Everyone loves a good superhero story, according to box office figures. I used to be obsessed with the lore, Marvel, DC, and those weird, discount characters in tights and capes that someone invented with the sole purpose of getting a slice of that sweet superhero pie—I’m looking at you, The Cape (though to be fair, isn’t that how we got most of our supes and the zillions of their more forgettable peers?).
But Man of Steel broke me. Not only because it was terrible, which it was, but because its over-the-top property destruction made me realize that everything in a city containing a superhero (and, by extension, the villains they face) is collateral damage waiting to happen. At the time, I was also a reporter covering municipal issues and found out that even a two-lane highway costs a literal million dollars to rebuild, so when you see the kind of nonsense where the good guys are basically tearing up every scrap of available infrastructure and, thus, torpedoing that municipality’s whole budget, they seem a little less good. Natalie Zina Walschots gets me and proves I’m not the only one who feels this way, an assumption I feel safe to make after reading her brilliant novel Hench.
As the title suggests, Hench centers on a henchman, though in this case it’s a henchwoman, Anna, who is a temp going from data-entry gig to data-entry gig—much like in the real world, except her temp agency caters exclusively to supervillains. Mostly the minor ones, since the big guys tend to have their own talent pools, but a girl’s got to eat. It seems like her luck has turned at last when her skill with a spreadsheet lands her a full-time on-site job with a villain named Electric Eel. It quickly turns back around, though, when she suffers a severe broken leg at the hands of the world’s greatest hero, Supercollider, who pulls no punches even when no one is in any real danger.
During her lengthy recovery period, Anna turns again to her spreadsheet, this time calculating how much time Supercollider’s thoughtless actions are costing her, which leads her down a rabbit hole of calculating lost time, wages, productivity, and quality of life of others just like her, not to mention property damage. She posts her findings in a blog, which gets the attention of Leviathan, the yin to Supercollider’s yang. Soon, Anna is getting paid obscene amounts of money and has the resources at her fingertips to not only calculate the damage being done by these so-called heroes, but do something to limit their damage. Although she expects things to go wrong, she finds what might be more difficult to face is what happens when her plans work out even better than anticipated.
There’s a lot to love about Hench, not least of which the nagging question about whether the true difference between heroes and villains is how good their respective PR teams are—which has disturbing real-world corollaries, too. The characters are fantastic, as well, each drawn clearly and distinctly, and feeling like they have their own lives and motivations outside of Anna’s sphere of vision or influence. The team she commands while working for Leviathan, for example, seems like a close-knit group of like-minded people who could be working for a startup rather than a supervillain. Her fascination, too, with Leviathan as a mentor, a leader, and perhaps someone just a hair’s breadth away from foe at any given point, likewise feels like it could exist in the real world if the costuming were changed. And Anna being on the side of the bad guys made for far more interesting discussions about morality beyond the question of PR than I think would have been possible had this been another narrative from the side of Truth and Justice.
This is not a perfect book, though: at times, the action strayed a bit too far into “telling” territory for my preference, though its back-cover blurb does bill it as a cross between The Boys and My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the latter of which I disliked for the same reason. The dragging sense those portions gave me didn’t come from the spreadsheet work—despite Excel being my personal nemesis, seeing Anna engaging with the medium that interested her most generated some of the most fascinating content in the book. It was just summary. A lot of summary, and it made it difficult at times to really get into the book.
That said, when I got past those portions, I couldn’t stop reading, turning page after page to find out where Anna’s spreadsheet would lead her. I’d say I hope there’s a sequel, but I’m not sure what else Walschots could explore that hasn’t already been explored. Rather, I like the idea that Anna rides into the proverbial sunset, and all her further adventures are simply not for our eyes.