The Greats: Harvey Pekar

pekarMy mother died on July 6, 2010. Six days later, Harvey Pekar died. Both deaths hit me hard. The former should need no explanation, but the latter might.

500x_tweeetebert71210Who was Harvey Pekar? He was a retired file clerk, a jazz critic, a husband and adoptive father, an autodidact, a voracious reader, a Jew who frowned on Israel’s policies, a guest on David Letterman’s show, the subject of an Oscar-nominated film, an armchair historian of the times and culture that shaped him. Most relevant to this column, though, he was an influential — some would say revolutionary — writer of comic books.

Pekar wasn’t interested in superheroes. Nor was he into the wild sex-and-drugs ethos of the underground comics of the ’60s. But while hanging out with his buddy Robert Crumb — soon to become famous as one of the greatest cartoonists the medium has ever seen — Pekar took a look at a comic Crumb had drawn, and he had an epiphany: “Comics are words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures.” So he took a das-comicay gig as a file clerk in a VA hospital, and in his spare time he began roughing out comics stories. He didn’t draw, but he managed to interest Crumb and some other local artists in providing the pictures to flesh out his words. He didn’t get around to self-publishing the first issue of his life’s work, American Splendor, until 1977.

Pekar eschewed escapism in favor of slice-of-life realism. When mainstream comics try to be “realistic,” what that usually means is that the superheroes bleed or drop F-bombs. Pekar was after something else. Many of his stories took the form of monologues, Pekar holding forth on some topic. Others focused on everyday foibles — Pekar built entire stories out of standing in line at the grocery store or losing his glasses. No mean raconteur himself, Pekar loved listening to and sharing other people’s tales as well, often stepping out of the way and letting co-workers, buddies or random acquaintances wag their chins, sometimes for pages and pages. The point was clear: Everyone had a story, a point of view, an inner life.

The force of Pekar’s personality — raspy-voiced but eloquent, working-class but culturally refined, smart but not snobbish, pugnacious but pragmatically pacifist — helped put everything over, and the variety of artists illustrating his comics (some great, some just serviceable) guaranteed a draw for discerning fans of cartooning. Alas, the rewards were not immediate. For years Pekar toiled in the wilderness, losing money on the endeavor even though he hustled his ass off trying to get American Splendor under the noses of both potential readers and media outlets that might make a difference. An anxiety-ridden depressive, he agonized over the mere possibility that a forthcoming review of his work might be negative.

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Slowly Pekar gained visibility. He made the first of several appearances on Late Night with David Letterman in 1986. Pekar dusted off his old street-spieler persona from his youthful days on the corner shooting the shit and playing the dozens. Letterman enjoyed the grouchy give-and-take enough to invite Pekar back, but Pekar soon fell out of favor when he tried, on a 1988 appearance, to point out the hypocrisy of GE, which owned NBC, which at the time was Letterman’s boss. (God knows what Pekar would’ve made of the NBC/Comcast merger.) So Pekar was banished from the show — though he was asked back years later after the first of his three bouts with cancer — and it was back to the drawing board. Pekar later said that his Letterman spots never did much to promote and sell his comics anyway.

pekar0808What did move the books, finally, was the movie American Splendor, released to justified acclaim in 2003. Starring Paul Giamatti as Pekar and Hope Davis as his no-nonsense wife and collaborator Joyce Brabner, the film introduced a new audience to Pekar’s kvetching aesthetic. Pekar and Brabner appeared in the film, bemused onlookers in their own biopic. Judah Friedlander, later a 30 Rock regular, played Pekar’s eccentric co-worker Toby Radloff, who had his fifteen minutes of fame on MTV in the late ’80s. According to Pekar in an interview with Walrus Comix, “What happened was I had just been on the Letterman show… and MTV sent somebody out to do a story on me at the VA Hospital and I was just taking them around and showing them different things. I introduced them to Toby and after five minutes with him they kicked me to the curb!  I can’t compete with that guy.” Toby appeared as himself in the film, too.

