Wednesday, June 30, 2004

"Some blind zombie circus aerialist back from the dead to fight crime." 

Superhero books, at least since the creation of Spider-Man, have been falling all over themselves to show that even though these fabulously powered guys in masks are in some ways invincible, they are in other ways as vulnerable as any random schmoe on the street. We are told again and again and again, ad nauseum, that physical might simply isn't enough to put a person's life in shape; it can, in fact make a person's life far, far worse.

But these are superhero comic books, and this harsh reality is cloaked in stylized and exagerrated hyperbole, told in almost distractingly overwrought melodrama. But it doesn't have to be told that way. Adam Beechen and Manny Bello's Hench takes a keen magnifiying glass to this kind of superhero tale, focusing in on the trials and tribulations of that guy who gets kicked in the pelvis by Batman in the third panel on page 2.

Mike Fulton is your average face in the crowd: big guy from all those years playing football in school, good at taking orders, wife and kid, nothing exceptional to his persona or appearance. Unfortunately for Mike, hitting guys he's ordered to hit is about all he's good at. What's a well-meaning but marginally-talented guy to do?

Hire on as a supervillain's henchman, that's what. Sure, the risks are high, jailtime is inevitable, and the boss may lash out at you at any time, but if you score, you score big. How, exactly, is that all that different from being part of a football team?

Jail is hardly a threat in itself. For a man whose finances are perpetually on the rope, six months of free room and board (as well as a chance to network with other henchmen) isn't really all that bad. Inevitably, they always let you back out again.

Ah, but then there's the wife and kid... and the very real threat to life and limb... and what's a man to do, when he's backed into a corner, and every new choice looks worse than the last one? How can you get yourself out of a life you know to be bad when the alternative is the crush and grind of 9-to-5 blue collar life?

Hench manages to address and, to some degree, answer those questions, but it's not as deadly serious as all that. The progression of Mike's career path, marked by full-page homages to comics masters of the past (Shuster, Steranko, Kirby, Romita Sr.) is a display of superhero comics' evolution through the decades. They're also pretty damn clever.

Some fuss has been kicked up about Manny Bello's art in this story; the man uses pencils for everything, including shading, ink be damned. It can take some getting used to. Take a closer look: what may at first glance appear to be workmanlike art is in fact technically perfect, unusually expressive, and consistent throughout. Bello's no master artist, not yet, but his storytelling skill is impeccable.

What's curious about the story is its method of narration; I'd be willing to wager that the ratio of thought captions to actual dialogue balloons is something like 5:1. Whole pages go by without anything being said out loud. The resulting tale is intimate, and we have no choice but to empathize with poor Mike. He's just a guy. And sometimes, well -- being just a guy may not cut it. Ask Peter Parker.

It's the intimacy of narration and the no-fuss finesse that make Hench work as well as it does. It's a superhero tale without a superhero, an X-Ray of what all those Lee/Kirby stories were getting at, a simple but strong tale told with the familiar tropes of the superhero genre. By the end, you do realize Mike Fulton is just a guy, and end up hoping that being "just a guy" is enough to make the right decision.

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