When looking at a list of Golden Age greats, well-known names are at the top of the list – Bob Kane, Will Eisner, Lou Fine, Alex Schomburg, Jack Cole, Mac Raboy, Jack Kirby. Those are among the names with which collectors become most familiar as they begin to delve into Golden Age comics. However, as one learns more about the Golden Age and its historical and cultural importance, the list of greats begins to grow larger. One name, in particular, begins to stand out – Fletcher Hanks.
Fletcher Hanks’ work appears in only a few dozen comics in the Golden Age. Nearly all of them were published by Fiction House or Fox Features Syndicate. And yet, in his work can be found an influential precursor for comic book artists to this very day.
Hanks was a rarity in the Golden Age, handling all of the work in his stories – writing, pencils, inks, and letters. He used these skills to create some of the more bizarre and hyper-violent – even for those times – characters of the Golden Age. Most of the stories these characters appeared in were formulaic in their structure.
What truly set them apart, however, was the inventiveness with which Hanks had the heroes dispatch the villains. It was typically in a violent manner that is shocking even by today’s standards – disintegration, freezing, decapitation, etc. Not what one would expect from a super-hero. The villains, in turn, are more what we’re accustomed to nowadays. Lunatics out to destroy civilization, rather than the typical Golden Age robbers and kidnappers. Their machinations included stopping gravity on Earth. Also, loosing dozens of jungle cats in Manhattan to prey on the slow and the weak.
Stardust the Super Wizard
The Super Wizard, Stardust, first appeared in Fantastic Comics #1 and his stories were published in each of the first 16 issues of that series as well as Big 3 #2. Stardust was one of those ridiculously powerful Golden Age super-heroes. His abilities included mastery of space and planetary forces, super strength, super speed, endurance, and ESP. Plus, a star-metal suit that made him invulnerable, and a nifty ray belt which he primarily used to disintegrate his foes. Hanks drew Stardust with exaggerated anatomy. He was ridiculously tall and overly buff. One can definitely see a precursor to the works of many of the more popular artists of the 1990s. This is particularly evident in the overly small heads and overly large torsos.
As weird as Stardust is, Hanks’s most bizarre work can be found in the exploits of Fantomah. The Mystery Woman of the Jungle, as she was known, first appeared in Jungle Comics #2, and her adventures can be found in consecutive issues of that series up through #15.
Often claimed to be the first female super-hero, – predating Wonder Woman, – Hanks typically drew Fantomah as a fashionable woman of the late 1930s/early 1940s with flowing stylish golden hair. It’s only when she uses her ill-defined powers that Fantomah’s skin turns blue and her face becomes a skull – but those lovely locks stay the same! One can easily see in her features and her powers a forerunner of Marvel’s Ghost Rider. Like Stardust, she too gets her revenge on the villains in hideous ways. One of the more gruesome ones was allowing a mad doctor’s demon gorillas to tear him limb from limb.
Collecting Fletcher Hanks
Very few graded copies exist of the comics in which Fletcher Hanks’ stories and art appear. Only Planet Comics #2 has a number of graded copies in excess of 40, while the number of graded copies of some issues of Fantastic Comics is in the single digits. As a result, sales are few and far between, and when they do occur it’s an event. The one 9.6 graded copy of Jungle Comics #1 – featuring Hanks creation Tabu the Jungle Wizard – last sold in March 2017 for $78,000, while one of only two 1.5 graded copies sold in February of this year for $525. And that’s just two of the 40 graded copies in the CGC census. Clearly, these are rare books. That’s the great joy of collecting Golden Age comic books. It’s a hunt for true treasures of artistic and historical significance.
Back to Fletcher Hanks, his personal tale is not one that most people would find redeeming. He was an abusive husband/father and a drunk who stole his kids’ money and left them in 1930. He later dropped out of the comic book world in 1941. Little is known about his life after that point until he was found frozen to death on a Manhattan park bench in 1976. He didn’t even have a dime to his name.