By then, Pekar was no longer self-publishing American Splendor; various book publishers had reprinted his early comics in trade-paperback form, and the semi-indie comics company Dark Horse (which also distributed Frank Miller’s Sin City and 300) started publishing Pekar’s comic in 1993. Bizarrely, in 2005 Pekar found a new niche at DC Comics, the home of Superman and Batman. Actually, it was DC’s Vertigo imprint, which specialized in mature-audiences fare like Hellblazer (which became the movie Constantine with Keanu Reeves), but still — DC publishing Harvey Pekar was a trip, man. Pekar’s DC tour began with the superb 2005 graphic novel The Quitter and lasted through two four-issue miniseries (which are available as the trade paperbacks Another Day and Another Dollar).

Pekar kept busy till the end. Retired from clerking, he initially had trouble keeping his overactive mind from eating itself; he was also obsessed with making enough “bread” so that his wife Joyce and their adopted daughter Danielle could survive once he was gone. He kept writing comics; he wrote the libretto for an opera, Leave Me Alone!; he guested on an Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations segment filmed in Pekar’s Cleveland stomping grounds. Bourdain, a fan, treated Pekar like the local literary lion he was; a Pekar collection to be published in April is said to include a Bourdain “appreciation” of his Cleveland guide. Bourdain still considers the Cleveland show his favorite No Reservations episode.

bourdain-pekarFacing a third fight with cancer — the first had been chronicled in his 1994 masterpiece Our Cancer Year — Pekar died of an accidental overdose of antidepressants. I was still reeling from my mother’s death not even a week before, and when word of Pekar’s passing hit the internet I felt my stomach sink. Death is both always expected and never expected. I had seen my mom’s death coming — it was a long, difficult illness — but I hadn’t known Pekar was even sick again. At 70, he was two years older than my mom. At times like that, you reflect that all deaths are untimely. Pekar’s loss, for me personally, was obviously not on the level of my mother’s, but — even though I’d never met, spoken with or corresponded with the man — I felt I’d lost a friend.

I’d discovered American Splendor in high school, right when I was starting to tire of spandexed beefcakes punching each other and was looking for something more substantive, more experimental. I found it in a variety of indie comics (many published by Fantagraphics), and I damn well found it in Harvey Pekar. I bought American Splendor wherever I could find it. He was one of the very few comics creators I fantasized about just shooting the shit with — and he probably would’ve been receptive; his number was listed, and he used to talk to his fans on the phone (or write back to them) all the time. I could’ve reached out to him, but I think I decided it would be better to let him be. The man didn’t owe me his time; he’d given me twenty-some years of great comics.

At the end of one of his stories, Pekar poignantly asked: “Will anyone at all read my stuff after I’m dead? Will they wonder what kind of guy I was?” The answer to the first question: a resounding yes. Second question: probably not. Harvey Pekar, after all, spent 33 years of his creative and personal life showing us what kind of guy he was — the kind of guy more people should aspire to be: honest, passionate, committed, hard-working, and uniquely insightful about this weird matrix we’re all stuck in. In short, one of the good guys.

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Happy Birthday, You Old Bastard: Constantine Turns 58

jcimage‘Kinell. Our boy John Constantine ain’t no young git any more. On May 10, Constantine will observe (not celebrate, God knows) his 58th birthday.

Who the hell am I going on about? I’ll explain.

1. THE BEGINNING

quadropheniastingnm7Once upon a midnight dreary, comics legend Alan Moore — not quite yet a legend at the time we’re talking about, 1983 — took over writing duties on DC Comics’ Saga of the Swamp Thing. The following conversation (note: not really verbatim) happened between Moore and the artists he’d be working with on the comic, penciller Stephen R. Bissette and inker John Totleben:

MOORE: Right. Is there anything you lads would especially like to draw?
BISSETTE AND TOTLEBEN: Well, we’d kind of like to draw a character who looks like Sting.
MOORE: All righty then.

