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12 November 2009, 9:00 am 9 Comments

Paul Karasik: The New Gay Interview

TNG Contributor Paul Morton submits this post.

pk1This fall, Fantagraphics published a second collection by a Golden Age cartoonist whose name, until a few years ago, was only familiar to the most devout comic book enthusiasts: Fletcher Hanks. Hanks worked at Will Eisner’s studio from 1939 to 1941, and left behind him a body of work far more violent and hilarious than that of any of his contemporary superhero fabulists. His heroes were malevolent gods.  Stardust, a space wizard with enormous pectoral muscles, foils the plots of criminals on Earth. In one story, a mastermind who attempts to eliminate the Earth’s gravity is punished by being placed in a frozen chamber in space where he will be forced to contemplate his crimes for all eternity.  Fantomah, a muscular jungle protectress, turns into a Skeletor-like being with blonde hair when her domain is threatened.

What kind of man was Fletcher Hanks? Paul Karasik, a cartoonist who edited both of his collections, I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! (2006) and You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation! (2009), has done a considerable amount of detective work these last few years in piecing together his life. He met his son, Fletcher Hanks, Jr., six years ago and therein learned a few basic, unpleasant facts. Hanks was a brutal man, a drunk who severely abused his wife and children. He walked out on his family in the middle of the Great Depression before settling into an apartment in Brooklyn where he did his work for Eisner. The comic book culture of the Golden Age was famously youthful and mostly populated by white ethnics. As we popularly remember them, they were generally weak, nerdy creatures imagining themselves as supermen. Hanks was a different breed. He was in his early 50s when he sat down to tackle the form. And he was a muscular rough man from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Karasik does not know why he walked away from comics in 1941. And he still doesn’t know what journey he went on in the next four decades that led to his death, frozen on a park bench, in 1976.

Since the first book was published three years ago, Fletcher Hanks has enjoyed a revival. The fans Karasik meets are often superhero-afficionados, cartoonist freaks, or hip McSweeney’s readers interested in the newest camp classic. He had imagined the books would attract a gay audience. Hanks’s heroes have a proto-Tom of Finland quality. And his heroine Fantomah has a vampish Joan Crawford appeal. After you read our interview, you’re welcome to judge for yourself.

TNG Paul: You noted in the introduction that Fletcher Hanks was responsible for the death of at least one person in a fight that he organized among his buddies. In a later era, he almost certainly would have been arrested for murder.

Paul Karasik: Well, I asked his son what happened out there. [Hanks] made enough money to buy a barrel of whiskey, and he and his buddies rolled into the woods. He refereed a wrestling fight that got drunkenly out of hand, and one of the guys broke [another] guy’s neck. So he didn’t do a very good refereeing job.

I asked two of his sons about this, because I couldn’t believe there were no consequences about this. And they both agreed that the local police force – of which there was probably one cop in Oxford, Maryland – was actually relieved that there was one less bum in town that he had to deal with on a day-to-day basis. It was a rough and tumble town and it was different times back then.

TNG: You pointed out how beautifully and lovingly he renders crushed bones and the contortions tortured bodies go through. How much does it disturb you knowing that he got that from firsthand experience, that it wasn’t the work of pure imagination?

PK: Well, it simultaneously disturbs me and enriches my reading of his work to know what his experience was and what kind of guy he was…[Does] learning about the life of William Faulkner increase your appreciation of The Sound and the Fury? Not really. But I think in the case of Fletcher Hanks [knowing about his life] definitely is valuable in deepening our appreciation of his work.

TNG: The punishments Hanks comes up with are out of Dante. He comes up with these really bizarre visual puns to express cosmic retribution. He must have read The Inferno at some point, at least in a high school classroom.

pk2PK: It’s likely. [But it more likely came from his] father, a minister, filled with hellfire and brimstone at the pulpit. I think that could make a very strong impression on a child. Especially, if it’s preached not only at the pulpit, but at the dinner table…I think the graphic variety in his work [is remarkable]. Many of his stories follow a very specific story arc template: an aloof omnipresent hero looking down on some bad guys planning to do something awful. The bad guys carry out their plan, people suffer at the hands of the bad guys, the hero swoops down and then metes out this flaming sword of punishment.

What’s remarkable [is] that [in] story after story he comes up with new ways of depicting holocausts. He never repeats himself in terms of his visual language.

TNG: Comics of this era are astonishingly racist. There was Ebony in “The Spirit,” and that was hardly the worst thing that was out there. And then there was the way the Japanese were depicted. But you pointed out that though there’s clearly an element of racism in Hanks’s work, he also draws black people the way they look in real life.

