Fantomah, 'mystery woman of the jungle' and 'the most remarkable woman ever known', was the Ayesha-like creation of 1930s comic artist, Fletcher Hanks. She's one of the most astonishing comic heroes to grace the pulps. After watching various evil-doers set their nefarious plans in motion she soon decides enough is enough and transforms her beautiful Jean Harlow visage into the form of an angry blue skull. She flies effortlessly on 'concentrated-thought waves' to confront her opponents, sometimes as just a terrible floating head, giving them fair warning to cease before she dishes out her justice.
Fletcher Hanks was brought to the attention of the wider public thanks to Paul Karasik, when Fantagraphics published his collection of Hanks' strips in the 2007 volume 'I Shall Destroy All the Civilised Planets'. The other main strip Hanks produced was Stardust the Super Wizard, resembling (but pre-dating) Mick Anglo's Marvelman and with powers that are a cross between Superman's and a dose of occult black magic - with tales just as inventive and bizarre as Fantomah's.
Looking for further information on Hanks reveals that he is a fairly mysterious character. Most of the currently available biographical information comes from his son, Fletcher Hanks Jr., after Karasik visited him at his home, wondering at first if he had discovered the artist himself still alive. Judging by dates given on the internet (the main sources being Lambiek and Wikipedia) that would be truly amazing, as they provide a birth date of 1879. I wondered about this date and decided to do a little research on ancestry.com to see what I could dig up.
In his interview with Karasik, and in other places, Hanks Jr. has said his father was an abusive alcoholic who left the family for good in 1930, much to the relief, apparently, of his wife and children. The 1930 U.S. census (which was taken on April 14th) shows the family still together in Talbot County, Maryland, with Hanks described as an 'artist'. Also living with them is Hanks' 75-year old widowed father. While being careful to remember that such family stories should always be taken as just one person's point of view, one can't help but wonder what led the elder Fletcher Hanks to go down this dark path. What was his own childhood like? Did he struggle as an artist? (He wasn't a great artist, though his strip work has an attractive if crude quality, and he must have been frustrated at not being able to turn his talent into riches). What happened in 1930? Perhaps his father died in that year, and that freed him of his responsibility to a family he couldn't support during the lean years of the Great Depression. Who knows? Most of the comic strips available seem to have been produced from 1939-41, though Karasik has since discovered at least one as late as 1945.
In fact, since the publication of 'I Shall Destroy All the Civilised Planets' last year, a whole load of 'new' Hanks strips have surfaced, enough to warrant a second volume, 'You Shall Die By Your Own Creation' (for publication in 2009). I did write to Paul to find out if he was aware of the Hanks facts I had discovered (certain he would be), and indeed he was - which hopefully means he's researched even further into Hanks' life and will be presenting a more comprehensive biography in the new book, which I eagerly await. (I did go and update the Wikipedia entry though).
According to his son (who died earlier this year and whose own life story is pretty amazing in itself), Fletcher Hanks' body was discovered frozen to a park bench in New York, not in 1970 as some internet sites proclaim, but in February 1976 according to the record. Not a bad age (89) for an alcoholic, but not a pleasant end, if true.
I couldn't resist drawing Fantomah, and may do a Stardust to accompany her soon.