So Bissette and Totleben snuck said Gordon Sumner lookalike into a panel of Swamp Thing #24:

constantine1-1…and from there, Sting-clone became John Constantine, the sort of character Moore had always wanted to write: a wised-up, cynical, working-class Brit magus, no fancy-pants elite sorcerer with a cape but a “nasty piece of work” who kept an aura of hostile mystery wrapped around him like the rumpled trenchcoat he usually wore.

annhb1843Constantine was a part of Swamp Thing’s supporting cast for quite a while, showing up to manipulate the plant elemental into various journeys to save the world, or, at least, several random small towns. (Oh, yes, and the world.) In 1988, Constantine got his own comic book: Hellblazer.

2. STRIKING OUT ON HIS OWN

hellblazerissue1The dude was popular, and remains so: Hellblazer has appeared monthly, first under the general DC imprint and then under DC’s mature-readers Vertigo imprint, ever since. The latest issue, as I write this, is #278. Almost two years from now, Hellblazer will hit the big 300. Well, the fans hope so, anyway. In connection with DC’s latest big crossover event Brightest Day, Constantine — along with Swamp Thing — has been brought back into the regular DC universe, and everyone hopes that doesn’t mean the end of no-kiddies-allowed Vertigo adventures with copious gore, nudity and F-bombs. The earlier issues of Hellblazer, before R-rated language became permissible in DC/Vertigo titles (don’t quote me, but I seem to recall it was Neil Gaiman’s Sandman #64 that finally broke the “fuck” barrier), have the hapless Constantine forced to say things like “Friggin’ wanker” … and, really, if you’re going to say “wanker,” you might as well go big with it and say “Fucking wanker.” But I digress.

The appeal of Constantine is pretty simple: he takes no crap, he knows his stuff, and he’s a good guy to have on your side. Just don’t get too close to him: his friends have a disconcerting habit of dying. Every so often, his dead friends pay him a visit in spectral form, calling him a wanker (or a fucking wanker) or just staring at him in mute accusation. He’s had many girlfriends over the years (and a few boyfriends; you can see him swapping spit with a male lover/adversary in Ashes & Dust), and recently got hitched to a woman young enough to be his daughter. Constantine may be damned to hell, but he’s a basically decent chap who won’t stand for people being ground down by anyone more powerful, be they humans, angels or demons. He’s deeply flawed, of course, but that just adds to his appeal. He’s not perfect, not a white knight riding to the rescue; he’s just a bloke who happens to have a lot of street smarts and an equal amount of metaphysical smarts.

constantineoldSomewhere along the line, it was decided that Constantine would age in “real time.” Unlike everyone else in comics, who seem to stay in their twenties or thirties forever, Constantine turned 40 in 1993, in a Garth Ennis-written story appropriately titled “Forty.” These days, eighteen years later (and damn, that makes him and me feel old), Constantine is a bit worse for wear: a scar mars his face, he hacked off his own thumb during a fit of madness, and his once-blonde hair has gone white. However, since he’s also got demon blood coursing through his veins, his aging process might be a little slower than most blokes’. He may be pushing 60, and his days as a ’70s punk-rock screamer are many moons behind him, but he’s not looking too shabby, all things considered (he still smokes and drinks to excess).

3. THE MOVIE, OR “TEEN” VS. “TINE”

Constantine got a bit of a PR boost in 2005, when a movie bearing his name hit theaters. If you thought the fanboy outcry was bad when Michael Keaton was announced as Batman, imagine the pants-shitting fury when Constantine, the British-to-his-toes gutter wizard whose early appearance was patterned on Sting, was slated to be played by one Keanu Charles Reeves.

constantine_keanu1Thing is, Keanu wasn’t all that bad as this character named John Constantine. He just wasn’t our John Constantine. He was, if you will, an alternate-universe Constantine who wore all black and hung out in Los Angeles instead of London. (Who knows, the Keanu version might even be the original Constantine’s son, from some L.A. bird Constantine shagged back in the day.)

