Travails With Larry
Written by Adam Beechen
Illustrated by Manny Bello
Lettered by Ryan Yount
Hench is another AIT/Planet Lar graphic novel that received positive press over the summer. While it's not as bad as Planet of the Capes, it still has a number of serious structural problems that hold it back.
For those of you who haven't read Hench, here's a quick plot summary. Frustrated by his inability to be a regular working stiff, Mike Fulton takes a series of jobs working as a henchmen for assorted supervillains, from petty crooks to would-be world conquerors. At first, everything seems to be going well — but each job slowly eats away at his family and self-respect until he hits rock bottom.1 Ultimately, Mike finds himself face-to-face on a deserted rooftop with a captive supervillain and is forced to make a momentous decision about his life.
Writer Adam Beechen actually manages to make Mike a sympathetic character, which is no mean He does so by being as brazenly manipulative as possible. For starters, he deliberately tones down's Mike's personality, which encourages the reader to project their own personality traits on to him. Next, he tugs a the heartstrings by giving Mike a loving (if not supportive) wife and a cute kid. And finally, he shields us from the realities of Mike's job — despite his years of henching, we never see Mike hurt anyone or cause any serious property damage. When something does go awry on one of Mike's capers, it's done in such a way that the superhero is responsible for the resulting carnage. Like the heroes of Planet of the Capes, Mike doesn't really do anything, he just happens to be on the scene while other people committ heinous crimes.2
Then again, I'd wager that most superhero comics are equally manipulative. For that mutter, so is much of popular entertainment. If Hench doesn't manage to be anything revolutionary, then at least it has the potential to be a solid piece of entertainment. Unfortunately, in order to entertain the art would have to be top-notch, and Manny Bello's art is merely acceptable.
The above page from Hench showcases many of the flaws of the art. The storytelling is acceptable — it's not hard to figure out what's going on — but the panel compositions and page design leach all of the dramatic tension out of the scene. The spare, stripped-down style renders the characters emotionally neutral — there's no discernable expression on Mike's face, no pent-up anxiety in his hands. What little detail there is is non-descriptive — some hatching to indicate shading, a few short slashes to indicate rain — conveying the basic idea, but without much grace. The folds of the Still of the Night's costume are particularly awful — there's no rhyme or reason to the hatching at all, which makes it seem more like a random pattern than the quilting it's supposed to be.3
Overall, Hench is a failure, but a readable one. For $3, it might have been an entertaining diversion, but it's hard to justify as a $12 graphic novel.
- Along the way we see recreations of famous covers and splash pages, with arrows pointing out which piece of cannon fodder is Mike. Off the top of my head, I recognize Action Comics #1, Daredevil #1, Captain America #113 (splash), Journey Into Mystery #83, Amazing Fantasy #15, and Amazing Spider-Man #50 (splash). It's a cute gimmick, but ultimately a distracting one, as each recreation underscores artist Manny Bello's inability to capture the liveliness and power of the originals.
- One of Mike's more outlandish crimes is the attempted overthrow of the United States government, which involves blowing up the Capitol building. What's interesting is that this act of treason would probably slide by die-hard comic fans, who are used to villains trying to take over the world. Mike is, in effect, just as evil as any member of Al Qaeda, but gets a bye from the book's intended audience because he wears a funny uniform.
- In Manny Bello's favor, he shows the potential to improve throughout the book. There's some nice drawing sprinkled throughout the book (notably a pin-up drawing of Larry Young as "the Cosmonaut"), and he seems to have a real feel for the character of "Pencil Neck." His storytelling is readable, even if it's not terribly inspired.