Garth EnnisCarlos Ezquerra
The Boys
Medium: comic
Year: 2006
Writer: Garth Ennis
Artist: Carlos Ezquerra, Darick Robertson, Hector Ezquerra, John Higgins, John McCrea, Keith Burns, Matt Jacobs, Peter Snejbjerg, Richard P. Clark, Rodney Ramos, Russ Braun
Format: 2600 pages or so, comprising a 72-issue main series, three 6-issue side-stories and a "ten years later" 8-issue mini-series called Dear Becky that Ennis wrote when the TV series came out
Keywords: superhero
Website category: Comics
Review date: 7 July 2023
the boys
Garth Ennis's five big long-running series that I know of are Preacher, The Boys, Hellblazer, Hitman and Punisher. (There's also Crossed, but most of that's by other writers.) I've never read Hitman, but I'm probably too late there since it's been years since the trade paperbacks were in print.
The other two on that list that are completely Ennis from start to finish (both with US TV adaptations) are Preacher and The Boys and they're natural comparison points for each other. The Boys is a superhero-dissecting series like Marshall Law, Supreme Power and maybe at a pinch Watchmen, although definitely more like Pat Mills than Alan Moore. It's no secret that Ennis doesn't like superheroes. Here he takes delight in making these versions of them as offensive, depraved and ultra-violent as possible. The book started at Wildstorm, i.e. DC, but they dropped it after six issues because they'd got queasy about its content (despite publishing Preacher from start to finish). It then moved to Dynamite Entertainment, who were happy to have it.
Also, The Boys has a cameo for Preacher's Cassidy. To give an example of its tone, dialogue from The Boys includes:
"Multicoloured shit dreamed up by overgrown kids."
"And then we have to dump them afterwards, full of cumshot exit-wounds and their assholes burned out."
"As the old sayin' goes: with great power comes the total fuckin' certainty that you're gonna turn into a cunt."
Our anti-heroes are a CIA-backed black ops team who do horrific things. They've usually had five members. Billy Butcher might be the most dangerous man on the planet, although he could easily be mistaken for a grinning lout. Wee Hughie is nice and resembles Simon Pegg. Mother's Milk is a brilliant investigator. The Female and Frenchie are lovable weirdos, but also human weapons who'll tear your face off if you even touch them. (Literally. It's a habit of the Female's.)
Is it better than Preacher? For me, yes, but Preacher's funnier. That series is a laugh. It's gross, transgressive and full of utter bastards, but also less likely to talk about things that matter. It has all kinds of mismatched interests (all sorts of movies, wanky vampires, etc.) but its default target is organised religion. Is that something I worry about, personally? Not really. The Boys, on the other hand, has a lot of the anger of Ennis's Punisher Max. Despite being about superheroes, it's more about corporate bastards who screw up the world for everyone and aren't even particularly good at what they do. His story of victims practically killing themselves trying to sue Vought American is on the level of a documentary. There's domestic abuse and the victims who put up with and stay with their abusers. There's a lot about how Ennis sees the world working. He goes for politics. He talks about war, inevitably, including World War Two, Vietnam and even the Falklands (with more detail and insight on that conflict than you'll see in all the rest of their comics reading put together).
It concludes more memorably than Preacher, which dribbled away a bit at the end. It has an unexpected last act when the story seems over and HOLY SHIT. Ennis says in the graphic novel introduction that he's still haunted by that ending and that writing it felt like murder.
(I don't mean the "ten years later" epilogue, Dear Becky, incidentally. That's a years-later afterthought, not an ending. In its present day, it's so peaceful that it becomes slice-of-life. It has no death, violence or torture except in flashback sequences from the old days. I like it, including Ennis's opinions on the state of the world and permitted discourse in 2020, but you'll be disappointed if you read it expecting it to be anything except a footnote.)
Minor annoyance that kept bugging me: there's a difference between "discreet" and "discrete".
Frankly, as an attack on superheroes, Watchmen and Marshall Law did it better (although The Boys gives itself vastly more room to expound upon its thesis). Pat Mills's broadsides are more focused. Underneath the ludicrous exaggeration, he makes valid points about comics and the industry. Ennis's world is much more realistic, so it feels less plausible that almost every single superhero should be depraved, callous, perverted, etc. to a degree that would put Roman emperors to shame. It's a power metaphor in Ennis's thesis on corporations, politics, the CIA, etc. but one rarely feels that a meaningful point has been made about the actual output of Marvel, DC, etc. Its heroes aren't satires, but merely grotesques. There are often equivalents of specific famous superheroes, but I suspect that Ennis doesn't have enough interest in the originals to start really digging into any of them. (This series's Green Lantern, aka. Lamplighter, burned children alive. Its version of the X-Men's Xavier sexually abuses the students in his school. It's appalling, yes, but it's not throwing any mud that'll stick.)
That's perfectly okay, though. Different stories can do different things. Marshall Law is a direct attack on superheroes. It's brilliant, farcical and hilarious, but that's why it ultimately doesn't matter. The Boys uses superheroes as a cloak to talk about stuff that's genuinely important. (And there's also material that feels practically autobiographical, e.g. Ennis's opinions of St Patrick's Day and Wee Hughie returning to the UK after living in New York.)
(For what it's worth, the superheroes Ennis likes are Superman, Spider-Man and Wonder Woman. Also, people without powers like the Punisher and Nick Fury fall into a different category for him.)
This series isn't unbroken horror. It can be funny and warm. It even occasionally has nice superheroes, e.g. Annie, or the Superdupers. The latter are pathetic, but I loved them. They're kind and trying their best. Similarly, there's goodness, wit and/or charm in all five of The Boys, even if it's often outweighed by jovial evil. Butcher, especially. He's intriguing. He's a power fantasy who's cool, unstoppable and does dreadful things to bad people, but his backstory with Becky makes him a self-aware study of the psychological damage done even to themselves by the perpetrators of violence. He's aware of his own tragedy.
I enjoyed the nods to odder corners of the comics industry, e.g the Legend (Stan Lee) and Reverend Dandy (i.e. D.C. Thomson and I just about died). I'd occasionally be yelling at our bone-headed anti-heroes. Hughie means well, but his head can vanish up his arse sometimes. I really rate this series. It'll horrify you. It might seem juvenile in its eagerness to out-Preacher Preacher, but there's more to it than that.
"Me evil cunt sense is tingling."