Fantasies, wholesome and otherwise

Over a year ago, this column highlighted an anthology of vintage oddities, called Art Out of Time, in which little was odder than the awkward sci-fi of Fletcher Hanks. Readers who found Hanks’s bizarre draftsmanship and clumsy exposition charming can now get a hefty dose in I Shall Destroy all the Civilized Planets! (Fantagraphics), which focuses on Hanks’s his-and-hers heroes Stardust and Fantomah.

Editor Paul Karasik rightly praises the cartoonist’s singular talent — finding inventively haunting ways to punish the villains in his stories. Thieves are jailed on a planet where they’re surrounded by jewels too heavy to lift, for instance, where a vitamin-rich atmosphere will keep them alive throughout a nighttime that lasts centuries.

But what readers notice first is the astounding naiveté of Hanks’s plots, in which evil schemes are always foiled on the first try by heroes with limitless, barely explained powers. Hanks is like a six-year-old who hasn’t yet learned that daydreams of unimpeded omnipotence are boring as hell.

If, as a short biographical section suggests, Hanks was working some anger issues out in his superpowered fantasies, Adrian Tomine might not be entirely unsympathetic. Tomine’s latest graphic novel, Shortcomings (Drawn and Quarterly), revolves around Ben Tanaka, a 30-year-old Asian-American man whose attitudes toward women and race relations are overshadowed by stereotype-driven insecurities about the size of his penis.

The story’s not as single-minded as that, of course. Although Ben fights with his Asian girlfriend over his fondness for porn starring blonde white women, Shortcomings has a more contemporary-lit approach to Ben’s emotional baggage than, say, Joe Matt’s recent Spent (also D&Q), which is completely obsessed with the author’s compulsive masturbation. Matt’s willingness to expose himself on the page, rambling about every sticky particular of his habit, definitely isn’t for everyone. But you have to marvel at a guy who offers such humiliating revelations without creating a fictional character to take the heat for them.

Speaking of embarrassing: Stuck in the Sputnik-sparked crowd of recently reissued ’50s artifacts — which include not only an anniversary excuse to reread On the Road but the opportunity, thanks to Knopf, to examine the long-mythologized “Original Scroll” upon which Kerouac composed it — have been anthologies from one of the decade’s most iconic inventions, Playboy magazine.

Those who always claimed “I only read it for the interviews” now have little excuse to keep the magazines around, as comics publisher Dark Horse has partnered with M Press to distribute a series of all-text editions of the mag’s best Q&As — previous volumes highlighting “movers and shakers” and sports heroes are joined this month by an all-comedian tome and one with filmmakers from Welles to Scorsese.

More relevant to devotees of cartooning is Cover to Cover: The 50’s (Bondi Digital), the first installment of a series that will put searchable, browsable archives of every single Playboy issue onto DVD. The naked-lady component here is more nostalgic than titillating (the pix may be explicit, but are tamely sweet compared to what you can see on a billboard or TV ad today), and is overshadowed by the fun of stumbling across features on pre-fame beboppers or witnessing the birth of careers by star cartoonists like Jack Davis, Jules Feiffer, Arnold Roth, William Steig, and Gahan Wilson. Wilson, whose Playboy debut (about a cola company planning to put its logo on a satellite) is still going strong today, now seems less a gag than a work of prophecy.

The mag’s very first issue featured (in addition to that famous Marilyn Monroe pic) a teaser for the latest adventure by Milton Caniff, whose groundbreaking newspaper strip Terry and the Pirates just hit stores as a gorgeous archival volume from IDW Press and the newly launched imprint Library of American Comics.

Caniff’s strip was distinctive for the exotic detail of his globe-spanning settings and for an energetic inking style Howard Chaykin described as “bordering on cockiness.” But the reason Terry kept millions reading for 12 years, from 1934 to 1946, was that Caniff knew how to keep a yarn afloat, four panels per day, with endless complications, reversals, captures, and escapes. That skill alone wouldn’t have launched the inimitably strange Fletcher Hanks into the mainstream. But it might have ensured that Stardust and Fantomah had more fun before imprisoning their pug-faced opponents in anti-gravity beams, forcing them to stare at the skeletons of their victims, or transforming them into rats before throwing them into the sea.

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