Entertainment

A Strange Tale Starring the First Female Superhero

Look at the work of Fletcher Hanks and appreciate the beauty created by a monster.

by Fletcher Hanks
Nov 16 2016, 12:00am

This story appeared in the November issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

Fletcher Hanks was born in December 1887. He grew up in Oxford, Maryland. When he was 23 years old, his indulgent mother paid for him to take a correspondence course in cartooning. Two years later, he married. According to Fletcher Hanks Jr., his second child of four, Hanks was an abusive father and an alcoholic. He made money by painting murals for wealthy people in Westchester and then spent all of it on alcohol. Hanks Jr. says his father once bought a barrel of whiskey and rolled it into the forest with four friends for a weeklong bender. Over the course of the week, the men decided to wrestle, and one man accidentally broke another man's neck. No one was ever punished.

In 1930, Hanks left his family. He disappeared without a word, along with all the money that his not-yet-adolescent son had saved mending fishing nets in town.

For only two years, between 1939 and 1941, at the outset of the golden age of comic books, Hanks drew and published work with four publishers. Renowned cartoonist Paul Karasik described Hanks as "the first great comic book auteur," because he wrote, penciled, inked, and lettered all of his own stories. His work is so strange it is often described as "outsider art," but Hanks was a journeyman insider, working at a fevered pace to earn a living and support his drinking habit. His art is weird, naïve, and dreamy, and he never fails at telling a story. And many other sophisticated aspects shine. His work fetishizes punishment and keeps showing people hanging in the air. He drew his superhero Stardust flying facedown, so he looks like he's drowning. Most of his panels include abstract compositions of celestial patterns or silhouetted figures floating in space. Many superheroes of the era focus on saving the innocent, but Hanks's characters are much more interested in punishing the guilty. In fact, the comic's stories are often merely setups for the heroes to unleash bizarre torture on the villains.

Hanks stopped drawing abruptly in 1941; no one knows why. Family members speculate that he married a wealthy woman, and no longer needed to work for a living. Comic book artists speculate that he burned out. Hanks Jr. arranged to see his father one time, years after he abandoned the family. It was in a hotel lobby in New York City. It did not go well. Hanks, drunk, asked his son for money. Many years later, he was found dead, frozen on a park bench in Manhattan on January 22, 1976.

The following comic centers on Hanks's second most popular creation, Fantomah, the first female superhero. Look at the beautiful color of the mud used to punish the villainous white explorer. Look and appreciate the beauty created by a monster.NICK GAZIN, ART EDITOR

Turn Loose Our Death Rays and Kill Them All: The Complete Works of Fletcher Hanks ships November 16 from Fantagraphics.

This story appeared in the November issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.