Sunday, September 30, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #273: Henchgirl by Kristen Gudsnuk

Flipping the script is a great way to freshen things up. The standard take on Young People Today is that they're poor and stressed out, so how about giving your heroine more income than she knows what to do with and a give-no-fucks attitude?

OK, sure, she still lives in a dumpy apartment with two roommates, because young people always do that, but she actually has a decent health-care plan. (Though she does have to see Dr. Maniac every time.)

That's the kind of plan you get when you work for a supervillain: those are the pros and cons. You have to fight superheroes a lot, but you make a lot of money and get to steal really cool things.

This is Mary Posa's life: she's a Henchgirl in the Butterfly Gang, run by Monsieur Butterfly. (The other members: Larry Va, Paladan Birdwing, Chris Calis, Katie Pillar, and of course Coco Oon.) She's young and gleeful in Crepe City, in this offbeat and not-entirely-serious story about superpersons by Kristen Gudsnuk.

I said "not-entirely-serious," but it's not entirely silly, either. Henchgirl is neither parody nor straight superhero story, but something more particular, in-between. Mary's world is silly, maybe even a little more so than your standard superhero world, but it's taken as seriously as any of those. Mary lives in a town where the preeminent hero is Mr. Great Guy, and where we the readers can figure out pretty easily that's he's actually millionaire playboy Greg Gains. But that's where she really lives: it's not the basis for jokes. Crepe City is absurd in different ways than our world -- ways that align with a lot of superhero-comics cliches -- but who's to say those absurdities are less likely?

Mary is flippant and frivolous and carefree -- well, as carefree as you can be when you're one of the top lieutenants of a major villain in a superhero universe. Luckily, this is the kind of superhero universe where the villains mostly get away with it and their henchfolks are rolling in the dough. Things blow up, buildings fall down, aliens invade and kill thousands -- it's a modern superhero world, and it would probably look pretty grim 'n' gritty if we were seeing it from Mr. Great Guy's POV.

For Mary, though, it's pretty sweet for a long time: she gets a boyfriend, Fred, who is also the not-terribly-effective superhero Mannequin, and uses him to leak her boss's plan to rob an orphanage. (So the crew does her heist instead, and also she gets to feel good about the horrible thing they didn't do.) The money's great, the hours aren't bad, and she can live with her roommates Tina and Sue complaining about her evil activities and lack of tax-paying work.

But then things start getting more problematic: Monsieur Butterfly is getting violent as he searches for the "mole" in his gang...and the gang is not that big to begin with. And her parents, the '80s-era heroes Flame Girl and El Romancero, come to town on their big fancy book tour, accompanied by the daughter they did put in their book, the budding superheroine Photo-Girl.

And Mannequin gets a new crime-fighting partner in the cute but overwhelming Lovely Celestial Angel Amelia, and along the way gets a power increase from her magical gadgets and a new identity as the Time Baron. And Mary's roommate Tina starts developing a weird superpower of her own. And Mary's attempt at heroism, saving her parents from a supervillain, is successful but not particularly popular (or legal, for that matter).

Can one henchgirl make it through all of those problems and find happiness, fulfillment, and that one perfect mask? You'd better believe it!

Mary is an interesting character: a slacker villain henchwoman with vaguely good intentions and a random vague cluelessness that may be just not bothering with things that bore her. The world around her is filled with similarly interesting people -- all pretty flawed, in various ways, but not necessarily bad people, even if they spend their time robbing banks and cheating orphans.

This is the complete Henchgirl, at least for now. There could be more stories about Mary, but Gudsnuk left her in a good superhero-universe ending spot, so I don't think there will be any for at least a few years.

I think Henchgirl was creator Kristen Gudsnuk's first major work -- or maybe I think that because I didn't hear of her before this. (And I hope I would have heard of someone doing work that's this much fun!) She's got a nice, easy line, in a modern style with some anime and western-animation influences and a loose-limbed ease with action and the lack thereof.

I liked Henchgirl a lot -- example: while Googling Gudsnuk to type this, I found she has a new middle-grade graphic novel out this year, and I already have a hold on it at the library -- and, if you actually read my blog, there's a very good chance you will, as well. It's that kind of off-kilter semi-superhero thing that uses the genre as a jumping-off point rather than a pit to wallow in.

Gudsnuk is funny and smart and tells good stories with good people. I hope she does a lot more comics, so I can read 'em.

1 comment:

Jordan said...

This was genuinely one of the more interesting and well thought out reviews of Henchgirl I've ever read!

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