Spacehawk by Basil Wolverton Fantagraphics Books, 272 pages, $39.99
When Fantagraphics and editor Paul Karasik re-introduced comic book readers to the work of Fletcher Hanks via the books I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets and You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation, the work seemed like a complete anomaly, separate in tone and manner from what every other Golden Age cartoonist was doing in the then-nascent medium.
Now, with the release of Spacehawk, Basil Wolverton's sci-fi superhero series, it's clear that Hanks' work wasn't as much of an oddity as previously thought. While Spacehawk isn't quite as surreal or unsettling as any of Hanks' best stories, it nonetheless shares some of the same crazed brutality.
Whether or not Wolverton saw or was influenced by Hanks' work (or vice versa) is impossible to say (Hanks worked in comics from about 1939 to 1941; The first Spacehawk story appeared in June 1940), but similarities abound nonetheless. Like Stardust, Hanks' cruel and godly space wizard, the titular Spacehawk is perfectly happy to mete out brutal justice to those deserving few, which in this case is usually gruesome aliens bent on power or destruction. While perhaps not quite as savage as Stardust, Starhawk is just as relentless and ruthless as his fellow space traveler -- at one point he snaps a villains neck without a second thought; in another story he sends an underwater villain hurtling up into the atmosphere and eventually outer space, where he promptly explodes. It's not the same as turning someone into a giant head and then throwing them across galaxies to the waiting arms of a headless giant, which promptly absorbs the head into its body, but it's not that far off either.
There are artistic similarities as well. Both used thick contour lines, propagated their worlds with all manner of grotesque creatures and reveled in scenes of destruction and transformation. While Wolverton is clearly the better artist (his grasp of perspective and anatomy is much stronger for one thing), there's something to the way familiar and perpetual half-profile of Stardust and the grim, disapproving visage of Spacehawk that suggests they might be distant cousins (Spacehawk also seems to share Stardust's willingness to wait until after wanton death and destruction have been wrought before getting involved).
Wolverton is a better, smarter storyteller than Hanks, too. The dialogue is less clunky, the plots less digressive. For the first couple of episodes Wolverton keeps Spacehawk masked, setting up a bit of intrigue about what sort of being has been given such amazing powers to battle space-crime with (like most superheroes of that era, Spacehawk's powers seem both all-encompassing and ill-defined). Is he a robot? Is he a monster? It's kind of a disappointment when we discover in the third adventure that, no, he's just the usual lantern-jawed white man.
But if Spacehawk himself suggested a lack of imagination, that notion can quickly be dismissed with a look at the many villains, monsters and other creatures that populate Wolverton's planets. All manner of wrinkly, pug-nosed, big-eared beings bedevil Wolverton's space warrior. Creatures with vulture-like beaks, long, segmented necks and a thin, gangly torso. Leering rat- and pig-men. A guy that looks like a cucumber with limbs. And a creature that basically looks like a hairy mop with a wobbly, bell-shaped head, connected by a snake-like neck.
And oh god the landscapes! Wolverton's planets are full of multi-colored mountains, intricate and rocky cliff-faces, futuristic cities and forests teeming with bat-eared beasts and flying rats. To read the these far-flung adventures is to be thrown full-force into Wolverton's beautiful/grotesque, idiosyncratic world.
Unfortunately, the outer-space adventures don't last. About a third of the way in, Spacehawk becomes Earthbound. Apparently some genius at the publishing company thought Wolverton's creation was better suited fighting Nazis and saboteurs given the state of the world. Thus, a certain familiarity starts to creep in: the Axis powers (Japanese included, with some regrettable racist stereotyping) develop some magic weapon that will wreck havoc on America, but Spacehawk comes in, smashes everything to bits and all is well.
Some of the life is drained from the strip at that point, but Wolverton delivers some stunning sequences nevertheless -- a space saucer smashes into skyscrapers, rocket ships collide into mountain laboratories, a dam explodes while a silhouette of the evil and mysterious "black avenger" looms overhead. Wolverton puts his all into these images and while they might not have the loopy, frenetic imagination of the earlier stories, they remain captivating nevertheless.
Starhawk even gains a recurring nemesis, the evil Dr. Gore, and a sidekick, the unfortunately named alien Dork. By the end, however, Spacehawk is thwarting tire thieves, and one cannot help but wish that the mighty hero was back out exploring other worlds and not worrying so much about our own.
Fantagraphics' new collection not only prints the entire run of the series, from June 1940 to December 1942, but prints it in an oversize fashion. Normally this sort of enlarged printing hinders the look of the art work, pointing out all the mistakes and printing errors. Not so here. The decision to go large make Wolverton's dynamic panels and sweeping vistas seem all the more epic and engrossing.
Like Fletcher Hanks, Basil Wolverton was a true original, someone with an utterly unique style that was nevertheless able to find a niche within the rapidly coalescing comic book industry. Yet Wolverton's Spacehawk has a vitality -- at times it practically throbs with life -- that the more static Stardust simply does not have. Spacehawk not only the best reprint project of the year, it's the best reprint project of the past several years. It's a revelation.