In the comics, Constantine’s name rhymes with “wine.” Constan-TINE. In the movie, it’s pronounced Constan-TEEN. So there you have it. Constan-TEEN is the American riff, altered to appeal to TEENS (dude, Shia LaBoeuf is even in it). Constan-TINE is the real deal.

constanteen4. FEEL LIKE CELEBRATING THE MAN’S BIRTHDAY?

Hellblazer may have 278 (and counting) issues for you to fish through, but that doesn’t mean you have to read all of them. I’ve read most of ’em, and there’s a reason that not all of them have been collected in trade paperbacks: not all of them are really keepers. (Vertigo has, though, recently announced plans to reissue all the Hellblazer stories chronologically in trades.) There are, however, more than a few trade collections and original graphic novels that are worth your time and work perfectly well as stand-alone tales. Some are out of print, but used copies can be bought online from the usual suspects.

originalsinsORIGINAL SINS (collects Hellblazer #1-9) — The beginning of ol’ John’s solo venture. Writer Jamie Delano, whose run lasted till issue #40 (and the occasional story thereafter), took the opportunity to address social and political issues in a few of the stories, which may make this volume seem somewhat dated, what with the references to Thatcher and yuppies. (Also, like seemingly every other comics writer in the late ’80s, Delano had a whack at a Vietnam story.) But a lot of Hellblazer‘s groundwork — including John’s cab-driving buddy Chas, inexplicably played in the flick by Shia LaBoeuf — was laid here. NOTE: There’s a new edition of this volume that came out in March; it includes a couple of Swamp Thing stories that tie in with a couple of Hellblazer stories here. The previous edition didn’t contain the Swamp Thing issues, so part of the story was missing. So if you’re gonna get this, make sure you get the newer reissue.

dangeroushabitsDANGEROUS HABITS (collects Hellblazer #41-46) — The Constantine movie was loosely based on this seminal storyline, written by Garth Ennis (Preacher) and drawn, rather shakily I have to say, by Will Simpson. Years of smoking have deposited an unwelcome little friend in Constantine’s lungs, and he’s been given a matter of weeks to live. Problem: as soon as he dies, he’s going to Hell, where a vengeful Satan awaits him. How he thinks his way out of this mess makes this a great illustration of Constantine’s resources under pressure, and it climaxes with perhaps the quintessential hard-ass Constantine image (swiped for the movie).

hauntedHAUNTED (collects Hellblazer #134-139) — Mad bastard Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan, Red) started his brief tour through the Constantine-verse with this exceedingly grim piece wherein Constantine tries to find a naff Aleister Crowley wannabe who snuffed his ex-girlfriend. Ellis is in rare downbeat form here, going off on tangents about what a cesspool London is and what atrocities happen there every day, but since they mostly happen to poor people like Constantine’s ex, nobody gives a toss.

After a few stand-alone issues, Ellis left Hellblazer when DC/Vertigo declined to print his school-shooting story “Shoot,” which was written before Columbine but would have hit the stands shortly thereafter. Perhaps understandably, DC was worried about running a comic-book story featuring a trenchcoated lead character (remember the Trenchcoat Mafia?) who hypothesizes that the reason there are so many school massacres is that kids have no hope and no future. The story did circulate online in bootleg form and was later published in a Vertigo Resurrected volume.

hardtimeHARD TIME (collects Hellblazer #146-150) — Or, Constantine Goes to Oz. The Oz of the HBO prison drama, that is, not L. Frank Baum. Hard-ass writer Brian Azzarello (100 Bullets) began his Hellblazer run by sending Constantine to the clink for something he didn’t do (we find out exactly what in the last chapter). Constantine uses his wits and magical know-how to set himself up alongside the jail’s lifer bigwig Stark, which gets him into even worse trouble. Legendary artist Richard Corben does the honors here, and if his figures are sort of squat (as usual), he creates a despairing and ominous mood.

