They're the guys dressed up in matching parkas when working for Mr. Freeze. They're the ones not sure whether they're more afraid of Spider-Man, Daredevil or their boss, the Kingpin of Crime. They're the ones who are just so much cannon fodder for the Spandex-clad heroes (and sometimes the villains). They're the henchmen.
And this June, Adam Beechen gives them a voice, in "Hench," a new 64 page black and white graphic novel published by AiT/Planet Lar.
"'Hench' is an exploration of the very fine line between hero and villain," writer Beechen told CBR News last week. "It's the story of how Mike Fulton, average guy, fell into a career of serving as a freelance henchman to a variety of super-villains. A former star college athlete, Mike's not a bad person in the least but, spurred by a lack of legitimate opportunities, the need to provide for his family and the lure of adrenaline, Mike takes 'henching' jobs here and there and, before he knows it, discovers he's made a career. And it's a career that comes with high, high costs.
"The story of Mike's professional life is told by Mike largely through flashbacks, brought on when Mike finds himself at a very serious crossroads as he faces an incredibly vicious superhero, during a job gone bad."
As an ordinary guy in an extraordinary world, Mike's grounded by real-world concerns.
"The major players in Mike's life are his wife and son, Jennifer and Cory, respectively, and his best friend, Randy. But along the way, we also meet a heaping helping of the superheroes, supervillains and other career henchmen that populate this particular world. They were a blast to come up with, and [artist] Manny Bello did a spectacular job of visualizing them. They've got names like Pluribus and Libertina, Laughing Boy, the Cosmonaut, Half-Life, Phenomena, Mr. Magnificent, Hellbent, the Little Green Man, Pain Freak, Pencil Neck, the Necrobat, the Still of the Night, and the Red Baroness.
"If you notice that I didn't specify who's a hero and who's a villain, that's because hopefully readers will come out of the book with a different perspective on what those words mean."
Examining the definitions of what it means to be a hero or villain is one of the things that most interests Beechen.
"Like a lot of other writers, in comics and otherwise, I'm fascinated by the choices people make, what motivates those choices, and what results from them. I don't think many people think of themselves as evil and revel in it -- certainly not many sane people. I think most people commonly considered 'evil' were likely acting in what they thought were their own best interests -- not that that excuses their actions in any way. But everyone is the hero of their own personal story -- it's the choices they make and the actions they take that define them to others as hero or villain.
"Hopefully, 'Hench' addresses this point in a way that readers haven't seen a lot of -- not from the costumed hero's perspective, not from the man-on-the-street's perspective, but from someone trapped in between."
The genesis of "Hench" goes all the way back to the world's first superhero comic.
"Remember the cover to 'Action Comics' #1? Superman, picking up that car as thugs cringe around him? Well, when I was a little kid, just getting into comics, I looked at a reprint of that historic image and my eye was drawn to one of those thugs. And I thought, 'Who the heck is that guy, how did he get his job, and what's he thinking right now?'
"From that point on, every time I saw a big battle scene, be it the faceless hordes of Hydra trying to take down Captain America, the beekeeper-hat-wearing scientists of AIM scheming to off Iron Man, or even those goofy question-mark wearing hoods in the Riddler's employ taking it on the chin from Batman, I wondered the same things: Who ARE these guys? Where do they come from and how do they get into this line of work? Do they like their jobs? What do their families think?
"I think my fascination with the background figures is because I don't have any superpowers (that I'm aware of -- unless the ability to procrastinate for days and even weeks on writing assignments counts), and while I always enjoyed superhero comics, I was never really going to relate to the people in the costumes. But the average Joe who works for and fights against the people in the costumes? Him, I could relate to.
"So 'Hench' was a matter of putting myself in the shoes of that average Joe -- and finding out that his story was FAR beyond average. On the one hand, he's got these very down-to-earth concerns: feeding his family, making a living, etc. On the other hand, to do those things, he's got to work for some of the weirdest, wackiest nutjobs in the entire world. And every time he suits up, there's the danger of losing his life, his health and/or his freedom. What does that do to a person?
"In other words, 'Hench' answers the questions of a kid who spent (OK, spends) way too much time thinking about comics, in a way that's hopefully exciting, funny and dramatic, all at the same time. It's a story I've wanted to tell for a long, long time and, thanks to the folks at AiT/PlaNetLar, I finally have a chance to do it."
AiT/Planet Lar publisher "Larry Young and I ... met on the letters page of 'Cerebus.' Sometime in the early 1990s, I wrote a letter to the comic and Larry, who was a regular in the book's letters pages, wrote me a note in response, and that started a correspondence that turned into a friendship. Larry was working for a San Francisco comic shop then, and would send me the newsletters he did for the store, as well as the mini-comics and 'zines he was self-producing. I'd send him scripts I was working on in preparation for my move to Los Angeles, and he gave me lots of invaluable feedback.
"But I didn't actually meet Larry (and his wonderful wife Mimi) until I moved to Los Angeles a few years later, and connected with them at a [Comic-Con International in San Diego] shortly after that. Now, I see them several times a year and we talk all the time. I've watched AiT/PlaNetLar since its earliest days, and been a fan not only of the material they produce, but they way they produce it, the classy way they conduct business. They do it right. Larry and Mimi have always had an 'open-door' policy with me, encouraging me to submit any ideas for graphic novels that I might have. 'Hench' is the first fruits of that (although not the first script I gave them -- that was a wacky little baseball/caper story called 'Going, Going, Gone,' which will hopefully see the light of day soon, too).
"Larry and Mimi aren't just great publishers, they've been great friends."
