Six years ago, West Tisbury resident Paul Karasik traveled to Oxford, Md., to meet the son of Fletcher Hanks, a great undiscovered comic book cartoonist who first caught his attention 20 years earlier when he printed portions of Mr. Hanks’s work as the associate editor of Raw magazine, the international comics and graphics review. Mr. Hanks had spent three years in this quiet fishing town on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay, during the advent of the comic book industry, from 1939 to 1941, scripting, drawing and inking 51 bizarre, edgy and masterful comic stories.
Then he disappeared.
Mr. Karasik, also a cartoonist, sought out the skilled but little-known artist’s son, Fletcher Hanks Jr., to find out why.
The younger Mr. Hanks, who has since died but was 83 at the time, didn’t even know that his father had been a cartoonist. Nor did he care. He knew only that his father had been a twisted and misanthropic man who worked to earn just enough money to buy a barrel of whiskey. He would roll the moonshine into a forest where he would stay drunk with his buddies for a week. Then, once spent of liquor and cash, he would retreat home and begin the cycle again.
When Fletcher Hanks Jr. was 10, his father, indebted to everyone in town, beat his wife to a pulp, stole his son’s savings and skipped town. The abused youngster was left the sole supporter of his family, a role he struggled to fulfill with profits from his potato garden.
“The father, who was my hero, became the villain and the son, who I couldn’t give a damn about, became this hero to me,” Mr. Karasik recalls over a mug of coffee this week. He continues: “When you know this story about the father, his comics become much richer.
“Once you know the story of Fletcher Hanks, they also have this misanthropy. Just simmering underneath the surface is this kind of rage toward the human race.”
It is typical for a Hanks comic book hero to peer through a looking glass above earth and be still while villains wreak havoc on humanity. Only after hundreds of people have been shot or slashed to death does the hero swoop down to earth and administer merciless poetic justice to the antagonist.
In one colorful tale, a gangster plots to abduct all the heads of state. The hero shrinks the villain’s body into his head and catapults him, now just one giant head, into space. There the bodyless hoodlum encounters a headless man.
Mr. Karasik was fascinated that a man who could barely keep a job produced these intelligent, masterful comics in an era when comic books were filled mostly with witless cartoons.
Mr. Hanks created the first female superhero, a blonde, long-lashed Marilyn Monroe-like woman whose face sank away to reveal her skull when she punished villains. This sexy yet savage protagonist named Fantomah, the jungle protectress, predated even the classic female demigod Superwoman.
The first Hanks comic Mr. Karasik ever printed in Raw magazine unfolds the scheme of three thieves who chain themselves to the ground before depopulating the rest of mankind from earth with an anti-gravity ray. Once the bodies of humankind are flung into space, the trio of robbers begins to loot every money drawer on the planet. One excessively greedy villain shoots his partners in crime and robs the banks for himself.
The second half of the comic portrays a caped Stardust, the super wizard crime buster, swooping down to earth to punish the villain by launching him into outer space. Here he freezes him in a block of ice where he is left barely alive — just conscious enough to contemplate his crimes for the rest of eternity.
As the back story of this immensely talented, warped cartoonist increasingly engrossed him, Mr. Karasik’s appreciation of Mr. Hanks’s comics grew, alomg with a thirst for more information about the troubled man’s life. With a bit more digging, Mr. Karasik discovered a great irony that made him feel obligated to share the Fletcher Hanks story with the world: In 1970 in New York city, the long-vanished Mr. Hanks froze to death on a park bench. He was 91.
“For a guy who specialized in poetic justice, hearing that made me gasp,” Mr. Karasik says. “When I found out that he died the death of [one of his villains], that was the final motivator. That was the moment when I knew I had to do these books.”
Mr. Karasik has spent the last five years compiling, designing and publishing a two-part collection of Mr. Hanks’s comics, spreading the story of the man behind the cartoon strips while salvaging the Hanks brand from obscurity.
The first book, I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets, closes with a comic penned by Mr. Karasik that illustrates his trip to meet the son of Mr. Hanks and his ensuing journey to unravel the mystery of Mr. Hanks’s life. The compilation has sold about 25,000 copies and earned Mr. Karasik a 2008 Eisner Award, the highest honor in the cartoon industry.
Just last week, Mr. Karasik, who has had his own work published in The New Yorker and did a graphic adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass, published a second series of Hanks comics called You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation.
Spinning the gray tennis-ball-sized globe of his Eisner trophy with his forefinger, Mr. Karasic explains the minimalist design of the sequel cover, which depicts a skull-faced Fantomah zipping down to earth encircled by a yellow flame.
“It’s so aggressive and kind of mean-spirited and hokey and cornball,” he says, peering at the black cover through tortoise shell glasses. “It just seemed to sum up the feeling of Fletcher Hanks comics.”
Since he published the series, Mr. Karasik says the value of a mint 1940s comic book featuring the work of Mr. Hanks has jumped from about $2,000 to $5,000. This is proof, he says, that Mr. Hanks has become a “bona fide, important cartoonist.”
And though his own work has earned awards and appeared in top-flight publications, Mr. Karasik does not apply the same title to himself. He is modest about his cartooning, calling it an ego-driven pet project that takes a back seat to his work as a co-founder and development director of the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School.
“I’m proud of my work, but it’s a small number of books and projects,” he says. “As a matter of fact, I found it difficult until very recently to even call myself a cartoonist. Because to me, a cartoonist has always been the guy who really puts the hours in at the drawing board every day. And I just don’t. I’m proud of this, but I’m more proud of my work for the Martha’s Vineyard community.
“But [this series] chose me . . . when that happens, it [becomes] a powerful piece of work,” he adds.
“Look at this,” he says, flipping over a copy of You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation to read a quote from Kurt Vonnegut printed on the back cover.
“Who would ever think Kurt Vonnegut would be on the back cover of a book I wrote?” he says with a laugh. “It’s amazing, but somehow it’s my life.”