The Rise of Real-Life Superheroes: And the Fall of Everything Else


Anna Tromedlov, the anti-hero of Natalie Zina Walschots’s stunning debut novel, Hench, isn’t drawn to villainy because of any deep-seated issues or evil intent. For Anna, temporary work as a henchperson to supervillains is just a way to make ends meet, a logical extension of the gig economy. It isn’t glamorous – data entry is data entry, no matter what the profession – but her patchwork freelance life keeps her in ramen. Everything changes, though, when the nefarious plans of her current employer, Electric Eel, are foiled by Supercollider (with assistance from Accelerator and Quantum Entanglement). Anna is left seriously injured and jobless.

During her recovery, Anna starts to calculate the true cost, environmental and otherwise, of superheroes – “Supercollider was as bad for the world as an earthquake.” She also draws the attention of Supercollider’s arch-nemesis, Leviathan, “the monster lurking beneath the surface of the world.” Leviathan hires Anna, assists with her recovery, gives her control of a team, and enables her to pursue revenge against Supercollider and his ilk. The Auditor is born.

Part origin story, part revenge drama, part workplace comedy, Hench is a hilarious and frequently bloody deconstruction of the superhero mythos from the point of view of its collateral damage. Anna is a sharply drawn, utterly realistic character, so steeped in the vagaries of “contemporary existence” as to be almost emblematic of our cultural fragmentation. The novel is also incisively smart, clear-eyed in its examination not only of familiar superhero tropes but of the way those tropes shape and are shaped by society at large. The relationship between Supercollider and Quantum Entanglement, for example, is a vivid parsing of “traditional” relationships, enforced gender roles, and societal double standards.

As smart as it is, though, Hench is also pure reading delight. Walschots clearly knows her comics, and her storytelling is sheer pleasure, from Anna’s defensive snarkiness to the novel’s dynamic handling of scene (you can picture the epic double-paged spreads in your head) to the final confrontation between Anna and Supercollider, which will have readers cheering and cringing in equal measure. Hench is an instant classic, the sort of book you’ll want to protect in a mylar sleeve while you wait – and hope – for the arrival of the second issue.

While Walschots uses the lens of fiction to parse the role of superheroes in our society, Toronto-based journalist Peter Nowak takes a different tack. In The Rise of Real-Life Superheroes, Nowak examines the caped crusaders prowling the dirty streets and alleys of the real world. Yes, heroes walk among us. From the Xtreme Justice League, “the self-proclaimed guardians of downtown San Diego,” who patrol the nightlife-focused Gaslamp District defusing tensions and breaking up fights, to environmental crusader the Fox and the members of Toronto’s Trillium Guard handing out cold weather supplies, these are individuals and groups genuinely making a difference. But why?

Nowak tackles that question with journalistic intensity, tracing real-life superheroes (RLSH) through a history of the comic book medium and an analysis of American vigilante culture. The latter begins with the Wild West and travels through the community-based actions of the Black Panthers in the 1960s, and the rise of the Guardian Angels in 1970s New York, a decade when the metropolis earned its reputation as Fear City. “The motivations of these groups,” Nowak writes, “regardless of who they were representing or protecting, were similar on a basic level: when there is no one in power to do the job, it’s incumbent on citizens to do it for themselves.” RLSH is the latest incarnation of this impulse, fuelled by the ubiquity of comic books and related films and television series.

But it’s not just the U.S. and Canada that have experienced this phenomenon: one of the most delightful chapters in the book documents the role of RLSH in Mexico, drawing on the tropes of lucha libre wrestling. Nowak’s exploration of RLSH in Africa takes a darker note, with the brutal vigilantism of Nigeria’s Bakassi Boys contrasted against the rise of “entrepreneurial efforts” to fill the void in effective, legitimate, and trusted law enforcement.

Crucially, Nowak deals with these RLSH with a completely straight face. While some might consider an adult dressing up in repurposed athletic gear to attempt social change as laughable, Nowak delves beneath the often ridiculous surface to seriously examine not only the motivations of these costumed heroes but their effectiveness and their role in society. He doesn’t take the heroes at face value (especially when it comes to figures like the beer-guzzling Masked Legend in Orlando, Florida) but does put them in a larger context. “Whatever your view may be of real-life superheroes, it’s hard to dispute the purity of the message they espouse,” Nowak writes. “[A]nyone who wants to change the world must first start by changing themselves.”



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