For Beechen, the process of writing the actual graphic novel was as positive as the process of working with his publisher.
"I wrote a full script for 'Hench,' and I have to say, it was the best writing experience of my life. As a TV writer, I'm trained to outline, outline, outline before committing anything to the paper I'll show a producer or publisher. But, perhaps because this story had been simmering in my head for so long, this script poured out of me without an outline at a very fast rate, almost telling itself. And there was very little rewriting. It's a book told from a singular, particular perspective with a structure that jumps around in time, but it was one of those really weird, rare occasions where I managed to say what I wanted to say, the way I wanted to say it, the first time. I got lucky.
"And I got luckier the day AiT/PlaNetLar honcho Larry Young introduced me to Manny Bello.
"As I understand it, Larry was in the process of shopping the script around to artists, and was talking the script up at James Sime's terrific San Francisco comic book lounge, Isotope, when Manny, who's a regular customer there, walked in and overheard. Manny was a budding artist, and the script sounded interesting to him, so Larry lent him a copy ... and Manny came back several days later with three or four unsolicited sample pages! Turns out he really sparked to the story, and Larry sparked to Manny's artwork. Larry faxed me the pages, and it was obvious Manny really had a feel for the style of the story I was trying to tell, and he did a brilliant job of capturing the conflicts within Mike Fulton with just a couple facial expressions.
"From that point, Manny and I discussed everything via e-mail -- character designs, pacing, layouts ... but it's amazing how much we were already on the same page. Manny would e-mail me roughs of pages as he went along, and by and large, my only note to him would be, 'Wow! Keep it up!'
"Manny's been great to work with, and this book is a real showcase for him. He's got a clean, distinctive style that Larry describes as 'the bastard child of Brian Bolland and Paul Grist.' I see some 'Daredevil'-era David Mazzucchelli in there, personally. No matter how you look at it, it's stunning stuff, and I'm privileged to be a part of Manny's debut."
In addition to the artwork included with this article, CBR featured a "Hench" preview in last Friday's edition of The Comic Pimp.
"Manny and I have never met face to face," Beechen said. "I'm really looking forward to WonderCon and Comic-Con International this year ... I owe the guy a lot of beers for making the script look so good."
For Beechen, "Hench" is the blossoming of a seed first planted more than 30 years ago.
"Well, the first comic I ever got was 'Amazing Spider-Man' #151, and that pretty much hooked me. I became all about storytelling after that (particularly once I realized that, as a 5' 9" Jewish guy, I was going to have little chance to make it in the NBA). I went to journalism school, worked a few years in the community relations office of a Phoenix hospital, decided I wanted to tell my own stories, went off to film school at the University of Texas, met a lot of great writers through working with the Austin Film Festival (which was just starting at the time), moved out to LA and broke into television writing about a year later. I've been very fortunate!"
Which isn't to say he's never written comics before this.
"In comics, I don't have many credits at all. Dave Sim published a 'single page' I wrote and drew in one of his 'Cerebus: High Society' reprints a decade and a half ago. And I've written scattered 'Rugrats,' 'Wild Thornberrys' and 'Rocket Power' strips for Nickelodeon Magazine in the last few years. This is pretty new ground for me, and I'm very excited. Most people want to go from writing comics to television or film, and I've used television as a stepping stone to comics! I love 'em both, and hope to do more of both as my career rolls on."
Beechen's work in television left him well-prepared for the leap into writing superhero comic books.
"Well, I wrote eight scripts for 'Jackie Chan Adventures,' and had a blast being part of that team. It's rare for a freelancer to get more than one assignment on a particular show, so I'm really grateful for the opportunity to have spent so much time with the characters. It was also great training for thinking up interesting and unique action sequences, as you can imagine.
"One of the writers I worked with on 'Jackie' became Story Editor on the new 'Teen Titans' animated series, and kindly invited me to write a few episodes. As a childhood fan of the characters, that was really a dream come true (as was working on 'X-Men: Evolution' a few years before), and I hope to write more, if they'll let me, as the series goes on.
"That gig, plus a good friend who's an editor at DC, led to my being able to pitch to the editors of the 'Teen Titans Go!' comic, and my first story for them will appear in issue #8, also due out in June.
"The Story Editor from 'Jackie,' meanwhile, became the Story Editor of the hotly-anticipated 'The Batman' animated series, and I've been freelancing over there for the last little while, writing several episodes. Talk about childhood wish fulfillment! What a privilege to get to write for those characters. I can't talk much about the series, but the designs are amazing, the spirit of the show is incredible, and the voice talent terrific. I can't wait to see viewer reaction."
And, of course, he has the same sort of anticipation for what readers will think of "Hench."
"For me, 'Hench' is a bit of a love letter to superhero comics from a longtime fan, and I hope it'll appeal to anyone who comes from the same viewpoint. It pokes fun at superhero conventions in some ways, and treats other aspects very seriously. And it's got tons of smash-'em-up action and colorful characters, and hopefully a few affectionate surprises that will REALLY appeal to long-term comics readers. So I believe it'll resonate with anyone who likes superhero comics now, or maybe grew up on them and moved away.
"But I also hope it'll appeal to people who maybe aren't as familiar with superhero comics -- or even comics at all. Because, at its core, 'Hench' is a very human story about a guy who wants to do right, but gets sucked into a life he can't quite get out of. It may be set against a pretty fantastic and occasionally ridiculous backdrop, but that's a story a lot of people can relate to. It's my hope that, for whatever else goes on in the graphic novel, people will find Mike Fulton to be a realistic, believable human being, with a compelling personal story."
CBR Executive Producer Jonah Weiland contributed to this story.