In the first of two forewords to Turn Loose Our Death Rays and Kill Them All: The Complete Works of Fletcher Hanks (Fantagraphics), Paul Karasik describes the cult Golden Age cartoonist Fletcher Hanks as the “village rogue” who devolved into a “downright scoundrel.” It’s difficult to view Hanks’ work without being influenced by what little we know about the man, probably because nearly all of it is awful. He was violently abusive to his wife and children and an unrepentant drunk. He regularly blew most of his earnings on booze, forcing his young son Fletcher Junior to take on the burden of providing for the family. He seems to have been a haunted man, tormented by who-knows-what manner of clinical diagnoses, but it’s probably safe to say he was a narcissistic and exhibited behaviors associated with those of a sociopath—inebriated with friends in the woods during a week-long bender, he “refereed” a wrestling match that resulted in one man’s neck being broken, killing him. After that, “Nothing happened,” his son Fletcher Junior says. Hanks and friends quite literally got away with murder.
These are the details you must wrestle with when absorbing Hanks’ brief yet astonishingly bizarre and unfathomable comic book career. As Glen David Gold points out in his foreword, Hanks seemed to eschew any normal sense of narrative flow in favor of stringing together a series of strange scenes whose cumulative meaning was often hard to discern. To say that Hanks’ comics are some of the oddest you’ll ever encounter would be criminally understating things. His four-color fantasies are typically just a bit more unhinged than those of his contemporaries. The fisticuffs seem just a tad more real in Hanks’ comics. His characters were often scowling or sneering, seemingly full of contempt for any and every thing they encountered. Their facial expressions mirror what we imagine were Hanks’ own countenance, based on what we know of him.
It’s worth noting that Hanks was one of only a handful of comic book auteurs during his brief stint in the early days of the industry (1939–1941). He wrote, penciled, inked, and lettered his own work. Freed of the opinions of any collaborators, Hanks’ work represents his own highly personal and defiantly peculiar vision. Many comics of his era ended happily with the hero saving the day, getting the girl, and locking up the bad guys. Hanks’ stories were, by contrast, decidedly more dark and foreboding. They’re filled with an abundance of amputated limbs, body horror, and violent retribution. There’s no denying the simple effectiveness of Hanks’ art. His panels, often arranged in a seemingly haphazard manner, were packed tight with outlandish compositions of women riding tigers, headless men, giant animals and insects, Martian ogres, leopard-women, and all manner of objects (including heads) floating through the frame. Hanks’ art was bursting with manic energy, filled with equal parts dynamic and graphic violence.
Stardust (“The super crime wiz, who is busting spy mobs on a lot of planets!”) is one of the more outrageously fascist Superman analogs you’re likely to encounter. The strongman’s power set is seemingly limitless, with previously unseen talents revealed with each story. Certainly, Superman’s earliest appearances contained a menacing quality, as the Man of Steel often terrified both innocents and villains alike with his tremendous displays of power. But with Stardust, Hanks takes it to a new level, presenting a hero who seems hell-bent on exacting the most brutal acts of vengeance possible. When Stardust grabs a villain Hanks shows the man’s body crumple inward due to the sheer force of the hero’s mighty grip. Sure, Stardust may turn you into the interplanetary police, but he’s also just as likely to punch you through a wall or toss you off a cliff. One of Hanks’ other creations, Fantomah (“Mystery Woman of the Jungle”) is more likely to turn you into a half-man, half-beast of some sort as punishment for your defiling of the sacred jungle lands she calls home. Basically, Hanks’ heroes took crime and punishment very seriously.
It’s best to read these stories in small doses, as their relentless pacing—filled with alien invasions, Lovecraftian horrors, and mind-numbing violence—can be wearying. Still, there’s an undeniable pulp wackiness to it all that’s refreshingly entertaining. These comics are bursting with one weird concept after another, tossing ideas off at random from panel to panel. In the first Stardust story in this collection, the following are either alluded to or fully rendered: hot-X fusing liquid, star-metal skin, atom-smashers, artificial lungs, boomerang rays, strange vibrations, and even the tried and true poison gas and typhoid germs. These sorts of absurdist sci-fi and fantasy shenanigans were indicative of the era. Hanks, though, takes these tropes and veers off into a uniquely surrealist territory within his tales of space men, gangster crime, and jungle action.
Befitting what we know of both his life and temperament, Hanks flamed out of comics after two short but explosively creative years. Karasik posits that burnout and alcoholism were likely factors in Hanks dropping out of sight. His work was too incendiary for him to keep up the pace for long. Hanks’ son Ted speculates that his father simply found a rich woman to take care of him, at least for a little while. In 1976 he died alone, broke, and most likely drunk on a park bench in Manhattan. With Turn Loose Our Death Rays and Kill Them All, Fantagraphics provides the complete works of this odd cult figure, this strange shadowy footnote in comic book history. Through this definitive collection, comic book readers and scholars alike can now find a broader understanding of Hanks and his brief but memorable contributions to the medium.