The story of Fantomah is one of the stranger pieces of Golden Age history. If you’ve never heard of her, then you are probably in the majority. Yet she can arguably lay claim to have been the first superheroine in comics. Her debut in JUNGLE COMICS #2 predates that of Wonder Woman by 22 months.
Ostensibly she was another variation of the ‘white queen of the jungle’ characters that became popular in the 40’s.But with Fantomah, her creator(s) upped the ante by imbuing her with fantastic powers. These included flight, telepathy, prophecy and telekinesis. While she didn’t wear a costume, her face would transform into a horrific skull whenever she used her paranormal abilities. She proved popular enough to reside in that title for almost 3 years.
In the beginning, what made her truly stand out was the artwork of cartoonist, Fletcher Hanks. In the first few years of the Golden Age the need for product was so high that publishers and studio packagers could hardly meet the demand. It seemed that anybody with even a half ounce of drawing ability could find work. Consequently the pages of the era are littered with work done by “artists” that really had no business trying to make it a career. But sometimes a pure visionary esthetic could overcome technical artistic deficiencies. To my mind Fletcher Hanks personified this. His style is more in keeping with naïve folk art and the outsider art category. Here’s a page from a different strip called Stardust.
From a purely mechanical standpoint, Fletcher’s anatomy here is horribly off. Stardust’s head is so elongated that it reminds you of the old Hulk villain, the Leader. The bearded baddie is shown several times during the course of the story, yet he’s always shown in profile. Backgrounds are essentially nonexistent. Yet despite these myriad faults the artwork is exceedingly compelling. In some way he taps into something very primal that I respond to.
Here is her 4th adventure. I should make note that Hanks did the strip under the pen name Barclay Flagg
The GCD lists no citation as to who wrote the strip, but the finished work is so eccentric that I’m apt to believe that it was a one-man production of Mr. Hanks.
Fletcher’s final work on Fantomah occurred in JUNGLE COMICS issue 15 in March 1941. If you note the page numbering at the top, you’ll see that Fiction House originally published the tale with story pages 3 & 4 reversed! I’ve corrected this error here.
In the next issue the credit reads W.B. Hovious and that name would stick as the credit for the balance of the series, even though the strip was drawn by a variety of artists. Here are the splashes to issues 16 and 35. Purely in terms of their draftsmanship, these are much better than those of Fletcher, yet despite this they lose the power and charisma of the early stuff.
Fletcher Hanks was a bit of anomaly in the era due to his age. In a field dominated by hungry young men in their teens and twenties, Fletch got his first comic book assignment, when he was already 52 years old. This maturity may partially account for his unique style as his primal artistic influences would have certainly different from those of these younger men.
Hanks story is a sad one as he was beset with numerous personal demons. He was a longtime alcoholic who perpetrated abuse upon his wife and children before abandoning them in the early years of the Depression. As a youth his mother Alice coddled him. It was she who supported his expensive wish to take art lessons by mail, with his goal to become a professional cartoonist. Surviving material from these lessons prove that Fletcher really could draw believable anatomy. While it may have been his grandest wish, his tenure in the industry was a brief one with most of his comics being published between 1939 and 1941. His chief source of art-based income seemed to have been as a painter of murals for the homes of well-to-do patrons. Presumably homeless, he was found dead from exposure in February of 1976 on a NYC park bench. He was 88 years old.