Hench – It’s Good To Be Bad

IHench have a tenuous relationship with the concept of superheroes. Like many young boys in the U.S., I was exposed to them early and often through cartoons and memorabilia. Rarely did I read comic books, but sometimes they found their way into my hands, and on those occasions I did quite enjoy myself. Obviously, I grew fond of the Marvel cinematic universe, but after a while I became exhausted by what I feel is it’s constant stream of content. The DC Snyderverse did little to assuage the glut or reduce my apathy, and the only way I felt I could consume these stories was through comics and, even then, only as a form of critique. I returned to Watchmen, Swamp Thing and oddly Superman became one of my favorites even though I liked him least growing up. So now that you know my baggage with superheroes, I’m especially excited to share my review of Hench, a fantastic new perspective in an overcrowded genre and the latest book from our H2 Dark Horse list. Hench, by Natalie Zina Walschots, is a revelation within the superhero genre, bringing humor, darkness, and character to the evil doers with panache while breathing life into the tropes it also examines on a deeper level.

The story follows Anna Tromedlov, a henchwoman who usually finds work through a temp agency. She’s more of a behind-the-desk type, preferring to be a data analyst for the villains of the world. When an opportunity to move into a lair and take up more field work pops up, she takes it for a little excitement. However, her first time in the field leads to disastrous results when she becomes a casualty to Supercollider, the world renowned ultimate Superhero, and is hospitalized by the encounter. Laid off, without health insurance, and about to be evicted, Anna begins a blog to track the destruction and death caused as collateral damage, earning her the ire of Supercollider, but the unexpected praise of one of the world’s top villains, Leviathan. Seeing her chance to do some good for the world while being the “bad guy,” Anna joins the villain’s ranks and begins to enact her revenge.

It would be easy to base this review on just how much a breath of fresh air Walschots’ debut novel is in the superhero genre. While she gets a lot of mileage out of focusing on the villains, she takes it much further by making the novel more than just a clever twist. The whole world is built on the premise that both Heroes and Villains need support staff, whether it’s the “Meat” who take the majority of the punishment for Villains as your standard bodyguard henches, or the interns who get to work early to make a fresh pot of coffee for the evil meetings. Walschots takes the time to build it out in a fun, brisk way that will be easily recognizable to most people even vaguely familiar with superheroes. It’s a blast, and I cackled heartily as the villainous bosses acted very much like a CEO out of today’s headlines. It wasn’t exactly lighthearted, but Walschots’ definitely knew how to adapt work culture to her world and it instantly ingrained me to the book.

After the initial introduction, Walschots doesn’t let up as her knack for character really begins to pull the story along. She knows how to make you care for her characters while you watch them descend into a form of madness. Anna’s journey was especially compelling from a temp who just wanted to do remote work, to a hench calling the shots on big operations. The best part about the endeavor is Walschots’ tenacity in sticking to Anna’s strength: data. Gathering data, forming predictions, and coming up with ways to help accelerate her plans are Anna’s powers, though it’s never mentioned in that way and she’s extremely good at it. None of her “battles” resort to her using her smarts to physically outwit opponents, she’s just there in the background, pulling levers and letting the disasters play out. On top of that, the conflicts were usually in a more personal space. How far was she willing to go to see her models through? Who was able to be sacrificed for the greater good of taking down superheroes? It was refreshing that she never had to throw a punch herself, instead becoming the villain she thought she could be by making her own choices and living with the consequences.

Walschots clearly has a deep love for the superhero genre as she just nails so many small details with style. I can’t tell you how many times I felt the hairs on the back of my neck standup when a superhero’s backstory lined up with their names. Or the amount of times I muttered “well that’s fucking cool” to myself during fight scenes. After being tired out by so many of these tropes in past few years, Walschots breathes a new life to them. She also isn’t afraid to turn over the rubble they use to cover their dark sides. While she does well with the caped crusaders, it’s clear she has a special place in her heart for the villains and their henches, and with the way she writes them, who can blame her. Anna’s life is turned upside down by Supercollider, and he doesn’t even apologize. Leviathan in turn gives her the resources to fund her newfound purpose and allows her ambition and skill to take her where she needs to go. The other members of the villains’ team, while not as fleshed out as Anna, are just as broken, ambitious and skillful in their own ways. They are also incredibly likeable and have full stories of their own that help Anna to find her place among equals. There are several moments shared between her and the other henches that are genuinely heart wrenching and breathtaking. Walschots fills the book with little surprises that are nods to the genre that don’t self aggrandize their own importance, and instead sneak up on you and embed themselves in your soul.

Hench is as solid a debut as I’ve ever read. The humor is dark and spot on, making me laugh out loud several times. Anna’s journey to becoming a top hench is compelling, emotional and weirdly fulfilling. The world is energetic, realistic where it needs to be, and stylized just enough to make the weird stuff more impactful. It feels like the perfect antidote to the superhero craze. Walschots makes it all look easy, too, but it’s clear a lot of love and effort was poured into this book.