horroristTHE HORRORIST — A two-parter from old-school Hellblazer scribe Jamie Delano, with appropriately gloomy art by David Lloyd (V for Vendetta), this tale can be found in the collection The Devil You Know. Here, Constantine is up against a woman who saw untold suffering as a child in Mozambique and now seeks to show others how cruel life can be. John starts out as a bit of a cold bastard here — Delano overworks the “cold” symbolism a bit — but at the end of his travails he has gained, as Martin Blank put it, a new-found respect for human life. Sometimes a bit up itself, but the central conflict is solid, with a villain who isn’t really a villain and a hero who isn’t really a hero.

allhisenginesALL HIS ENGINES — What do you do when your best mate’s little daughter falls victim to a demonic “coma bug” that’s sweeping the planet? Well, if you’re John Constantine, you play a death god against a hellspawn and watch the fireworks. This original graphic novel, written by Hellblazer regular Mike Carey, shows the softer side of ol’ John as he steps up to the plate to save a little girl on behalf of his long-suffering cabbie friend Chas. Featuring possibly the most disgusting demon ever, who bathes in the liquefied flesh of corpses.

darkentriesDARK ENTRIES — Ian Rankin, bestselling author of the Rebus crime-fiction series, pops in for a visit to John’s neighborhood with this story that borrows equally from Big Brother and House on Haunted Hill. Several contestants are isolated in a house for a reality show as an experiment in fear; unfortunately, they start seeing disturbing things even before the show’s producers can start messing with their heads. So the producers bring in Constantine to see what’s what. Things aren’t that simple, though, as we learn the true nature of the reality show and how all the people in the house are connected. Nicely crafted, with pleasing black-and-white brushstroke art by Werther Dell’Edera, it was one of the first graphic novels in the Vertigo Crime series, launched in 2009.

vertigosecretfilesVERTIGO SECRET FILES: HELLBLAZER — This 48-pager, which dropped in 2000, is the ultimate one-stop shopping when it comes to the world of John Constantine. It’s got everything that a newcomer or a longtime fan could want: fiction with spot illustrations, a funny Brian Azzarello comic with a wee John having his first cigarette, concise guides to every major supporting character (including a gorgeous portrait of Swamp Thing and his lady love Abigail by John Totleben), a timeline, a lengthy article with interviews with just about everyone who’d written Hellblazer up to that point, and even a map of “John Constantine’s London.” Some of it wound up in the collection Rare Cuts, but you should really try to find the issue itself; used copies are fairly cheap.

So that should get you started. And if you happen to meet ol’ John today, give him a pack of Silk Cuts and buy him a Guinness. Just don’t ask him to read your cards or anything daft like that, or you’re likely to get this response:

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Love and Rockets: New Stories #3

Let me try to explain why I prefer Jaime Hernandez to Gilbert Hernandez. I mean, they’re both great, they’re both masters. I’m never unhappy to see a piece by Gilbert. But here’s the thing — Jaime’s stuff is … more rational, more inviting. I don’t guess he’d be thrilled to hear that, but there you go. You open a Xaime story, you know what you’re gonna get. He’s a known quantity/quality on the richest level, the way you know what you’re getting when you read Carl Barks. With Barks, you’re going to get a perfectly-told duck story. With Xaime, you’re going to get a perfectly-told Locas story: clean (not in the Disney sense) and humanistic and relatable, funny, sad, the whole package.

Beto, on the other hand …. His shit is scary creative, and sometimes just scary. Gilbert is the higher mathematics, you know what I’m saying? Ever since “Human Diastrophism” I haven’t felt safe in his company, haven’t trusted that crazy bastard. Because he will do some fucked-up shit when you least expect it. He can’t even do porn (Birdland) without surreal amounts of jizz spurting all over the place. They’re both artists — like, Artists — but Gilbert is on another level. Not necessarily a higher or lower level. In another zone, maybe.

