Friday, December 25, 2009

FLETCHER HANKS DISCOVERY: "Moe M. Down," from Great Comics (1941)

Here's a fascinating bit of comix archaeology. You may have heard of Fletcher Hanks--the mysterious Golden Age comic book creator who wrote and drew highly sinister, violent and freaky jungle, super-hero and space-opera stories from 1939 to 1942.

Hanks' super-hero, jungle and he-man comix have been compiled in two handsome-yet-disturbing trade paperbacks published by Fantagraphics Books. Cartoonist/comix researcher Paul Karasik did an outstanding job on these books. The first volume includes a haunting docu-comic, by Karasik, about how he uncovered the dark truth about the life of Fletcher Hanks.

Both books come highly recommended, and are easily available through (you might also see them--gasp!--on a bookstore shelf if you're lucky. But don't count on it.) (Click HERE for more info.)

The bulk of the notorious Hanks' work was done for the Fox Comics Company. All of it--even the back-woods he-man feature "Big Red McLane of the North Woods"--is deadly serious in nature.

As I continue to learn, via my research into the comix work of writer-artist John Stanley (see my blog, STANLEY STORIES, for more information), the archaeology of early comic books is by no means over.

With the boom in digital scanning of rare old comic magazines, these fetish-items have been taken out of the hostage of collections and been made available for actual study. By digging through over-looked, avoided titles, we continue to find surprising discoveries.

Here's a humorous feature from 1941, for a small comix company, that may not be written by Hanks, but it's clearly drawn by him! Many of his visual "tells" are present in these two five-page stories.

The title character strongly resembles Hanks' Stardust, the Super-Wizard--but with a google-eyed, tongue-lolling cartoon head grafted to his heroic physique.

The discovery of these stories puts a curious twist in the Fletcher Hanks legend--that this violent, cruel man created only dark, brutal tales of Biblical-style vengeance. "Moe M. Down" is a quick-blend of "Joe Palooka," Damon Runyon-esque pop culture cliches, and a hint of Al Capp's "Li'l Abner."

Hanks' attempts at bigfoot cartooning come off like a half-hearted collaboration of Basil Wolverton and rural cartoonist Norman Pettingill. The stories aren't really successful--they're not funny. But oh, are they peculiar!

Here is the first "Moe M. Down" story, from the debut issue of Great Comics. It and the companion book Choice Comics were published by Great Comics Publications (see the indicia for the first issue following this first story.)

A mish-mash of oddball adventure/super-hero stuff, factual/historical material and miserable bigfoot-style comics, the innards of Great Comics Publication's output appears to come from the S. M. Iger shop. Iger had partnered with Will Eisner on this concern in the 1930s.

When asked about Fletcher Hanks, Eisner only vaguely recalled him--and remembered only that Hanks could be counted on to turn in his work on-time. (In such a ramshackle business as 1930s comic books, reliability was indeed an asset!)

"Moe M. Down" lived in the back half of Great Comics, which housed the magazine's undelightful "funny" comix. Amidst the slick, rococo cartooning of the Iger shop (which includes intensely detailed artwork by Rudy Palais and Charles Sultan), Hanks' blunt, bold cartooning stands out in sore-thumb relief.

Here are the cover, and the "Moe M. Down" story, from issue #2 of Great Comics. More striking Hanks "tells" decorate this story. Dig the woman in the splash panel, for example! As well, the artist's eccentric rendering of the human form, and of the drape and volume of clothing, are dead giveaways of Fletcher Hanks' work.

The splash panel is an (unintentional?) lampoon of Hanks' final "Red McLane" story, from the Fiction House title, Fight Comics. That story was published in the magazine's September, 1940 issue--a year or so before this story saw print.

UPDATE ON 1/2/10: Paul Karasik informs me that the "see ya next issue" blurb, in the above story, is just wishful thinking:

This just in... a collector with a copy of Great Comics #3 informs me that there is no Hanks tale inside...too bad... too, too bad...

Sigh... too much to hope for. But, in the meantime, the mere existence of these two odd stories is certainly a wonderful effed-up Yuletide gift to the universe!

POST SCRIPT: Paul Karasik's comments on this post lead me to toss another theory on the table. What if these are alterations of the "McLane" stories? I don't have a copy of Karasik's second book on hand, but, as I think of it, it seems that there are many recognizable panels, especially from the final "McLane" story.

Were these stories done for the Iger shop? If so, would Iger have retained the originals? As this series didn't really catch on, was Iget trying to get some extra mileage from a commercial flop?

As at least one "McLane" story was retitled, slightly altered and reprinted later in the '40s, this would make these stories appear to be owned by the Iger shop. It's horrifying to consider how little respect Iger had for his studio's output.

Were one to search for them, there may be other cases of repurposed Iger shop material in 1940s comics. There are enough obscure, uninviting comix from the 1940s--especially in the middle of the decade--that it's quite possible.

It's a tough job, sifting through these dull, hapless funnybooks!

I agree with Karasik: the bridging material doesn't look like Hanks' way of drawing. Many of the oogly-eyed faces appear to be another artist's work. And the complete blandness of the stories goes against the Hanks grain. His stories were many things, but they were never quaint or dull.

Is "Moe M. Down" an early comix mash-up? Or is it an example of cynical recycling? The jury will ponder these peculiar findings and, I hope, render a verdict.

POST-POST SCRIPT: Paul Karasik writes back with more comments on these stories:

I guess I just did not want to believe it to be true, but I take it all back.

Not that anyone cares but me...BUT....I spent a looong time looking at these pages again today
and have come to the conclusion that they are, in fact by Hanks.

The second story is taken directly from the final Big Red McLane tale with the captions rewritten and the faces re-rendered (possibly by another hand).

But the first story really had me stumped, so many of the compositions are un-Hanksian but ultimately tiny details such as hair-rendering, crowd-rendering , and big details like, yes, anatomy have made me change my mind.

I knew that sooner or later it would happen: the undiscovered Fletcher Hanks has been discovered.

Well, whaddaya know? Remember, folks--you read (and saw) it HERE first!