The cost of superheroics
Natalie Zina Walschot's novel Hench is an exhilarating, funny, and pointed look at the cost of superheroes.
Years ago, I came across an intriguing blog called Law and the Multiverse, written by two attorneys, James Daily and Ryan Davidson, in which they took their law school experience and applied it to the world of superheroes. It tackled questions like just what was Superman's immigration status? Are superheroes obligated to come to someone's rescue? What would happen if a superhero's secret identity was summoned to a trial in which their alter-ego was involved?
The website petered off after a couple of years as its writers found real lawyer jobs, but the pair wrote a fascinating book that gathers up a lot of that writing, The Law of Superheroes, and it makes for an intriguing read that pulls the fantasy of superpowers out into the real world.
Bringing reality to superheroics is a tricky thing. Comic art allows for a certain level of dynamism that captures the excitement and movement, and for that reason, I've always felt that comics sort of resist the realism that other genres tend to bring. The history of comics goes back and forth on this: early comics were geared towards adults, and brought enough violence and blood to warrant congressional hearings that eventually prompted the industry to self-censor through the Comics Code Authority in the 1950s, putting plenty of publishers and artists out of work. Comics were tamed: it meant that writers and artists couldn't depict brutal crimes or violence, and with it, a sense of real stakes or moral grey areas.
That began to change in the 1980s. Writing in his fantastic history The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, Glen Weldon noted that the industry was in crisis: sales were declining. Writer Frank Miller, he recounts, described those comics as childish: "the comics audience obviously consists of children, and adults who like childlike entertainment."
"He was interested in neither," Weldon writes. "instead, he resolved to create a Batman story for those adults who could handle something grander and more challenging than the tidy, recursive morality plays superhero comics represented."
"The issue, he noted years later, was the genre's lack of any real stakes: 'comics had become drained of the content that would give the heroes any reason to exist. I wanted to give them that edge.'"
The result was The Dark Knight Returns, a gritty tale that opened with a decrepit Bruce Wayne in a Gotham City that was overtaken by crime and immorality. Reader hasn't seen anything like it, and it was a huge hit. Other, similar stories followed in the next couple of years, such as Batman: Year One, and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen. While the Comic Code Authority was still nominally around, the 80s represented a huge shift in fan expectations of comics: a departure from the childish morality tales that Miller so resented. That expectation was that superheroes could — and should — be represented in a somewhat realistic fashion: the weight of the world should impact how they go about conducting themselves.
This shift is probably best seen visually in the comic adaptations that soon began hitting theaters: Tim Burton's 1989 film Batman was a dark and grim noir, and in the 2000s, we saw the first of a wave of superhero movies, which plucked the likes of Batman, Spider-man, Wolverine and Iron Man out of their origins and into a realistic-looking world. Christopher Nolan's Batman wore combat armor developed in his company's labs. Bryan Singer's Wolverine wore a motorcycle jacket and made fun of the black leather team uniforms. Jon Favreu's Iron Man lost the organic curves of his armor for an angular suit of power armor. (Kristian Williams of the YouTube channel KaptainKristian has a great look at the role of color in superhero films) Marvel's Cinematic Universe was able to satisfactorily zero in on the balance between the zany costumes of the comics and practical-what-would-this-look-like-in-the-real-world look.
Amidst that shift in comics, we began to see some authors turn their hand at attempting superheroes in prose, such as George R.R. Martin's Wild Cards, and later, Austin Grossman's fantastic Soon I Will Be Invincible and Lavie Tidhar's The Violent Century, which could spin out their superpowered characters with all of that prose could bring: superheroes dealing with real-world issues like political ideology or substance abuse problems.
The latest such story is Natalie Zina Walschot's new novel Hench, which follows a young freelance henchwoman as she faces the deadly cost of what superpowers brings to the world.
In some ways, the world of Hench is best described as "Like Uber, but for supervillains." In it, we meet Anna Tromedlov, who's trying figure out how to make it through the month: bills are piling up, and she's been having trouble lining up work within the world of supervillains. When she's called to a temp agency with her friend June, she waits in line to see what part-time gigs the local villains are looking for. Why keep drivers, safecrackers, or thieves on your payroll when you might only need them for a couple of weeks?