PK: Yeah, it’s very strange, because I can’t really think of any other cartoonist specifically of that era who did not draw a terrified black person without the big eyes bulging and the liver lips quaking.  [Hanks’s] jungle people look like Africans. They just look like normal human beings that happen to be colored black. This is not to say that the whole conceit is not a racist conceit: the white jungle protectress with sultry curves keeping a watchful eye on everything that happens in the jungle to save these black people from extinction or having the tomb of the elephants’ graveyard robbed or something like that.

I’d like to also point out that though he drew the Africans looking like Africans, there is a Stardust story with a Japanese villain whose plot is to rob Fort Knox with his gang. And I think the war’s already started at this point…He does draw this character with severely slanted eyes, although not in a kimono, but in a business suit. And the name of the character is Slant Eye. So he’s not free of racism himself. I don’t know where this peculiarity of drawing black people to look like black people comes from. [Laughs]

TNG: You saw a lot of parallels between Hanks’s life and work. [In a slide show he gave at the Politics and Prose bookstore on Oct. 18,] you talk about him beating his wife and then you show the erased face of Fantomah before she turns into the Skeletor character. Or you talk about him freezing to death on a park bench and you show the punishment one of the villains suffers where he is frozen for all eternity.

pk3PK: Fletcher Hanks had no idea he was going to end up frozen to death on a park bench. I guarantee you that. That’s something none of us would imagine for ourselves. When his son told me that my mind lept to that particular story, which is really one of my favorite ones, where Stardust carries the guy who gets rid of all the gravity on the earth and metes out his punishment by sending him to a prison where he’s frozen just enough to be able to contemplate his life and his crimes for all eternity. And when his son told me the fate of his father I asked him to repeat it. I couldn’t believe it. The hair on the back of my head just stood straight up. It was sort of at that moment that I knew that I had to do this project. It’s just the true-life poetic justice mimicking the fictionalized poetic justice created [35 years] earlier.

TNG: You dedicate the second book to his son. He was a fighter pilot in World War II. He seems to have an All-American decency about him. How jarring did you find it that someone like Fletcher Hanks who drew these comics could have fathered someone like that?

PK: Okay, this is a long answer. When I first met Fletcher Jr. as far as I was concerned I thought he was an impediment between me and what I thought would be a stack of comics books or original comic book art by his father. Over the course of my interview what happened was very interesting. I learned what a terrible person his father was, a villain. And I learned about Fletcher Jr.’s story. Fletcher Jr. was so traumatized by his father that he was an emotional wreck. His teachers thought he was retarded because he couldn’t speak in class. He couldn’t articulate. He was so messed up by his father. His earliest memory of his dad is being kicked down the stairs by him when he was four-years-old. When his father left home, he had a garden and as a 10-year-old boy, [he became] the breadwinner of the family. He fixed fishing nets. He earned a dime here, a nickel there, put money in the bank and food on the table for his family. He grew up to be this heroic pilot during World War II. He was an inventor. He was a shell fisherman. He started the first triathlon in the state of Maryland. [He was] very much a self-made man.  So as the father became the villain, the son in fact became a heroic figure to me. I was very impressed with how far he had gone.

At the same time, although you used the words “all-American decency” he had his flaws as well. He told me once while we were talking…rather proudly, “I’m a Bircher.” I couldn’t believe my ears. I never thought in my lifetime I would hear somebody say that they were either symbolically or a card-carrying member of the John Birch Society.  And I don’t know how great a father he was himself. He died last year and I went to his memorial service with my mom and a friend to the Eastern Shore. And not one of his own children came to the memorial. He’s kind of a hero to me, but at the same time I have mixed feelings about him. He wasn’t the greatest guy in the world, but you can’t be damaged the way he was damaged and walk away scot-free.

TNG: That’s a revelation I don’t want to have.

PK: Yeah, that’s the reason why it took me so long to get to it. I don’t think I wanted to have it either. But, once again, I think it deepens the story in another chilling way.

TNG: The sins of the father have been visited on the son and God knows what his own kids are doing. Have you thought about tracking down [Fletcher Hanks, Jr.’s] children?

PK: Yeah, I have.

TNG: Have you been successful at all?

PK: No, I have not.

TNG: They just don’t want to talk to you?

PK: I’ve had unreturned messages and I just didn’t pursue it anymore. Part of me is just sick of being the Fletcher Hanks guy. When I interviewed [Fletcher Hanks, Jr.] – now it’s six years ago – I never imagined that it was going to take over my creative life. And with the success of the first book, winning the Eisner Award, the success of the second book now, I’ve had enough of the whole thing. But…I didn’t really choose to do this story. This story chose me. And it continues to choose me. So as much as I’d like to shake it, I’m sure something’s going to happen that’s going to pull me back down to it. This probably happens to detectives and crime reporters all the time. I’m just a cartoonist and a teacher. It’s new to me.

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