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Henchgirl Cartoonist Kristen Gudsnuk on the Perils of Young Adulthood & Supervillain Employment

Comics Features Kristen Gudsnuk
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<i>Henchgirl</i> Cartoonist Kristen Gudsnuk on the Perils of Young Adulthood & Supervillain Employment

From the street cops of Gotham Central to the guards in Black Panther: World of Wakanda, a growing roster of characters often relegated to the background have stepped into the spotlight—folks who often stand behind better-known heroes and villains, but deserve just as much exploration. In the right hands, these stories can be compelling and fun, fleshing out familiar yet under-realized players and adding much needed weight to protagonist-heavy settings. Kristen Gudsnuk, writer and artist of Henchgirl, finds a wealth of narrative buried behind the larger-than-life names that often overpower everyone else on the panel.

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Henchgirl nails all the best parts of “becoming an adult” bildungsromans, with a dynamic and diverse cast sorting through 20-something ambiguity. By layering real drama under the high pressure and comedy of a superhero story, Gudsnuk crafts vivid characters and draws readers deeper into her world. The protagonist, Mary, is part of a supervillain’s crew, and struggles with her roommate’s judgment, her family’s rejection, her colleagues’ scheming and a desire to have some sort of romance despite her high-octane life of crime.

Henchgirl is full of visual gags and humor to temper the violence that Mary and her friends face as their story unfolds. Gudsnuk’s skill with characterization and nuanced, unexpected storytelling are complemented by her bright and poppy art style. In advance of Dark Horse’s Henchgirl collection, which bundles the original series plus content never before offered in print, Paste chatted with Gudsnuk to discuss moral shades of gray, the definition of family and moving her work from web to paper.

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Paste: The titular “Henchgirl,” Mary, is one of the few female characters in comics that reads as morally gray. She’s not a bad person, but she does do bad things and she doesn’t always have the greatest motivation. Was it important for you to keep her somewhere in the middle of the ethical spectrum?

Kristen Gudsnuk: I’ve always been naturally inclined toward morally ambiguous characters. And maybe it’s because when the antihero boom happened in pop culture over the past decade, female characters were largely excluded from the excitement and were usually relegated to being the moral compass. The conflict inherent in Mary’s situation makes her a more dynamic character, and gives her more opportunity to grow into a realistic character. I try to actively avoid the annoying Ideal Girlfriend character you see pop up frequently (or her dark reverse, who’s too cool for any trappings of femininity or emotion whatsoever). I just like it when there are different types of women, because that’s how reality is!

Paste: The characters around Mary prove themselves to be pretty flexible when it comes to morality, too, but only as the story unfolds around her. Did you know where everyone was headed when you started, or did the plot and their development evolve as you wrote?

Gudsnuk: There’s a Morrissey lyric that relates perfectly: “Is evil just something you are, or something you do?” I guess I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s something you do, although your actions inform and are informed by your personal character. Henchgirl is mostly lighthearted, but I wanted to explore the toll of being self-destructive—not just on Mary herself (who really self-destructs spectacularly over the course of the book), but also on everyone she interacts with. In a way, her moral turpitude is contagious. I was trying to express something like, We may think we’re only hurting ourselves, but bad decisions radiate outward out of our control. Although I guess good decisions do, too. Who knows?!

I left a lot open to evolve as I was planning, writing and drawing Henchgirl. I had a few points I knew I wanted to hit, but even those changed as I went along!

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Henchgirl Interior Art by Kristen Gudsnuk

Paste: Henchgirl began as a web comic, then was printed in single issues and now as a collected volume. Would you have approached the story differently if you’d started in print?

Gudsnuk: Henchgirl’s pacing has been referred to as “breakneck,” probably because of its beginnings as a web comic. When I started, I was a little overwhelmed with all the crazy ideas I had, and tried to cram a lot into each page. This was because people were reading a page or two a week, and I didn’t want it to be a page or two of someone opening a door or something. I would probably do things a little differently, but it’s so hard to judge! Besides, I got a lot of feedback from readers, so I had the really helpful opportunity to adjust course while still in the thick of it, to see what people are interested in, and even to fill up plot holes that readers pointed out.