And at the end of the day, they're just crummy employers. Greg, one of Anna's friends who deals with IT, complains that his recent employer, The Scarlet Hood, "called me yesterday because he forgot how to eject a CD from the drive. This morning? I shit you not, he'd forgotten to charge his laptop and couldn't get it to turn on."
Supervillains, they're just that bad middle manager who you inexplicably had to report to.
Anna's specialty is data entry, and and she's soon picked up for a gig by Electric Eel, who maintains a crummy office while he puts together a mind-control device and insists that his employees call him E. He's as slimy as you're imagining.
Anna proves herself, and the Electric Eel brings her along on his latest plot to test out his device, which attracts the attention of a high-profile superhero, Supercollider. He's the fastest man on Earth and invulnerable, and uses that speed to his advantage. Their encounter doesn't go well.
"Unluckily, trying to keep myself rom being burned to a crisp, I had stumbled into the hero's way.
He absently moved me aside, out of his path, as though I were a piece of furniture. He might not have been trying to injure me, but it was like a glancing blow from a transport truck. His flesh seemed impossibly hard, the way jumping from a great height into water is the same as hitting a concrete wall once you reach a certain velocity. I felt my body buckle and give."
Anna ends up in the hospital with grievous, life-threatening injuries, and an even longer recovery period. Electric Eel's HR department sends her a fruit basket along with a termination notice. She ends up crashing at her friend June's apartment, nursing a grudge against the superheroes who brought her to this point.
It's here that she begins to obsessively think about what that fleeting contact cost her. She saw some of her fellow freelancers cut down by Supercollider, and starts to calculate what the economic impact of those lost lives, the lengthy hospital visits, and property damage to answer the question: "what is the cost of their actions?"
She puts her data entry skills to the task, and soon comes up with a number for her encounter with Supercollider: "those few minutes in a hotel conference room cost us all 152 years of our lives, combined. Supercollider had decided that a kid's little finger and the Eel's random demand held more value than 152 years in hench lives."
With some additional spreadsheet wizardry, she comes up with an even more serious number: "For everyday [Supercollider] was alive, he cost over ten lifeyears; he ate up an average of seventy-eight years of life a wek. If he continued at this rate for the next forty years, that was a stagering 162,240 years of human life he'd cost the world.
The only events that I could compare him to were catastrophic. Years ago, a 6.2 magnitude earthquake hit New Zealand; 182 people died, thousands were injured, and there were billions of dollars in damage. The entire downtown core of Christchurch was leveled. There was no question in anyone's mind that it was a disaster. It cost, according to researchers who wrote the paper, 180,821 lifeyears.
Supercollider was as bad for the world as an earthquake."
She puts her report up online, and it goes viral, and she soon begins hearing from others about how they've been impacted by superheroes in their daily lives: bystanders who now have to deal with injuries, PTSD, and trauma. She helps show the cost beyond the PR value of the fight against crime.
The report also attracts the attention of a A-list supervillain: Leviathan, a villain covered in chitinous armor with some considerable resources at his disposal. He offers her an attractive package: she comes on to help him figure out how to utterly destroy Supercollider. Frontal attacks prove to be ineffective, but with her data, he thinks that they can undermine the hero in the public's eye. She soon gets to work, using a considerable amount of data, social engineering, and social media trickery to isolate him from his colleagues in order to take him down.
Walschots' book is a quick, cutting book that's simultaneously hitting everything from the precarious nature of the modern gig economy to the workplace comedy, to a real reexamination of the superhero genre.
Pairing up the world of superheroes with the framework of the gig economy fits nicely. Companies thrive on efficiency, and Anna finds out all too well what capitalism means for workers who aren't able to work: shunted off to the side if they're unable to clock in or pay their medical expenses. It's a biting critique of the world of app-based work, where it's impossible to make a living wage, while their employers are able to effectively wash their hands of them if needed.
And as a workplace comedy, it's a funny, gripping book: Anna quickly rises through the ranks with Leviathan, going from a sort of data project management specialist all the way to heaving up a major initiative of the company, greenlighting social media campaigns and special missions to take down everyone around Supercollider, all while getting to know her colleagues and navigating the politics to find a cozy existence.
It's a book that I imagine a lot of people in my age bracket can relate to as we slowly make our way through life, and it's equal parts cynical and earnest as everyone involved is essentially just trying to get through the day doing something that they're good at. Plus a bunch of exciting fights and the thrill of seeing well thought-out plans come together.
