Interview: Paul Karasik Deconstructs Fletcher Hanks Revamp
One of the surprise hits in comics last year was I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets, a collection of stories from Fletcher Hanks, a largely unknown comics creator in the Golden Age who is best described as "the Ed Wood of comics."
The bizarre tales – most featured "space wizard" Stardust, who came up with ever more creative and creepy means of dispatching villains – ended up a critical success, with the book making many "best of" lists, including my own.
The renewed attention to Hanks (his bizarre personal story is recounted with skill in an addendum at the back of I Shall Destroy) recently took another step, as Joe Keatinge and Mike Allred teamed up for an all-new Stardust story featured in the recent debut of Image Comics’ Next Issue Project #1.
Given this surge of attention in Hanks’ work, we thought it would be interesting to catch up with Paul Karasik, who edited I Shall Destroy and contributed the original Hanks background story to the volume.
Let’s just say he wasn’t happy with the new incarnation.
COMICMIX: The works of Fletcher Hanks, and Stardust particularly, have very much lingered in people’s minds and, as the success of I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets shows, retain a substantial appeal. Why do you think that is?
PAUL KARASIK: Fletcher Hanks is a master stylist and people are first attracted to style. Once you know what a Hanks story looks like you can always spot his work. In fact, this is one of the reasons I find it amazing that his work was not "discovered" years ago.
In fact, it seemed to me that many readers of I Shall Destory All the Civilized Planets were intrigued by the discovery aspect of my project. Not only was the work of a major comic book artist uncovered, but there was also a true-life mystery surrounding it all.
Finally, readers simply love the twisted quality of these brutal tales of maniacal retribution.
CMix: Given how dated those comics are and the idiosyncrasies of Hanks’ vision, should those comics be resuscitated by new creators?
PK: I can’t imagine a single reason to recreate Hanks’ work. It’s the same idea as remaking films you liked when you were younger. The impulse is fundamentally flawed and the results are categorically disastrous.
CMix: When reviving something like Stardust, what responsibilities are there to the original comic, in terms of retaining certain features or qualities?
PK: Again, why bother? Look, Hanks was an auteur. That is: he wrote, penciled, lettered and inked his own work. These stories are thoroughly the work of one hand attached to one brain. It seems ludicrous and presumptuous to me to think that another artist would try to bring them alive.
CMix: What was your opinion of the new Stardust story, especially when holding it next to the original comics? I don’t mean necessarily to critique them against each other, but to see your opinion of where Keatinge and Allred took the story thematically.
PK: I am not out to make enemies here and I’m sure that these guys have done good work elsewhere, but I could barely read this thing let alone compare it thematically. For me their story [Page one seen at right] is built on such a wrong-headed premise that it is hard for me to approach it. I know that I am biased and come prepared to hate it. Unfortuately, it succeeds only in meeting all of my preconceptions. Stardust as the benevolent savior of mankind? Puh-lease!
CMix: What were the aspects of the new story that you liked most? And, conversely, what did you like the least?
PK: Gee, what did I like? Well the lettering inside the balloons is pretty good, but even the lettering is sabotaged by balloons that are too cramped. The whole enterprise has a slapped-together feel to it. Even the boxed narration looks slapped down. Aside from the bankrupt premise, I guess that I hated the ugliness of it all especially those drab fuzzy cut-and-pasted Photoshopped buildings. I have seen Allred’s work elsewhere and know that he can compose a page. This is a good example of how Photoshop can ruin a person’s design sense. By not doing it by hand it is easy to lose touch with the page. In contrast, Hanks’ artwork is bright, fresh and 100-percent handmade. It’s so alive. This story feels dead, dead, dead. And what the hell does Little Nemo have to do with anything?
CMix: Was the story able to capture that somewhat intangible, fascinating quality of Hanks’ style and tone that has made it so popular?
PK: In my Comics Narrative class last week at RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] I wanted to show the students how a master constructs a multi-page comic book story. Before I did so, I showed them a typically incompetent war story from 1952 done for an Atlas book by an anonymous artist. It is a story jam-packed with incompetence. Characters move haphazardly across the page confusing the reader in a manner that seems almost purposefully inept. Weird tangents and odd balloon placement all work against telling the story in a straightforward manner. Then I showed the class a war story from the same year by Harvey Kurtzman.
By NOT capturing those intangible Hanksian qualities in such a forceful way, the creators of this new Stardust story have helped put into focus what makes Hanks work so superior. Thanks, guys!
CMix: Are you working on any comics material now? Any plans for more material on Hanks?
PK: I am working on a book with Mark Newgarden deconstructing a three-panel Nancy strip by Ernie Bushmiller.
Actually, Bushmiller is another good example of mangled genius. When the syndicate decided to continue the daily adventures of Nancy and Sluggo they had a hell of a time finding an artist to take over the chores. He makes it seem so easy! Again, looking at the work of Bushmiller’s successors really clarifies those qualities of design, brevity, pacing and, yes, wit, that make Bushmiller one of the greatest of all cartoonists (and I do not mean this flippantly).
CMix: Thanks for speaking with ComicMix, Paul.
UPDATE 03/18/08 10:44 AM EST – Paul Karasik has requested the following addendum to this interview:
PK: It is now two days after this interview has been posted and I regret it. Joe Keatinge said some very nice things about my book on his blog that I appreciate and in turn I have said nothing but bad things about his work. My comments were not meant in a mean-spirited way and I stand by them, I just now wish I had kept them to myself. Bad form on me and my apologies to Mr. Keatinge and Mr. Allred.
Many thanks to Paul Karasik. To learn more about Fletcher Hanks, you can visit Karasik’s Fletcher Hanks site.