That's what HENCH is, but that's only a superficial description. Like PLANET OF THE CAPES, this book offers a completely different take on superhero stories than what you'd normally see in the latest issue of X-Guy of SuperGuy.
HENCH is not due out until June, but I can tell you now that it's a bittersweet story using some basic underpinnings of superhero comics as its starting point. Have you ever wondered where supervillains got those themed henchmen that they like to use on heists, thefts, kidnappings, and con jobs? Have you wondered what it would take for a man to enter into that life of crime? Those guys are usually portrayed as dumb hired muscle, but Adam Beechen reads more into it. HENCH is the story of one of those henchmen.
Beechen doesn't gloss over the fact that it would be a seedy and hazardous way to make a living. Nor does he try to show us that all of these guys are poor, misunderstood victims of society. Instead, he gives us the case of Mike Fulton, a down on his luck ex football jock trying to provide for his family in the only way he thinks he can. Beechen works hard to link the events of Fulton's life together, creating a believable and logical progression from high school football superstar to miserable villainous henchmen and multiple jail stint server. In the end, Fulton is a sympathetic character, a good guy motivated by a series of unfortunate events. Doesn't make his choices right, but they are believable.
The book is respectful of superhero traditions without being reverential. Beechen doesn't go out of his way to glorify the superhero concept or any superhero, in particular. Characters presented throughout the book are occasionally analogues for DC or Marvel characters, but this isn't a satire at all. This is a dramatic story, told at a very personal level. It's closer to ASTRO CITY than it is a Silver Age Batman tale.
Manny Bello's black and white art looks like something a storyboard artist would present. It doesn't strike you as a comic book attempting to show great energy and action by having things jumping off the page. But if you look carefully at the panels, you'll see a man delivering a sequential story in a clear way. These are screen shots of the HENCH movie, missing only the giant arrows to indicate where the cameras are supposed to push in or pan across. Occasional splash pages are the exception; they're homages to classic comic book covers. They do, however, point out a shortcoming in Bello's art: It's just not that exciting. It serves the story, but those homages look like something Fred Hembeck would come up with on an off day. The characters are there and in the right position, but the energy is sucked out of the piece. If it weren't for the arrows pointing out which costumed henchman was Mike, it would run the risk of being boring.
In the end, HENCH is an imperfect book, but an entertaining one. It's one of the most down-to-earth superhero books on the market today. You can see preview pages and an earlier interview with the writer here at CBR.
The other AiT/PlanetLar superhero title is Larry Young's PLANET OF THE CAPES. We'll talk more about that one next week. If you pick it up before then, let me warn you now: Do not read it as a straight superhero tale. You have to read it for the cautionary metaphor that it is.
LOOKING BACK AT TOP TEN
WATCHMEN. THE KILLING JOKE. V FOR VENDETTA. FROM HELL. Alan Moore has written a lot of important and legendary comic books in his time. They are worthy of praise, scholarly study, and every award that can be given to them.
If you asked me which of his works is my personal favorite, though, TOP TEN would be my answer. It may not be his deepest or most genre-changing and influential work, but it is the most entertaining. I've read those first six issues at least four times through. With the SMAX mini-series recently completed and the 49ERS prequel in the works, I thought this would be a good time to look at them again.
What kind of police officer is hired in a city populated by superpowered individuals? You have to fight fire with fire. TOP TEN is the story of a superhero police precinct in the city of Neopolis. Moore's execution on the relatively simple concept is what creates the magic. Moore exercises his writing skills in this book to emulate the feel of a network television drama. Think of HILL STREET BLUES or HOMICIDE when you read this book, and you'll get a good idea of what Moore is trying to accomplish. Populate the stories and the art with a wealth of ideas, popular superhero parodies, and old friends seen in new ways, and you'll begin to get the gist of TOP TEN.
The comparison to television dramas is obvious and purposeful on Moore's part. You can see many of the hallmarks written all over this comic. There are multiple plot lines going on at any one time. Characters come in an out of focus. The relationships between the main ensemble cast are varied. Moore accomplishes all of this in a number of ways. First, he writes dialogue to sound natural. It's not meant to be poetic or Shakespearian. This is realistic without drawing attention to itself. Second, he uses tricks from television. The most impressive one is in the transitions between scenes. The "camera" stops following one conversation and starts following another, often in mid-stream. Word balloons that appear as background conversation in one panel quickly bubble up to be the main focus of the next panel, indicating the start to a new scene. Some word balloons from the background are left there, as if to emulate the general din of a busy area, or to provide background color.
The precinct house is a confined area, perfect for tracking a large number of plots through in a small amount of space. It functions as a set. A small number of rooms in the precinct house are seen so often that you almost feel like the art in the book isn't drawn, so much as it's photographed on a soundstage somewhere in Hollywood.
Moore indulges in his song-writing talents again, furnishing a couple of ditties throughout the course of the series. They are clever and often biting, poking fun at superheroes and their cliches. You can almost hear the music in the background, like you would hear a blues song used in an episode of HOMICIDE.
