has heart in a way that the brooding, grimacing creature of the night doesn’t always get to show. Some of the story arcs are a little weaker than others (especially I Am Gotham and Night of The Monster Men), but he really hits his stride with The War of Jokes and Riddles arc. Will you end up caring about Kite Man in the end? Hell yeah!

5. Black Hammer – Okay, now that I’ve talked shit about Jeff Lemire in the Moon Knight section, let me put his series at #5 on my list. I usually find his work good but not great (although most comic readers would probably be pissed at my declaration that he’s overrated). This is one of the great ones though. There have been dozens of conceptual superhero deconstruction stories in the wake of Watchmen, and most of them have been pretty forgettable. Where Lemire’s tale excels is the very small, human stories of the superhuman team trapped in a bizarre, too-perfect small town. It’s a mystery story, a superhero story, and a human story, all rolled into one.

4. Extremity – The comic book auteur is a dying breed. Most books these days have an entire creative team, with writers, inkers, colorists, and letterers working in concert to create sequential art. Daniel Warren Johnson is bucking this trend, writing and illustrating (although he gets an assist on colors by the talented Mike Spicer) this epic post-apocalyptic adventure. Think Mad Max with jetbikes, floating continents, robots, and griffins. If you’re not already hooked by that description, then allow me to entice you with a deep story about finding your place in the world even when your very identity is taken from you. The main protagonist, Thea, has a will-she-or-won’t-she journey between revenge and forgiveness will keep you captivated as much as the fantastical landscapes that she navigates through.

3. Black Monday Murders – Full disclosure: I am tremendously biased toward Jonathan Hickman because he’s one of my favorite comic writers. I admit that his work is getting pretty formulaic. This is yet another story about a global conspiracy, a pale, white-haired person of dubious moral quality, and the tough-as-nails men that try to stop them. Am I talking about Avengers: Time Runs Out, East of West, The Dying and the Dead, or Black Monday Murders? You decide. Anyway, I think Hickman has a few more great stories in him before he descends into madness and self-parody. In this one, the global conspiracy is a financial cabal who have controlled the world’s markets through black magic and human sacrifice for centuries. The pale antagonist is a silent enforcer sent by the dark god Mammon, and the tough as nails dudes are played by a gritty streetwise detective and an economics professor. Do you like crazy concepts, florid language, bold graphic design, and just a little bit of sex and violence? This is the series for you.

2. Doom Patrol – Whenever I pick up a new comic book series, I expect it to be good, weird, or preferably both. Gerard Way (yes, that Gerard Way from My Chemical Romance) has led the flagship title of DC’s Young Animal imprint to some really bizarre and excellent heights this year. In this story, we follow a young paramedic (Casey Brinke) who gets sucked into the gravity well of Grant Morrison-era gonzo Doom Patrol, and joins their number after a truly convoluted existential crisis involving a race of corporate aliens plotting to grind up a sentient city into fast food burger meat. And it only gets weirder from there. This series has been unfortunately delayed several times due to scheduling conflicts (Way is producing one of his earlier comic series for NetFlix, editing the Young Animal imprint, and creating at least 20% of the merchandise at Hot Topic), but it’s definitely been worth waiting for.

1. Mister Miracle – Oh look, it’s Tom King again. See, I told you he was on fire. Remember what I said about taking a C-list character on a 12-issue journey, navigating through some heavy concepts along the way? Here is Exhibit A. In this series, we follow Scott Free, the greatest escape artist of two worlds, as he tries to escape the most diabolical trap of all – life itself. After he fails a suicide attempt (or does he?), Scott is conscripted into returning home to New Genesis to wage war against the evil forces of Apokalips (fite fite). Despite this seemingly epic synopsis, this conflict is just a backdrop for the real story of Scott navigating through his personal feelings of self-doubt and dread as he questions the reality of his existence. Small moments between Scott and his wife Barda, or Scott and his rigid, bullying stepbrother Orion really make this story. Tom King is a master at pacing each issue just right to build up suspense and dread. I have never read another story so capable of creating an atmosphere of peril. You don’t just read this book – it envelops you like a fog of uncertainty and despair. You hang on each page, and when you get to the end of an issue you fiend for another hit one month later. I also have to give props to King collaborator Mitch Gerads, whose art and covers are bringing this story to heights that King could not achieve alone. I love seeing great creative teams come together, and I think this duo is one for the ages.