Something Strange is Going On! Edited by Jim Beard. Book review

Something Strange is Going On!: New Tales From the Fletcher Hanks Universe edited by Jim Beard, Flinch Books, p/b, £8.34 / Kindle, £2.67 (Amazon prices correct at the time of writing), Website

Reviewed by Dave Brzeski

‟Something Strange is Going On!” This is an understatement, to say the least. In what has to be the niche theme to end all niche themes, this book is a collection of prose stories based on the comic strip works of one man – Fletcher Hanks. It’s by no means, as Jim Beard explains in his introduction, a tribute to Hanks. You wouldn’t have liked him. Hanks was, by all reports, an unpleasant man who ended up dead on a park bench in the cold. This book is a tribute to the man’s twisted, warped genius. His body of work isn’t huge. His comic book career only lasted approximately sixteen months, between 1939 and 1941. In fact you can get all of it in two collections, edited by Paul Karasik and published by Fantagraphics.

So, you ask, if he was such a genius, why have I not heard of him? Well, the truth is that he wasn’t brilliant in a technical manner. He wasn’t a great artist, and his stories weren’t that well-written. It was the totally off-the-wall ideas and concepts that stood out. Ask yourself this: is there, somewhere in the list of things you claim to love, something that you love more for the potential than the execution? Do you ever find yourself rewriting a favourite character’s adventures in your head as you watch, listen or read? This book comes from just such a mindset. The authors saw past the crudity of Hanks’ writing and artwork to the potential these wonderful characters had.

Those who’ve read other reviews of mine are probably aware of my somewhat anal nature. You want me to review book three of a trilogy? Fine, hang on while I read the previous two volumes first! This led me to read all the original Fletcher Hanks’ Fantomah comic strips before tackling this book. Not that there were all that many, and they only ran between five and eight pages each. The strip lived long beyond Hanks’ involvement, it’s true, but the character and style changed so dramatically that the later stories simply cannot be considered to be about the same character. Having read these, I came to a decision. I would not read any of the original comic strips of the other characters featured in the book. My reason was simple. Very, very few people who might pick up this book would be likely to have read those original comics, and they’re going to want to know if the book holds up as a stand-alone volume.

The impression I got from the original Fantomah strips, which Jim Beard certainly stuck to with his story, ‟Evil Thoughts”, was that they reminded me heavily of the Spectre stories that Michael Fleischer wrote for DC’s Adventure Comics in the mid-seventies. Like the Spectre, Fantomah is a vengeful spirit type, with undefined and seemingly limitless powers. She looks after her jungle home, and seems to be able to root out evil thoughts in the minds of those who threaten it, no matter how far away they are at the time. The villain of this piece, Wohtan, survives his first encounter with Fantomah, and spends a couple of years training himself to hide his deepest evil thoughts under a veneer of altruism. Jim Beard does a very nice job of staying close to the style of the original comic strips, even to the extent of using words like “gay” and “queer” in their original context, which had nothing to do with sexuality. Everything you could learn about Fantomah from the original comic strips – her powers, her origins and her motivations – which is actually very little, is encompassed in this story.

Gary Phillips’ Space Smith story, ‟The Anti-Oxygen Bomb Terror” is horribly dated. It’s supposed to be. It wouldn’t have worked at all if it wasn’t. It’s 1940s comic book science fiction, with only slightly less dodgy science than the source material. Space Smith is a hero, working for the Galactic Security Agency. Like Fletcher Hanks’ other heroes, both Space and the GSA employ some delightfully dodgy methods. He makes Doc Savage and his “delicate brain operation” method of fixing criminals seem almost acceptable by comparison. I have to admit it was the sly references to the music of George Clinton and Funkadelic that really sold the story to me.

The Moe M. Downe story was always going to be a challenge for me. I’m not a sports fan – not at all. I rarely read sports based comics, or prose. The only possible point of interest for me in the original comic strips would be that they were by Fletcher Hanks, and his work was weird enough to always be of some interest. Frank Byrns takes a more classic pulp crime story approach to the character than I’d expect from Hanks. In ‟Punch Drunk”, Moe M. Downe is exactly that – a punch drunk (not to mention actually drunk) ex-fighter with a shot reputation, who can’t get a fight anywhere. He’s in deep financial trouble, when he’s approached by the Feds. It’s the straightest story in the book, but I liked it a lot more than I expected.