Rating: Hench – 9.5/10
Alex

Umbrella Academy – A Blunderous Bumbershoot

Umbrella

The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite, created by My Chemical Romance frontrunner Gerard Way and brought to artistic life by Gabriel Ba, sits at a unique crossroads both within the current cultural zeitgeist and on my bookshelf. With the Netflix adaptation premiering tomorrow as of this writing, I can only imagine the book’s sales have received a positive bump as readers and superhero-loving viewers flock to read the source material if only to tell their friends watching the series “Well, that was different in the graphic novel” with an upturned nose.

That motivation fuelled my own reading of Umbrella Academy, but the timing also placed it just a few books after my glowing review of Lights’ Skin&Earth. The similarities end at “A talented musician wrote a graphic novel,” but the two books’ origins keep them locked in battle in my mind as I try to separate the best from the meh-st. Gerard Way’s brainchild falls heavily into the latter bucket.

Apocalypse Suite collects six issues that form one narrative arc for the titular Umbrella Academy band of superpowered humans. 43 children are born to women who showed no signs of pregnancy, and nearly all of them display remarkable powers. Reginald Hargreeves, a monocled philanthropist and mysterious douchebag, vows to adopt as many of the children as he can to “nurture” them and teach them to harness their powers. Many draw parallels to the X-Men franchise and Professor X, a fine and fitting way to frame the narrative to someone who hasn’t heard of Umbrella Academy. Hargreeves successfully adopts seven of the children, and they save the world from a hilariously zombified Gustav Eiffel as he weaponizes his Parisian architectural wonder.

And that brings us to page 10.

The beefiest portion of story occurs after Hargreeves’ death (again we’re only at page 10, so no major spoilers) brings the remaining six children together after many years of being disbanded.

Enter, as I see it, the story’s crowning fault: utter disregard for pacing. After the initial 10 pages, which are downright fantastic and lay the groundwork for what could be an incredible tale, the story veers off wildly into countless directions, exploring the past, the present, and the future while giving readers virtually nothing to sink their teeth into. Newspaper clippings in the background of a few panels tell us one of the children has died, and others tell us that Spaceboy, the leader of the bunch, was involved in an accident and Hargreeves saved him by implanting his head onto the cyborgian body of a Martian gorilla. What follows is a cavalcade of mixed messages and family drama that just doesn’t click. Each 22-page chapter tries to cover so much ground that Apocalypse Suite reads like a hapless smattering of beginnings and ends with no middle–there’s little meat on these otherwise sturdy narrative bones.

The pacing issue goes hand-in-hand with Way’s treatment of the characters. Each of the Umbrella Academy’s members reads like a blurry reflection of a character who could be fantastic if given more space. It’s obvious that Gerard Way has deeply explored each character, but the problem lies in volume. There are six living Umbrella Academy children plus a few side characters and a few villains. To explore the faults, flaws, strengths, powers, and psyches of each would require triple the real estate.

A prime offender here is Rumor, one of the six remaining members. Her power is bringing rumors to life by speaking them into existence: “I heard a rumor that Patrick Rothfuss published his third Kingkiller novel,” for example, would bring that truth to life (not to mention lock a bunch of nerds in their rooms for 24 hours head-down in a book). Way explores this power for maybe two panels, and Rumor’s siblings are treated with equal disregard in terms of characterization. To drive this point home, consider this: I’ve stared at my screen for a full five minutes thinking of what else I can say about the characters in this book, but I’m coming up short. Call it a product of limited space or faulty writing–either way, I think Umbrella Academy misses the mark here.

On the flip side, Apocalypse Suite shines when it lends ample time to creating a villain. Vanya, the seventh sibling who has no noticeable powers, is essentially disowned by her family following Hargreeves’ death. Her arc is painful, haunting, tragic, and intensely gripping, playing beautifully into Gerard Way’s hand as a musician-turned-author and fortified by Gabriel Ba’s artistic vision. Her narrative reveals the sharp edges and dark corners of the Umbrella Academy’s collective upbringing, and this story makes the book worthwhile. If Vanya had been absent or replaced by a different villain, I’d have written this series off completely.

Despite everything, though, there’s something here, call it an X factor, keeping me intrigued by this quirky, dark series. Even with an ending that wraps things up all-too-quickly and characters that leave a hell of a lot to be desired, I’m willing to venture boldly into the second book. In a way, it feels like Apocalypse Suite is a shaky pilot that births a seminal show. In fact, I think Netflix is the perfect platform to right the narrative shortcomings of the graphic novel, and I’m excited to see a more fleshed out version of a story that couldn’t quite reach its potential as a book.

Of course, if you’re looking for a cream of the crop graphic novel written by a famous musician, there’s always Skin&Earth.

Rating: Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite – 5.0/10
-Cole