So, boom, right on Jump Street of Love and Rockets: New Stories #3 there’s a Gilbert story. Deep breath. Okay. In we go with gun and flashlight.

And here we have “Scarlet by Moonlight,” which, according to Douglas Wolk, is “an adaptation of a movie in which [Beto’s] B-movie actress character Fritz appeared.” Three condescending anthropologists/scientists/whatever are in a forest studying a family of cat-people. Living nearby are monkey-like humanoid things called “pinkies,” which nobody seems to like. Scarlet, the big-bosomed cat-woman, seduces one of the scientists, and very fast the story goes right off the rails into insanity HOLY SHIT GILBERT DID NOT JUST DO THAT YES HE DID JESUS CHRIST.

Gilbert’s other story is “Killer/Sad Girl/Star,” which tracks “Killer,” an actress (a descendant of Beto’s most famous character, Luba) who seems to be considering a remake of the aforementioned cat-people flick. The narrative flips back and forth between a movie in which Killer appeared as a cavegirl, a possible sequel in which she’s an unfrozen cavewoman turned superheroine, and a crime movie featuring two naked guys who HOLY SHIT BETO DON’T KEEP DOING THAT.

I sound as though I hate what Gilbert is doing, but I don’t. Even during the most horrific moments, he has an ebullient sense of play, and his cartooning demands close reading not because the drawing is murky — it’s fearlessly open — but because he toys so much with narrative that we feel his riffing and experimenting are the point of the narrative.

After two issues among superheroines (and, man, wasn’t that a bold and sensationally entertaining reminder of how much fun superhero comics can be but so often aren’t these days), Jaime returns to Maggie, Ray, and a heretofore obscure character. The two-part “The Love Bunglers” reunites Maggie Chascarillo, the post-punk bisexual mechanic-turned-landlady with whom Jaime has been in love for almost thirty years, and Ray Dominguez, Jaime’s schlubby surrogate. Ray has aged and thickened from a Cusackian twentysomething into, well, something like what Cusack looks like now, only with an unflattering ‘stache (don’t even get me started on how Ray’s buddy Doyle has wizened over the years). Time passes like a mofo, and Maggie and Ray both are and aren’t the same people who went to see the polar bears all those issues ago.

The masterpiece here is “Browntown,” a young-Maggie story in which we meet her little brother Calvin. We actually meet him in “The Love Bunglers Part One,” but we don’t realize that until “Part Two,” when the whole narrative clicks together devastatingly. I shouldn’t say more, except that here, Xaime gives Beto a run for his money JESUS CHRIST JAIME WHY YOU DO THAT? WE GOT THE POINT THE FIRST TIME, WE DON’T HAVE TO KEEP SEEING IT …. But we kind of do, because it explains things we didn’t even know needed explaining.

Los Bros have both created these distinct universes (Palomar, Hoppers) in which they can play and dig and expand and explore, and there’s really nothing else like it in American comics. What started as a sort of Heavy Metal riff (both narratives began steeped in sci-fi and fantasy, until eventually naturalism and magical realism took over) has evolved into a two-tiered celebration of the medium and of storytelling, with dozens upon dozens of characters, each with his or her own rich backstory intertwined with other, equally rich backstories. I’m sympathetic to newcomers who find Love and Rockets a bit daunting, both as a “where do I start?” saga and as a monolith of critically acclaimed sequential art. But all I can say is, if you’re missing it, you don’t even begin to know what you’re missing.

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The Boys

The Boys #46 has just hit the shops, which is as good an excuse as any to christen this here blog with an overview of my favorite current monthly title. It’s yet another kick in the balls from Garth Ennis, who like his Scottish contemporary Mark Millar likes to take the piss out of superheroes. Ennis’ best work, for me, remains Preacher, but The Boys is giving that Vertigo series a run for its money.