‟The Red Harvest”, by Terry Alexander, reminded me a little of The Three Musketeers at the start, as Tiger Hart sets out, with a team of three brothers at arms, to investigate a series of raids that are being perpetrated upon the outlying villages of the kingdom. It soon takes on a more sword and sorcery/weird fiction feel, as they encounter a race of serpent people, who are harvesting sacrifices for their elder gods. There’s a weird little side-plot concerning a vengeful squirrel that is probably the most Hanksian part of the story. I’d be happy to read a longer form story featuring Tiger Hart at some point.

Like Space Smith, Buzz Crandall is very much formed of the same basic ingredients as Flash Gordon. In fact, David J. Fielding’s story, ‟Phantom Fiends From Beyond”, reminded me greatly of classic science fiction adventurers, from Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, all the way through to Gerry Anderson’s Steve Zodiac in Fireball XL5. The main difference is in the level of violence and general unpleasantness meted out by the invading menace, and no less by Buzz himself.

Having become a fan of Jim Beard’s writing, I was intrigued to be presented with a story by his wife, Becky Beard. ‟Song of the Northwoods”, a tale of a lumberjack named Big Red McLane, turned out to be the best piece of writing in the book. I particularly liked the way it wasn’t the male hero who saved the day for once.

Yank Wilson is also known as ‟Secret Agent Q-4”, so it’s no surprise that Davis Schwartz’s story, ‟Death Finds its Target!”, is the most classically pulpy in the book. It’s a fast-paced action adventure, in which our hero is teamed up with a feisty gal reporter, in pursuit of an assassin. The nature of that assassin supplies the Hanksian weirdness we’ve come to expect by this point – that and the revelation at the end, concerning the victim. I liked this one a lot.

If there was ever the slightest hint of logic, or scientific accuracy in David White’s Whirlwind Carter story, ‟Frozen Fire”, he stomped on it before it could take hold. Tongue firmly in cheek, he gives us a story of a solar system where all the planets are populated. Whirlwind Carter, head of the Interplanetary Secret Service, must save the entire solar system, perhaps even the galaxy, from a destructive force from Pluto. (I’m guessing they never forgave us for demoting their planet.) David White has the best line in the book with the glorious nonsense that is, ‟The Plutonians had foregone attacking the individual planets, apparently assuming that once they took out the Sun, the planets would fall soon after.”

Nathan Meyer contributes ‟Servants of the Black Pharaoh”, a tale of Tabu, the Jungle Wizard. It’s interesting to read a story that crosses over one of Fletcher Hanks’ creations with Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. Even a powerful jungle wizard knows he’s in for a tough time of it when an Egyptian goddess comes asking for his help. I note that there’s a similarity between the worlds of Hanks and Lovecraft, in that both often seem to involve the encroachment of weirdness from outside – although I think Lovecraft may have actually found Hanks a little too weird for his taste.

Unimaginably powerful, just like Fantomah, Stardust, the Super wizard, doesn’t tend to have that much trouble dealing with the menaces he protects Earth from. Even a more powerful duplicate of himself, created by the mysterious new leader of the evil Fifth Column doesn’t last all that long against this god-like dispenser of justice. This is, of course, fairly typical of Fletcher Hanks. I find myself wondering how different his stories would have been if he’d had more than five to eight pages of a comic strip in which to tell them. In ‟The Horror of Voidstone”, Frank Schildiner does an excellent job of transferring this limitation to a 5000 word short story, while having it work, if anything better than the original strips.

As you will have understood by now, if you’re one of those readers who likes stories to make some kind of sense, this book may not be for you. The villains are evil. People often die horribly. The heroes are all-powerful. The villains are almost guaranteed to die even more horribly. The worlds of Fletcher Hanks are, to say the least, totally bonkers. I’m not sure if even Herbie Popnecker could have coped with Fletcher Hanks’ imagination.

Me – I’m just weird enough to want to read a Fantomah / Stardust crossover novel one day.