But where Hench really shines is by framing the superhero story against economics, posing a central question to the reader: is this all really worth the cost? Anna quickly figures out that for all the crime that Supercollider stops, he's really a net drain on society, revelations that turns Leviathan's obsession with the hero into more sympathetic territory than the straight-up sociopathic evil deeds that most supervillains get up to.
This is where I couldn't help but think back to some of those comics from the 1980s, and the maturing of the genre. There's the cartoonish sort of supervillain that existed throughout the history of comics that's just out there to cause problems. With Moore and Gibbons' Watchmen and others, there was a drastic change, one that went against the lead item on the Comics Code Authority:
"Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals."
This criteria helped put into place a system that altered comics forever — turning them into morality stories without ever grappling with the complicated nature of world around us. A thief going holding up a bank is bad. A thief who's holding up a bank because said bank foreclosed on his house and left him and his family out on the street is still bad, but that grey area makes for a better story. I get why the CCA put those blinders on comics: as a parent, you have the impulse to protect your offspring from the darker realities of the world, but comics as a medium aren't limited to just children's stories, and in the last forty years, there have been plenty of comic creators who have demonstrated the potential that those colorful panels hold for adult-oriented stories.
I read Hench in the midst of a national existential crisis and how we come to grips with the fact that the men and women of our country's police departments, who we hold up as superheroes, can do heroic, good deeds, but at the same time also be an enormous drain on society. Through cop shows and feel-good stories, we largely accepted a black-and-white view of crime in the country. That vantage was misguided, and as we've accumulated decades of statistics and stories from disadvantaged and targeted communities, having a better understanding of the nuances would have been better. (TV shows are starting to understand and depict this a bit.)
The same goes for superheroes: we understand that The Vulture or Doctor Doom or Lex Luther are bad, but we didn't really take into consideration the cost of taking them down, or think about the alternatives. We cheer when The Avengers take on villain on the screen, but don't really consider the amount of property damage that they're wracking up every minute we see them. Man of Steel garnered plenty of criticism for the trail of destruction left behind by Superman in the film's climax.
That's changed quite a bit in theaters: the entire premise of Captain America: Civil War is predicated on a disastrous fight in Lagos that kills plenty of bystanders. I think it's one of the best scenes in the entire franchise, because it starts off with that classic superhero team-up fight, where we see the Captain America, Black Widow, The Falcon, and Wanda take on Crossbones' armored henchmen, only to flip the expectations on the viewer in the last couple of moments when they screw up.
Hench takes this deconstructive approach by not only looking at the superheroes as flawed individuals who can be undermined by exposing those flaws and exploiting them, but by exposing the inherent problem that superpowers brings: the collateral damage. Much like police departments have largely been able to get away with stopping, harassing, and killing scores of black men and women over decades, a bit of data and sunshine in the form of camera phones and social media shows that the solution can be just as bad as the problem it's trying to solve. Leviathan, with his own personal vendetta against Supercollider, finds that trying to take the hero head on just won't work, and it's easier to use his speed and strength against him.
For years, Daily and Davidson's blogging and book have stuck with me, because they post a fundamental paradox: they can't exist in our world, because they'd break everything, from buildings to insurance to laws. And if superhero narratives are supposed to be playing out a sort of morality tale, can they really be effective if the lessons are really only good in the simplified world that they depict?
Well, sure — they're great at fortune-cookie lines like "with great power comes great responsibility" which can provide some broad guiding morals, but I feel like that intention becomes a bit less effective when you begin to take into consideration the grey area and complexity of any given situation when you want to tell a story in a realistic world. I'd hesitate to call Hench a book about supervillains, because when all is said and done, it's hard to really draw the battle line between good and bad: there's just run-of-the-mill evil, and well-intentioned destruction.
I think this is why Hench (and books like Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible) and projects like Law and the Multiverse really stuck with me: they show a solid understanding for the complexity that exists in the world, and throw some characters into the middle who do their best to navigate and survive the mess they find themselves in. They're stories that understands the cost and toll that it lays at the feet of their respective characters. Hench does this with flying colors, not only forcing its characters to grow and adapt and confront the challenges before them, but in doing so, forces us, the reader, to challenge our assumptions of the genre that we're reading.
Hench is now available in audio, ebook, and hardcover (it'll be out in paperback on September 28th.)
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