Calling all superhero fans! Have you ever watched a superhero movie (cough, Man of Steel, cough) and wondered, “who’s paying for all that destruction?” If you have, then today is your lucky day, because Natalie Zina Walschots‘ new novel Hench is officially out, and she uses her zany, powerful story to address that question (and more!). In advance of the book’s publication, the team over at William Morrow caught up with Natalie to chat all things Hench, and the result is an insightful interview that you do not want to miss!
WM: Why write about henchpeople instead of writing about superheroes and supervillains?
NZW: In part because there are so few stories about them. Despite the fact that less powered – and less powerful – people greatly outnumber supervillains and superheroes, their stories are unexplored. But I could see the negative space where those stories must exist, and filling in those blanks is both hilarious and heartbreaking. Every time I encountered any kind of media that even brushed against the stories of people living in the shadows of superheroism, I wished that there was so much more. I was also interested in the way that power, super and otherwise, was so imbalanced between henchpeople and the superheroes they were pitted against, and how broken and weird that relationship must be.
WM: Do you think supervillains could hire so easily?
NZW: I mean, organized crime has had this figured out for a very long time.
WM: No, now how they would handle the logistics of having legitimate employees. Rather, do you think that supervillains would be able to find people willing to work for them so easily?
NZW: Pfft, absolutely. At the end of the day, is answering the phone or making coffee for a supervillain any different than working for an oil company? Especially if it’s a respectable job on the surface – by which I mean has a shitty HR department and a broken photocopier, or anything that resembles working for a start-up more than working for a drug dealer – it would be easy to find all sort of ordinary people willing to do boring tasks for terrible people. People do boring work for evil people all the time, every day. We exist in a world in which Lockheed Martin exists, and people work for them – people are in fact proud to show off that business card. And there’s no question they’re pumping out vast quantities of human suffering every day. We think of being an insurance adjuster as not only being respectable, but having a downright boring, bean-counter innocuousness to it, when they’re in the business of putting cancer treatment our of people’s reach every day. I think we see all the time that people are comfortable being employed by monsters.
Respectability is so powerful that people will work for absurd villainy if appearances are in order. Right now, in real life on the planet earth, there is a company called Palantir. They do things like make predictive policing engines and work with ICE and develop unmanned drone AI when other companies squick out, and are called Palantir. You know, the seeing stone through which Saruman talks to the Dark Lord Sauron in The Lord of the Rings. They employ 2500 people. 2500 people that that’s okay. It’s an extreme example because it is a cartoon of a despicable company with an evil wizard name, but you can’t tell me that’s harder to justify to one’s self than working for the Kingpin.
WM: Why did you decide to write this story? Why this henchperson, Anna, in particular?
NZW: Hench is actually an autobiography. Which is a joke, but also isn’t. I’ve found myself in many situations where powerful people in my life, or at least the people who had power over me, did not care about me in the slightest. In their minds, I was barely a footnote in their story. I spent a lot of time being at the mercy of people who treated me like an NPC who was only there to serve their grand narrative, and over time that did something to me. Whoever was going to be at the center of this book, she had to know what it was to be vulnerable to people who both had power over her and would not hesitate to through her under the bus, and who was both better and worse for every terrible thing that had happened.
I also wanted to tell all of the stories that make up Hench for all of my friends. I know a genuinely tragic number of legitimate geniuses living in our recent past and present economic wasteland, languishing away at terrible jobs when they should have their own videogame companies or television shows or gallery spaces. When I first started writing it, the book was a collection of awful, funny vignettes that were meant as love letters to all of them.
WM: Why write about henchpeople who work for villains instead of the ones who work for heroes?
NZW: Heroes, being all heroic, don’t have henchpeople, actually. They have sidekicks, who are somewhere between apprentices and employees and younger siblings – it’s a very different, though assuredly fucked up, power dynamic. They also have civilians who they work with or who help them or do their bidding, but it’s not the same thing. Heroes are less honest about these kinds of relationships. A villain will hire you to break knees or crack a safe, but a hero will expect you to help them out of the goodness of your heart no matter how difficult or dangerous it is. Which is a different kind of story, and a different kind of emotional co-dependence. It’s also pretty fascinating, for sure, but there’s no relationship like that between supervillains and their henches.
WM: Why is Leviathan the supervillain in this story?
NZW: Because he’s chosen to be a villain – and while all of the supervillains have chosen to be villains, to one extent or another, his decisions are deeply informed. He looked at the impact of heroism on the people around him, especially on the people he loved, and he decided if that’s what being good was, he didn’t want anything to do with it. It’s sort of a cliché to say that all good villains think of themselves as heroes. Leviathan doesn’t think of himself as a hero. He knows he’s the antagonist. He knows he’s the adversary. He just thinks he’s right.
Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots is officially on-sale today! Want to learn more? Check out the trailer below! And just remember… the difference between a superhero and a villain is just good marketing. And a well-executed spreadsheet.