Grotesque Anatomy
Tuesday, June 15, 2004
  Stooge Reviews: Hench
Hench (AiT/Planet Lar • 80 B&W Pages • $12.95) tells the tale of, well, a henchman.  You know, one of the nameless grunts employed as cannon fodder by the big supervillains.  Only in this book we get a name as well as a story to go along with the muscle.  Mike Fulton is a down-on-his-luck ex-football player trying to make enough money to support his family, and trying to find a substitute for the thrills of the game.  He thinks he's found an answer to both of his needs when an old friend approaches him with an offer:  Henching.

Of course, as anyone who's read superhero comics knows, henching isn't a very glamorous gig.  More often than not, it's a path to prison or the infirmary, not easy street.  Still, unsure of what else to do, Fulton continues to take his lumps, which gives us a chance to see the varied villains writer Adam Beechen and artist Manny Bello have come up with.  But beyond the riffs on classic bad guys, Beechen and Bello have crafted an engaging character in Fulton:  He's not always likable--heck, midway through the story he's downright despicable--but he still manages to hold our sympathy for the most part.

The obvious comparison for such a character-driven examination of the superhero genre is Kurt Busiek's Astro City.  And although Hench is a bit darker in content and tone than Astro City, the story of Mike Fulton is one I could easily imagine Busiek working into his series.  Not because Hench is derivative of Astro City or any other comic, but because Hench shares a certain approach--a certain spirit--with that series.  Reading Hench, you get the sense that Beechen has a genuine love for superhero comics, as well as an overactive imagination that couldn't stop wondering about the parts of the story we never got to see.

There were a lot of little details that I loved about this book:  the full-page homages to classic comic book covers (and the little arrows pointing out Mike in each of them); the discussions about the different villains and why you did or didn't want to work for them; the story structure, which shifts back and forth between present and past very effectively, thereby heightening the tension of the situation Fulton finds himself in.  Only one story element didn't ring true for me--the scene where a hero loses control and everything is covered up by the media.  Given the way that the press goes after celebrities and politicians, I find it hard to believe that a superhero causing so much destruction would be given a free pass.

As for the art, it's definitely the weakest part of Hench.  Bello's work is unpolished and, in many cases, seems unfinished.  Many panels look like rough layouts rather than finished pencils, and there's much too much empty space throughout the book.  There are moments where you get a sense of the promise Beechen and publisher Larry Young refer to in this CBR interview ("'the bastard child of Brian Bolland and Paul Grist"?  I don't see it, although I would like to see Bello on Man-Thing based on this sample page), but most of the time the artwork feels sloppy and rushed.  (And perhaps much of the artwork was rushed:  According to this Comic Pimp column, Bello was hurrying to meet his deadline.)  Here's an example of a page that felt particularly slapdash (taken from CBR; the narrative captions are missing, but otherwise this art looks exactly the same as what appears in the printed graphic novel):

Hench page

Notice how the structure of the pavilion changes from the first to the last panel (where did that extra level of columns come from?)  Notice the crude, half-rendered outlines meant to suggest security guards in the third panel.  Notice the bizarre, amateurish anatomy throughout.  This is not the work of an accomplished professional.  There are occasional instances where Bello rises above such clumsy, inconsistent art (mainly in the detailed texturing he lavishes on the Batman analogue the Still of the Night), but the overall effort is one that mars the book.

Complaints about the quality of the art aside, Hench is still a worthwhile, enjoyable book.  I'd recommend it based on the strength of the story alone, but be sure to click through some of the links above to see if the art is a deal-breaker for you or not.
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