The execution serves to highlight all the ideas that are crammed into every page. The bizarre, of course, is commonplace in Neopolis. An apartment with a nasty rodent problem gets superpowered cats to eliminate the issue. What ensues is an outrageously funny commentary on the comic book industry and some of its more outrageous crossovers. A Zen Cabby takes citizens for a ride to where they're meant to be, but it's not always in a straight line. Did I mention that he's blindfolded? A Godzilla-like creature's mother vents her rage at her son's arrest by grabbing a six pack of beer trucks and standing outside the precinct house. A hostage negotiator attempts to talk down Santa Claus and his reindeer.
All of that is a mere hint to the crazy creativity that oozes out of every panel of this book. As amazing an accomplishment as it is to create the world and populate it with memorable characters and plotlines, it's only dwarfed by the amount of work it took to draw it all on the page.
Zander Cannon lays out the book, which Gene Ha then draws. The character designs are perfectly suited to the stories and very memorable. There's no single style permeating the book. The characters are so wide-ranging that it's impossible to find the similarities between the futuristic cowboy, say, and the middle-aged mecha-woman and the rookie with a box of toys at her command. Thankfully, the collections of the series have sketchbook pages that give a look at their creations, with some candid commentary from Ha.
It's an immense amount of work to draw a book like this. In addition to creating everything seen on the page -- from a subway car to an interstellar transport station - there's a lot happening on each page. Moore's scripts are legendary for their chattiness and detail. I can only imagine what one of these looked like. The movement of the camera across some pages has to be very deliberate, and everything must be staged just right to follow the dialogue and the sequence of events. Cannon and Ha don't use any novel comic book tricks to tell the story. This is just good old fashioned strong storytelling by people who know that the story will sell itself.
The book is often a densely packed game of Where's Waldo. In an issue where a transporter accident leaves multiple dead, we're introduced to what the traffic situation is for flyers in Neopolis. There are laws governing their flight patterns, traffic jams and all the rest. On top of that, Cannon and Ha throw in every conceivable character possessed of flight skills that they could think of. Astro Boy, The Falcon, the monkeys from Wizard of Oz, a yellow submarine, Thomas The Tank Engine, X-Men's Angel, and even a flying car full of every stretchable character at Marvel and DC pass by. That's for starters. It's not limited to that issue, either, as the Transworld Transporter Teminal features cameos from various comic books and science fiction universes, many of whom have transporter themes. Everyone from the title character from RUN, LOLA, RUN to the crew from STAR TREK, STARGATE SG-1, and, well, more X-Men. I was most impressed with the appearance of the two leading characters from television's VOYAGERS. Now that's obscure!
This is a book that would be served well by an ASOLUTE edition. I don't know if sales were ever high enough to warrant it (a la DANGER GIRL, LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, AUTHORITY, and now PLANETARY), but if the larger page size would show off more of the background detail in the art, I'd be first to sign up for this one.
TOP TEN is available now in two volumes, both hardcover and softcover. It's a fresh burst of energy and creativity for any jaded comic book reader with a sense of humor. Moore's scripting and the incredible art team of Cannon and Ha combine to create one of the most memorable and freshest comics in recent memory.
Last week was ugly. Here's a rundown:
- The new NOBLE CAUSES book coming from Image in July is actually the first issue of a new on-going series. It is not another mini-series. It will also be in full color. Looks like the push is on from Jay Faerber and friends. Hopefully, this new start will be just the thing the series needs to build up some momentum and readership.
- Lee Loughridge is a "he." I now have it on personal authority from a friend of his that Lee Loughridge does, indeed, carry a Y chromosome.
- The stats I cited in last Tuesday's column had one "minor" quirk in them. The numbers for SUPERMAN: SECRET IDENTITY and BATMAN: GOTHAM KNIGHTS were reorder numbers on the previous month's issue. The books, thus, were doing brisk re-order business a month after their initial release, and not victims of painfully low sales. So fear not for those two books. They're doing well. GOTHAM KNIGHTS enjoyed a boost from the appearance of "Hush," and Busiek and Immonen's SUPERMAN title looked to be evening out its sales on the four issue mini-series.
- The guy in charge of P.R. for Image Comics is B. Clay Moore, not Clay B. Moore.
- The 24 HOUR COMICS DAY: HIGHLIGHTS 2004 book from About Comics is actually 496 pages long, collecting 20 samples of completed books from this year's big event. Editor Nat Gertler refers to the book as "a nice thick spider-womper of a volume."
- Finally, the Batman appearance in an upcoming issue of THE MONOLITH has been planned since Day One of the series. It's not a last minute attention grabber, although I'm sure it won't hurt.
Don't forget last Friday's Pipeline Previews, which named Image "Publisher of the Month" and thrilled at the thought of oversized George Perez art in a new AVENGERS hardcover.
Pipeline Commentary and Review returns next Tuesday with a review of Larry Young's PLANET OF THE CAPES and more.
Over at Various and Sundry this week, I've got news of the return of THE DREW CAREY SHOW, more AMERICAN IDOL chatter, a link to The Annotated KILL BILL, and a lot of television talk (SURVIVOR, FRIENDS, etc.).
More than 500 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are also still available at the Original Pipeline page.