Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Fletcher Hanks Destroys New York!

Words: Christopher Irving

In the Golden Age of comic book history, when teenagers were scrawling out primitively-drawn comic book heroes for mostly unscrupulous publishers with shady backgrounds and questionable connections, one artist destroyed New York City over, and over, and over…

The mastermind, Fletcher Hanks, repeatedly trashed the city from a small studio in Tudor City, and for a publisher as unscrupulous and crooked as several of the villains in Fantomah or Stardust. Expressively drawn and pulsating with violence, Hanks’ work saw print for Fox Comics, run by the notorious early comics crook Victor Fox. As history would show, Hanks was the definitive tortured artist and Fox the definitive sleazy publisher of the early ‘40s. One has to wonder how an actual meeting of the two minds would have gone.

The legendary story of Victor Fox is that he was a former accountant for the future DC Comics, and that he packed up his papers when he realized how much money was in the funnybooks, and then started his own publishing venture.

Most of the fun of hearing about the Golden Age is the evolution of hearsay into legend, especially in the case of Victor Fox. What is known is that Victor Fox was born in Nottinghamshire, England on July 3, 1893 as Samuel Victor Fox. His parents, Joseph and Bessie Fox, were Russians who had emigrated before his birth, finding their way across the Atlantic to America by March, 1898. They settled in Bristol, Massachusetts by 1900, where Joseph was a storekeeper before making the move to New York City in 1917.

Once in the Big Apple, he started a women’s clothing business, while living on 555 West 151st Street; Samuel inexplicably switched his name to Victor Samuel, and became the head of exporting for the family business.

According to Victor's June 5, 1917 draft card, he had earlier served six months as a First Lieutenant in the Army. The draft card also describes him as being of medium height and stout, with gray eyes and black hair (which corresponds with the general description given by those who knew the man). Apparently not one for military service, Fox attempted to exempt from duty since he exported the military uniforms his father had started manufacturing...a matter of either coincidence or design. His business office was listed as 42 East 20th Street.

Who Was Who in America listed Fox as Chairman of Consolidated Maritime Lines, Inc. from 1919 to 1922, becoming an Industrial Engineer for reorgns. to large corporations until 1935.

April 19, 1927 saw the 27 year-old Fox involved in a lawsuit against the Palmer and Parker Company, whom Fox and Company had subchartered to transport mahogany logs from Gold Coast, Africa to Boston in 1920. Two years later, on November 26, 1929, Fox was arraigned for operating a "boiler room" scheme, where he sold good stocks in exchange for bad ones, and failed to deliver "unissued" stocks. Fox, at the time, was operating under two business names: "Fox Motor and Bank Stocks" and "American Common Stocks, Inc."

Apparently, by 1936, Victor started publishing astrology magazines under the pen name “Zarius Zeus”. Chances are he found enough minimum success with those to encourage him to tackle publishing comic books by 1939. Fox wasn’t alone, as thought balloons with dollar signs erupted all over New York City, with so-called publishers renting out closet-sized offices and farming out the work to exploited kids and wanna-be illustrators.

Luckily for Victor Fox, he had a lead to Universal Phoenix, the first “comic book studio”, founded by a fast-talking businessman named Jerry Iger, and a boy wonder cartoonist named Will Eisner.

Will Eisner & Jerry Iger met in 1936, they produced the short-lived WOW! What A Magazine, one of the earliest forays into comic books with original material. It was only a year before WOW! folded and the two became partners; Because he came up with the $15 capital to rent an office, Eisner got top billing.

Pictures show Iger as a well-coiffed man with pencil-thin moustache and pinstripe suits and Eisner a handsome kid with a high forehead. Iger was born to Austrian immigrant parents in 1903 New York and was then transplanted to Oklahoma for a good amount of his childhood. Returning to New York in 1916, Iger would later land a job at the famous Fleischer animation studios in Manhattan in 1922. From there, he would work for the Hearst-run New York American for a decade as a staff artist. After that, he answered a 1936 ad to become editor of WOW!, where he had his fateful meeting with Eisner.

Bill Eisner (as he was called then) truly was the product of both his immigrant parents: his father had been a set painter and his mother a very practical and business-like woman. Raised with the dichotomy of his father's artistic passion and his mother's practical nature, Eisner developed a shrewd business sense at a young age while functioning as a ground-breaking artist.

Their Universal Phoenix studio was a packaging shop for comics, at first all drawn by Eisner under various pseudonyms. That soon changed when they hired out a bullpen, and the studio was set up in a large room with a row of drawing boards along the wall, with Eisner's being set in the center at one end of the room. Pages would be passed down from penciler to penciler, hashing out dialogue, figures, backgrounds, then another one or two would ink backgrounds and figures. This assembly line process let the studio hash stories out like there was no tomorrow. Eisner jokingly described the set-up like a "Roman galley”.

The stable of talent at Eisner & Iger included legends like Lou Fine (who would go down as one of the Golden Age's true masters), Mort Meskin (who would later enjoy a partnership with artist Jerry Robinson), Bob Kane (eventual co-creator of Batman for DC/ Detective), Nicholas Viscardi (a.k.a. Nick Cardy, known for his run on Teen Titans and a slew of DC westerns), Alex Blum, Jim Mooney, and Bob Powell.

And, of course, Fletcher Hanks.

To call Fletcher Hanks a superstar artist of early comics would be an exaggeration. He has, over the past few years, been recognized as one of history’s best kept secrets, and enigmatic figure who churned out inimitable and oddly-flavored comic stories.