Paste: Have you noticed different responses from people reading along online versus those picking up the books? Are people reacting to plot points and changes in ways you didn’t expect?

Gudsnuk: People reading online would give really detailed commentary, whereas IRL readers whom I meet at conventions or who tweet at me are more likely to simply say enthusiastically, “I love Henchgirl!” So far readers on both ends have been really supportive, though.

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Henchgirl Interior Art by Kristen Gudsnuk

Paste: One of the most remarkable things about Henchgirl is the persistent turn away from expected tropes. It would be easier and more familiar to have the book act as a tidy redemption arc, but you frequently steered the story toward more nuanced and difficult outcomes. Was that always part of your plan?

Gudsnuk: It’s probably my contrarian nature. Whenever I feel myself drifting into familiar tropes, I have the most fun time trying to think of ways to turn tropes on their head. The difficult thing about crafting stories is that you want them to be enjoyable and fun, so you want some sort of escapism—which is probably where the superhero stuff comes in. And then, when your readers’ guards are down, you trick them into thinking about somewhat heavy subject matter. (Then, if you’re me, you end it with a dumb joke because you’re 30 levels of irony deep.)

Paste: Henchgirl is populated in large part by women. There are tertiary characters who are men, but with the exception of Fred, the core characters are women. Was that an intentional choice from the beginning?

Gudsnuk: I actually joke that my comic doesn’t quite pass the Reverse Bechdel Test. Which was completely unintentional. Because I was thinking so much about playing around with (and inverting) superhero comic tropes, I thought it would be really funny to flout the norm and skip over Mr. Great Guy (a grotesque Batman/Superman pastiche) and his nemesis Monsieur Butterfly’s narratives. I could tell a lot of my webcomic readers were itching to hear more about Mr. Great Guy…but the conceit of Henchgirl is partially that it’s about characters who, in a traditional superhero comic, would be the tertiary characters, seen in a panel or two and then never again.

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Henchgirl Interior Art by Kristen Gudsnuk

Paste: A lot of what drives Mary’s story forward is the conflicting needs of and eventual collision of her biological family with her “logical” families, which is pretty common for people in their 20s. How did you layer the story to keep it grounded in reality without losing the fantastical superhero elements?

Gudsnuk: I wanted to explore that sense of familial disconnect that comes when you get older. When you’re a kid, everything your parents say is Word of God. Then, when you’re older, you realize your parents are just people, for better or for worse. You watch an old video and they’re as old then as you are now, and you try to reconcile the myriad different versions of your parents. I felt like Mary’s personal arc was the bones of the comic, and the fantastical elements would probably collapse into themselves without the structure of Mary’s personal arc regarding her friends, parents and job. But it was also because those were the elements I was most interested in writing about!

Paste: There are a lot of references and Easter eggs tucked away in panels all through the book, from Sailor Moon to Archer to Pokémon. Why did you want to include those?

Gudsnuk: I just throw in references to things I like, if only because they’ve ingrained themselves so deeply into my subconscious. Usually they’re nestled in the background, just a little extra reward for those who read Henchgirl extremely closely.

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Henchgirl Interior Art by Kristen Gudsnuk

Paste: Henchgirl builds on the tradition of recognizable superheroes like Batman and Superman without being beholden to them. How did you balance poking fun at beloved, longstanding characters and tropes without being cruel or mocking?

Gudsnuk: I actually just try not to censor myself, which is hard when people are definitely going to read what you’re writing. And I have always had a pitch-black sense of humor. So I let myself be as mean spirited as I want, but deep down I love Batman and superhero stories so much—a little bit of my wonder and glee keeps my humor from getting too mean!

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Henchgirl Interior Art by Kristen Gudsnuk

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