For a moment I forgot the title of this Fletcher Hanks book, and was convinced it was actually All your base are belong to us. That’s not right, of course — the real title of the book is I Shall Destroy All Civilized Planets! But the slip up isn’t exactly an accident either. He’s a lot like a mangled, mistranslated Internet catch-phrase; a lot of his appeal is the outsider-art one of being naive/incompetent in a surprising way.
The fetishization of outsider art is always a little uneasy. Outsider artists are, by definition, distant from centers of cultural power, and their kooky stories (insane, marginal, loopy) are often as important to their mystique as the art itself. So you end up with a lot of cultural elites patting themselves on the back because they get the genius of this artist and understand him in a way that normal people don’t. It’s a way for bourgeois hipsters (a redundancy, of course) to pretend that they’re actually more prole than the proles. It’s icky — and it’s certainly in full effect here. The book includes a final section by editor Paul Karasik which is, rather presumptiously, in comics form. Anyway, Karasik repeatedly points out that he recognizes the genius that is Hanks even though most people (Karasik’s mother, Hanks’ own son) do not. We also get the scanty biographical details which place Hanks firmly as an outsider — he was a mean drunk, a wife-beater, and a child-abuser, who died penniless. No quite Henry Darger, but it’ll do.
The thing is, you know, I’m a bourgeois hipster myself, and I do think Darger is brilliant. Hanks too, for that matter. His use of color alone is stunning: lots of solid contrasting areas of, bright, almost lurid tones; Lichtenstein or Warhol would eat their hearts out. Fantagraphics reproduces each shade lovingly, and the result is marvelous. The drawing is also distinctive and energetic; stiff stylized poses, weirdly bland faces for the heroes, exaggeratedly twisted features for the villains. Hanks is also amazingly imaginative, in that way that outsider art can be — making connections that are weird and lovely, in an aphasiac kind of way. In a typical story, a crime syndicate distributes an oxygen destroying ray so that it is beside every single important person in America. They set off the ray by remote control and everyone starts to suffocate. But Stardust the super-wizard sees they’re evil plotand appears in a flash. He destorys the radio outlet, finds the gang leader resonsible, and shoots a ray at him which makes his head grow large and his body shrink. Then he takes the bodiless headand take sit to the “space pocket of living death, where the headless headhunter dwells! He’s the hugest giant in the known universe!” Stardust throws the head into the space pocket, where it lands on the headhunter’s headless shoulders, and then sinks into its body. Stardust returns to earth, attracts all the remaining gangmembers to a central place, and uses his rays to turn them all into a single person. then he sends them off into space. The end.
This is the basic Hanks plot (more or less). The stories generally involve a hideous and unlikely plot (creating an enomrous tidal wave, or making earth and venus run into each other, or stopping the earth’s rotation so everyone will fly into space and the bad guys can have the planet to themselves (the bad guys hold themselves to the earth with chains, you see, so they won’t be affected.)) The omnipotent super-hero waits until some fairly large number of people have been killed, then swoops down and enacts a bizarre and gruesome multi-stage revenge.
Obviously this is all totally tripped out, and there are a bunch of testimonials from aging hippies — R. Crumb calling Hanks a “twisted dude,” Gary Panter referring to the strips as “magic jellybeans,” Kurt Vonnegut enthusastically praising it as a “major work of art.” Again, I don’t necessarily disagree, but there is a certain dissonance. I mean, not to state the obvious or anything, but these strips are really, really, really fascist. The super-hero genre in general — with its simple-minded emphasis on good vs. evil and revenge narratives — tends to be fairly pro-police-state, but Hanks goes above and beyond. The stories are all about the joys of imaginatively torturing bad guys to death. The balance of power is completely one-sided; the super-heroes can do anything. It’s a lot like the God-as-Superman-as-Asshole comics independently invented by Chris Ware and Johnny Ryan — except there isn’t any irony here, unless you bring your own. Authority here is all-seeing, and good is defined almost completely in terms of revenge and the exercise of power. It’s just a little weird to see a bunch of lefty, free-speech types falling over themselves to embrace a work of art which seems pretty clearly to be in favor of forced, inventive extermination of the riff raff. And maybe I’m making a leap here, but I’d bet that for Hanks that riff raff would include a certain number of high-brow lefty weirdos like Crumb, Panter, Vonnegut, et al.
Part of appreciating outsider art is, of course, being able to enjoy the crackpottery from a safe distance. You can enjoy a powerful belief system by appreciating it rather than actually, you know, believing in it — or even engaging with it. I’d certainly agree that Hanks is a great artist. Like many other great artists (Ezra Pound, Yeats, Kipling, Lawrence…) he’s also kind of a moral abomination. I think it’s maybe more respectful to point that out than it is to enthuse about his formal qualities and imagination (as Karasik does) without responding to the actual content of his work.