The Boys are a scrappy band of outsiders led by dead-cool British thug Billy Butcher (pictured above, holding an adversary aloft by the balls), who despises “supes” for a very personal reason. Like the other team members — the wordless, hellaciously lethal Female; the crazy, Badger-like Frenchman; the hulking Mother’s Milk — Butcher has a deep trauma he’s struggling to live with. In this reality, superheroes are mostly scum working for the military-industrial complex as, essentially, walking weapons. The Boys’ goal is to slap the supes down to size whenever possible or necessary.

The new member of the Boys is Hughie, a Scottish lad explicitly patterned on Simon Pegg (who wrote the foreword for the first hardcover collection). Hughie, too, has a heavy trauma related to supes:

That’s Hughie holding what’s left of his girlfriend after a particularly heedless supe has knocked a super-villain into her at top speed and force. Mainly on the strength of this event — “Because I want someone who’s been there” — Butcher recruits Hughie into the fold. Hughie’s a good-hearted sort, often appalled by the violence the Boys mete out to the supes; he and the other Boys have been injected with Compound V, the same substance that gives many supes their strength. Hughie also blunders into a faux pas: he falls in love with “Annie,” a nice woman who, unbeknownst to him, is actually Starlight, the newest member of the Seven, the most powerful (and scummy) superhero team. Starlight, who became a superhero with the noblest of intentions, is as disenchanted with her new job as Hughie is with his, though neither of them knows — yet — that they’re on different sides of a war.

In Ennis’ world, might makes right, but power corrupts. The Seven are all mixed up in dirty deals and public relations; they’re essentially the dark side of white American triumphalism, and it’s probably no accident that all the Boys are non-American or non-white (nor that the scariest Boy is the Female). In Preacher, Ennis indulged a romantic view of good ol’ American (southern) ass-kicking. There’s nothing particularly romantic about The Boys, except for the Hughie/Annie relationship, a small pocket of tenderness in this harsh realm. In recent issues, though, even that pocket has been put to the test.

Starlight’s welcome to the world’s most prestigious superhero team is to be asked to go down on three of its members. As the Homelander, the contemptible Superman analogue shown above, reminds Starlight later, she didn’t have to; she could’ve walked away and settled for a lesser team. But she knelt anyway. Nobody in the comic is completely innocent; power is an intoxicating lure, the better to corrupt. And this is no less true of the Boys; Butcher keeps most of the team on a need-to-know basis — knowledge is power, too. And let’s not even get into the hate-fucking Butcher and CIA director Susan Rayner indulge in. Sex in this series is rapacious, ignoble; even Hughie’s first night with Annie is besmirched by her menstrual blood.

Watching various arrogant supes get their asses handed to them is satisfying on the same basic level as the Thing clobbering Dr. Doom; like Mark Millar in Kick-Ass, Ennis has his cake and pisses on it, too. But he’s a fine writer with a sharp ear for dialogue — unlike Alan Moore, the Grandmaster of Comics Writing, Ennis doesn’t feel the need to over-emphasize American speech with loads of “um”s and “y’know”s. Each character has his or her own distinct sound, and it’s a pleasure to “hear” Hughie and Butcher just sitting around shooting the shit (or shite). As for the story, I admit I tune out a bit whenever the mysterious executive from Vought-American — the corporation behind the supes — turns up. I’m more interested in the gentle friendship between the Frenchman and the Female, or the amusing scenes with Butcher and his loyal, horny bulldog Terror, or the plot thread in which Hughie went undercover in an especially incompetent (though well-meaning and benevolent) fourth-string superhero team. Still, at this point a lot of secrets have been revealed or are starting to be pushed out of the shadows, and the series seems to be coming to a head. I’ll stay interested as long as Ennis does.

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