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A graphic novel look at life as a free-lance supervillain henchman. . .

Hench

The first person anti-hero of Adam Beechen & Manny Bello’s Hench (AiT/Planet Lar) could be any of a thousand super-villain spear carriers. A former high school jock whose career was cut short, Mike Fulton turns to crime because he lacks the tools to do anything else that’d earn him the money to support his wife and child – and because he misses the juice he enjoyed playing football. “Just tell me what to do and turn me loose,” Fulton says, self-describing his “linebacker mentality,” and he might as well be limning the mindset that he also brings to supervillain “henching.”
When we first come upon him, he’s standing on a rain soaked roof and holding a gun on a captured caped crusader named Still of the Night, wondering how he got to the point where he’s on the verge of shooting someone. The gist of his 60-plus-page flashback is a succession of increasingly more dangerous jobs and criminal bosses that the family man is driven to accept. As crafted by Beechen, Hench brings up memories of Depression Era social realist movies like Dead End – or of a lengthier later period “Spirit” story. Its focus is on an unimaginative guy nudged by class, circumstance and his own need for thrills into the criminal life.
Beechan scripts this with wit and empathy for his lower-tier protagonist. Hench relies on the reader’s familiarity with Superheroes 101 to fully work – each of the heroes we see from Fulton’s PoV wouldn’t make sense unless we knew who they really were supposed to be – and he even assigns artist Manny Bello regular full-page pastiches of classic comic book images to incorporate into the story. Thus, a reinvention of the cover to Action Comics #1 features Fulton cowering in the background (with an identifying arrow pointing him out) as superhero Mr. Magnificent raises a car over his head. It’s an idea that’s a little too clever for its own good, particularly since artist Bello doesn’t quite have the chops to pull it off.

T’ain’t easy to play with classic comic imagery in a way that’s mindful of the original artist’s strengths and limitations – and also adds something to the image. (Even Jaime Hernandez had difficulties when he tackled the Action cover for a DC collection of Bizarro stories.) And Bello unfortunately fails to rise above fanzine level imitation. His art is a biggest flaw in an otherwise diverting work: at times, you wish Bello had a strong inker helping to enhance his erratic figures, though in some panels, the composition looks so wonky that I suspect even a good clean-up crew wouldn’t help. More than once I found myself wondering what one of AiT’s more consistent graphic artists would make of this material (Demo‘s Becky Cloonan, say), which is not what you want your reader considering as you’re trying to tell your story. . .
Still, Bello does pull out some arresting images (the face-to-mask showdown between Fulton and Still of the Night is effectively visualized, though there’s a panel of a shoe smashing costume glasses that makes it look as if we’re viewing clown clogs). For all its visual flaws, Hench provides a memorable look at lumpen-prole life in the world of superhero comics.

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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