Historian and cartoonist Paul Karasik found his own personal windmill in Hanks’ work. A chance to meet the son of the enigmatic cartoonist led him to the truth about the life and death of Hanks.

Born in 1887 to a Methodist preacher, Hanks grew up in a small Maryland shore town. The spoiled rascal enrolled in a correspondence cartoonist course, and grew into an abusive alcoholic. Married with four children, Hanks eventually abandoned his family, running off with his 12 year-old son’s meager savings. Hanks surfaced in New York City by the late ‘30s, finding a spot in the Eisner and Iger studio.

Where Universal Phoenix was an assembly line set-up, Eisner recalled to Karasik that Hanks was the only cartoonist who did it all, even down to the lettering.

Anxious to start his comics empire on the backs of Universal Phoenix, Victor Fox called on Eisner and Iger’s services.

“[Fox] decided to start his own publishing company, and called and got in touch with Jerry Iger, my partner, and we began doing work for him on a contract basis,” Eisner recalled in 2000.

The Fox line of comics, started by Eisner and crew, featured a bevy of superheroes: Lou Fine’s The Flame, and The Blue Beetle (who eventually became the small company’s star), The Green Mask. Of the Fox characters that didn’t make it to the cover were Fletcher’s Fantomah and Stardust the Super-Wizard.

Maybe it’s because they were just too weird.

To read Fletcher Hank’s work is to feel as if you’re in the middle of a bender or looking in between the stars that come out of a knock on the head by a blackjack. The figures were often oddly proportioned – over-developed if hero or villain – and the villains as distorted as an extra from Dick Tracy.

His two leading heroes were Stardust, the Super-Wizard, and Fantomah the ghostly jungle goddess. Also in there was the lumberjack Big Red McLane, as well as interchangeable spacemen Space Smith and Whirlwind Carter.

The stories are permeated with violence and an odd sense of justice: the heroes, while always aware of the villain’s scheme from the get-go, never arrive until the chaos and havoc have been wreaked. Then, they dispense their odd sense of justice: Stardust turns a fifth columnist into a rat (with a human face, no less), Fantomah throws a mad scientist amongst a pack of his bloodthirsty gorillas (arms and legs flying from the pile of enclosing simian bodies), and spaceman Whirlwind Carter forces an alien race off the edge of a glacial cliff to their doom.

What was the point of these periodically tardy superheroes? Was the reason behind their lateness so the innocents would have reason to witness their powers?

New York was repeatedly the target of a typical Hanks’ baddie: Martian ogres fight over the skies of a blacked out Manhattan; other variations of Martian take over New York, only to be gassed; and in one, a tsunami wrecks the city.

But through all the mutations, distortions, stock punches, and crudely drawn figures, there is a certain beauty to Hanks’ work. Fantomah, when not vamped out with a skull for a head, is a lovely blonde with supple curves. People in his stories, usually under the influence of a cosmic raygun, float upwards into the sky and space. A few of his stories feature figures solemnly floating in the stratosphere above the green and blue Earth – as if Rene Magritte went just a little more cosmic on his canvases. Of course, in typical Hanks’ style, all the figures fall back to Earth in one story, crushed to death by the fall.

His stories aren’t about justice, so much as vengeance, his characters acting as gods or demi-gods, meting out death to their enemies. The only exception to the rule is Big Red McLane, the lumberjack (later turned boxer), who is the only example of strip continuity in Hanks’ entire arsenal, and the only legitimate “good guy”.

Eisner and Iger parted ways with Fox, after the publisher not only failed to pay them, but also over a lawsuit with the future DC Comics. Amongst the first stories for Fox was Wonder Man, a red-clad bulletproof superhero with a magic Tibetan ring. Combined with his timid alter-ego, he was an awful lot like Superman for the time. National Comics thought so, and took it to court. When Eisner refused to testify that Wonder Man was his idea (he had the notes given to him by Fox, outlining the character), Fox withheld their $3,000 payment from them.

Eisner left Universal Phoenix to produce his own comic strip, The Spirit, in a special color Sunday supplement, while Iger kept producing and packaging comic book stories. Victor Fox died of a heart attack in the late ‘50s, after several more years of publishing comics on and off between bankruptcies. Fletcher Hanks stopped appearing in comics after just a few years.

History shows that Fletcher Hanks wasn’t a gentle or poetic soul: he started his life as a brash young man and ended it frozen on a park bench as an old man. He was violent and selfish, a drunkard and abusive father. Chances are, he didn’t give the Fox Comics stories more thought than it took to do them, getting his page rate for the next round at the nearby pub in Tudor City. And, chances are also that we twitch and wrack our brains to find some deeper-seated meaning in his work, looking between the panels of these stories that are pure genius in their bizarre approach and ugly world, and impose our own views of his nightmarish stories.

Chances are, after reading both highly recommended compilations of the artist’s work by Fantagraphics – I Shall Destroy All Civilized Planets! and You Shall Die By Your Own Creation! – back to back, the brain winds up fried and turned to mush, a numbing fix of comics that would have been immensely successful as “comix” twenty plus years later.

For more on Victor Fox, read Christopher's book that details the publishing history of Fox and The Blue Beetle. Also highly recommended is historian Jon Berk's in-depth article on Fox Comics available here.

Also recommended is Paul Karasik's site on Fletcher Hanks, as well as both his compilations from Fantagraphics.