New SpongeBob Annual Stars Golden Age Cartoonist Fletcher Hanks’ Stardust The Super Wizard (Sort Of)
In putting together this summer's superhero-themed SpongeBob Comics Annual-Size Super-Giant Swimtacular #2, United Plankton Pictures dug deep and left-of-center for inspiration and riff material. How deep, and how left-of-center? Well, the book includes, "I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planktons!", a rather meticulously assembled homage to the work of Golden Age oddball artist Fletcher Hanks and his Stardust The Super-Wizard, by Paul Karasik and R. Sikoryak.
That story follows a few featuring more traditional targets of parody, like a Western-themed story starring SpongeBob regular Mermaid Man, who is basically just Silver Age Aquaman with sea shells over his nipples and a starfish in the middle of his face, and another in which Squidward becomes Batman parody the Squishy Knight and SpongeBob becomes "Multi-Purpose Sponge, the hero with a different costume in every panel" (which allows for panel after panel of SpongeBob dressed as various Marvel and DC superheroes).
As many grown-up comics connoisseurs — and likely zero children in the SpongeBob Squarepants viewer demographic — will know, Fletcher Hanks was an obscure creator in the very early Golden Age of comic books, and his stories stood out as particularly bizarre. That was actually quite a feat considering the wild and weird nature of those first years of superhero comics. Little is known of his personal life, though it was allegedly quite dark.
Hanks' work only recently received any appreciation at all, thanks to reprints in Dan Nadel's Art Out of Time (2006) and Greg Sadowski's Supermen! The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes (2009), and a pair of Fantagraphics collections edited by Karasik; I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets (2007) and You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation (2009). Image's short-lived "Next Issue Project" also featured a new Stardust story by Joe Keatinge and Mike Allred in Fantastic Comics #24 (2008).
Readers unfamiliar with Hanks' work may want to check out the hero's notorious battle with Destructo, in which the gigantic superman Stardust metes out justice against a would-be tyrant using his ill-defined, "do anything" powers to enlarge Destructo's head and have it absorb his body. Stardust then throws Destructo's head into space. Weird, often ironic transformations are sort of Stardust's go-to finishing move.
In the SpongeBob six-pager, the creators follow the dream-like formula of a Stardust adventure pretty closely. Plankton steals a Krabby Patty from the Krusty Krab, and SpongeBob falls to his knees and prays for justice. His prayer is answered by a figure who looks exactly like Stardust, save that he has a pink, pyramid-shaped head.
This is Patrick, playing the role of "Duststar...The Wizard Supereme!" (Surely "Starfishdust" would have been better?)
Dustar tries subjecting Plankton to a variety of ironic punishments, in poses borrowed directly from Hanks stories, but they all backfire -- Plankton pretty much enjoys everything Duststar tries -- and so our hero flies away, leaving the diminutive villain to be himself. "Plankton will be tortured fer all eternity just by bein' Plankton," cheers Mr. Krabs.
The chameleonic artist Sikoryak is probably best known for his Masterpiece Comics adapting great works of literature in the style of famous cartoonists. Here he applies his unparalleled ability for comics mimicry to Hanks' style, from the big, thick, black panel borders to the primitive line, to the strangely-shaped dialogue balloons, which Karasik has filled with typically Hanks-ian dialogue. Its possible to imagine this story existing without Sikoryak, but it's hard to imagine it working.
Obviously such a conscious effort to imitate the weirdness of Hanks' work can only fall short, as even the most knowledgeable and talented of insiders can't truly replicate outsider art -- of which Hanks' work was certainly a sort. Nothing in the story is ever quite as strange or funny as the fact that there is a Fletcher Hanks Stardust homage in a SpongeBob Squarepants comic.
The other 42 pages of this year's Swimtacular are filled with the sorts of wildly varying styles readers have come to expect from the Chris Duffy-edited SpongeBob Comics. There's a four-pager written by James Kochalka and drawn by Jacob Chabot; the aforementioned Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy adventure by Derek Drymon and Jose Delbo; a 12-page story by cover artist Israel Sanchez, in which SpongeBob and Patrick try to perform heroic deeds within a convenience store; and that Squishy Knight story by Jay Lender, in which every single character turns out to secretly be a lame superhero of one sort of another, filled with superhero comic in-jokes. (When deciding on what sort of hero he should be, Patrick says, "I shall become... A Pat!"). There's even a whole bunch of vintage ads hawking dubious-sounding Mermaid Man merchandise, including a squirt gun patterned after that weird, accidentally dirty Batman squirt gun.
The SpongeBob Comics Annual-Size Super-Giant Swimtacular #2 is published by United Plankton Pictures and is available in stores now for $4.99.