IN MY OPINION: A Farewell to The Boys (IMO:COM)
This article is about The Boys, Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s series from Dynamite Entertainment, which just finished with issue 72. Though I avoid all specifics, it unavoidably contains some spoilers for the series.
Belfast-born Garth Ennis cited ‘The Boys’ as his last word on Superheroes. No doubt it is. If you’ve read any interview with Ennis, you will know his interests lie elsewhere. His best work has always been outside the remit of the kind of hero who never got a handle on what side of their trousers their underpants belong. Preacher, Battlefields, Judge Dredd. At Marvel, his nine year run on the Punisher demonstrates this well if you split it into two parts. It began under the Marvel Knights label, and later moved to the Max imprint. While under MK there were superhero crossovers, cartoonish violence and a supporting cast built for laughs (Spakker Dave etc). Once Frank Castle crossed over to Max territory though, the title really came into its own. This allowed more mature content, which itself was a vital part of Ennis’ depiction of the Punisher. The real difference, however, was casting aside the shackles of the Marvel Universe and allowing the character to exist on his own. Gone was the silly spandex spoofery. Under Max, the humour was strung up, drained of its blood, and left to blacken in the sun. This was the Punisher, not as a hero of any kind, but a man at war. A man so single-mindedly driven to violence and revenge that even the term anti-hero would seem an uncomfortable fit. It was a war story, and it was a brutal, gripping and essential read.
But back to the Boys. Sure, it involved superheroes. But The Boys was never about superheroes. Superheroes were no more the point of the Boys than zombies are the point of the Walking Dead. In The Boys, the supes, as they are known, are a weapon, generally of the U.S. military. Developed and controlled by private industry, they are a stand-in for the awful entanglement of industry, war and government. The Boys was a cold, hard look at the lack of separation between those that stand to profit from war, and those that persecute war. The Boys was about the darker side of America. It was about the Bush era, it was about war for profit. It tackled 9/11, and WMDs (supes, in this instance). The ‘Barbary Coast’ story arc was in large part a history of the United States intelligence services. Fictionalised, but still telling. This was the dark underbelly of American history and of its present. While Preacher occasionally broke into a love-song to the States, The Boys cast a much colder eye.
It begun rather sensationally. The gratuitous and gleeful violence and sexual wrongness (do I need to mention the hamster?) led to DC/Wildstorm dropping the book like a scorching spud. But it was only after it moved away from its more controversial territory and got into the meat of the story that The Boys really took off. Under the stewardship of its new publisher Dynamite, the book gradually began to show its true colours. The breakdown of the team as it became clearer what Butcher was really up to, the awful depths of what his character was capable of. The history of superheroes, and the events of 9/11 as they happened in the world of The Boys. The slow realisation that Ennis had been planting the seeds for the final two arcs since the very first arc. When everything else was stripped slowly away and you were left with the story of what one man was willing to do for his beliefs, and what another could do to stop him. It was about power and responsibility in a more powerful way than any webslinger could ever state. It showed what you get when you make people powerful in any way, shape or form. Politicians, soldiers, spies. It was about weighing up the need versus the cost of these people. Billy himself puts it well in the penultimate issue:
‘You need blokes like me, Hughie. It’s what we get up to in our spare time you’ve gotta worry about’
Even while tackling these weighty issues, the series never felt heavy. Throughout, the reader was carried along with ease by Ennis’s
mastery of engaging, character-driven, and often shocking storytelling. Issue 59, when Butcher goes for revenge against a superhero stupid enough to have hit him where it hurts, is the example that drives this home for me. It was just one man facing down another, and after the massacres, gore, and myriad over-the-top horrors the book had already delivered, I figured I was immune to any shock value the book had left in it. Of course, I was underestimating what Ennis had to give. The scene was visceral, horrific, brutal. Shocking? It bloody well chilled me, and stayed with me long after, much like the final issues refuse to lie down and leave my head.
The Boys was the best series I have read since Brian K Vaughan wrapped up Y: The Last Man. With any luck, The Boys was Ennis’ last word on Superheroes, and he will go on to deliver more creator-owned stories at publishers where he has the freedom to keep exploring other genres, and to keep showing the breadth and brilliance that comics are capable of.