Counting the Cost
A review of Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots, William Morrow Press, 399 pages.
As much as I have enjoyed watching The Boys on Amazon Prime, I confess that I am somewhat worn out with dark revisionings of superheroes. Radical and genre-bending when they first began to appear, much of this work has become as predictable and formulaic as the worst versions of the material it seeks to overturn. I sometimes amuse myself by wondering when genre writers will decide it’s time to do something really radical and write non-dystopian, non-apocalyptic works with contented characters and happy endings.
That said, Natalie Zina Walschots’s novel Hench does explore some new territory. While we have seen novels that focused on sidekicks before (Lexie Dunne’s “Superheroes Anonymous” series, for example) and while we have seen novels that have focused on villains (V.E. Schwab’s Vicious and Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible come to mind), I don’t think we have seen a novel (with the possible exception of The Henchmen’s Book Club by Danny King) that clearly imagines the world of the henchmen who support supervillains.
Our hero, Anna Tromedlov, works data entry temp jobs for supervillains. She is, as the novel opens, a completely insignificant individual in a world occupied by heroes and villains, and preoccupied with their interactions. When a temp job goes wrong, Anna is horribly injured by the biggest hero of her world–a Superman analogue named Supercollider. As a result, her supervillain boss fires her. (In what may be the most villainous moment of the book he does so by sending a fruit basket to her bedside in the hospital…with a pink slip attachedl.)
Anna’s combination of devastating injuries and unemployment sends her on a quest that Econlog readers should find particularly interesting. She begins to calculate the cost of superheroes in lifeyears, using the work of real life economist Ilan Noy as her inspiration. Superhero costs are a common topic for discussion on Reddit, and the website Law and the Multiverse gives the question a good deal of attention as well, but it’s fun to see it brought into a fictional setting.
It’s even more fun when Anna decides to weaponize her blog that counts these costs as a way to take down the superhero who ruined her life. Her carefully calculated, gradual attacks on Supercollider, her growing alliance with the supervillain Leviathan, and her slow transformation from a temporary data-entry clerk to a henchman, and then to a supervillain in her own right provide much of the interest of the novel. Considerable horror (or gross-out humor, depending on the reader’s tastes) is provided by her increased reliance on body modifications to ramp up her power, and by the various ways she finds to deal with the invulnerable flesh of her nemesis Supercollider. The book’s final scenes, where Supercollider is turned into a weapon against himself, are not for the squeamish.
I’m not sure that anything in Hench is really new. The more familiar you are with the genre of superheroes and particularly with the genre of dark superhero reimaginings, the more it will remind you of other things you’ve read before. But Hench is a good read, with a fun economic twist. It’s a comment on modern office culture, the struggles of temp work, and an increasing sense of powerlessness that demands “decisive evidence that once the pieces are assembled, a hero can fall. A king can fall. No matter how absolute the stranglehold of power might seem, I can take them down. The data is there.”