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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