Scene: A school playground near Belfast in the ’70s
Children: Do you love god?
Garth: No, I am terrified of him.
When you grow up on the fringes of ethno-nationalist conflict, an organised religion that can move people to unspeakable violence can be petrifying. If you stop to think about it, that is.
It’s something that The Boys creator Garth Ennis realised at an early age. Now a series on Amazon Prime, The Boys franchise began life as a 72-issue, 12-volume graphic novel series that Ennis and artist Darick Robertson created over six years between 2006 and 2012. In a genre fascinated with “origin” stories, the improbable origins of The Boys grant it greater significance in a time of social media.
Its influences are not of our time, but reverberate deafeningly today. To see it merely as another superhero fight fest is to deprive yourself of riding a rollercoaster in a satirical goldmine. Imagine, if you will, Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie, and the team from Mad Comics on a beer binge. Strap in.
Ennis grew up in the bloody, decades-long struggle between Irish Roman Catholic nationalists and British Protestant unionists. The “Troubles”, as they came to be known, cut a deep scar in the national psyche. Armed with a deep suspicion of religious or political authority, Ennis developed a penchant for writing comics, which led him to the world of graphic novels.
His first taste of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and Pat Mills’s Marshall Law nurtured a career writing strong male characters like The Preacher, the Punisher, John Constantine, and Nick Fury. Characters with an unrepentant fondness for violence and vigilante justice, railing against arthritic bureaucracy and authority.
Ennis’s ultimate target in his own crusade found an enemy too close for comfort – the superhero genre itself. Having missed out on mainstream superheroes as a child, he didn’t grow up seduced by their messianic charm. Why were they worshipped instead of the real people who’d laid down their lives in the war? Which brings us to The Boys.
First created under the DC banner Wildstorm, it took the powers at DC six issues to banish the series and its creators. The rollicking, blatant critique of glorified deities in the DC Universe, like Superman and Batman, was never going to be mutually compatible. Fortunately, Dynamite Entertainment, an independent with the same “creator-led” ethos responsible for reviving the comics industry in the mid-1900s provided a grateful home.
It’s safe to guess that Ennis’s angst against the corporate machinery and its habit of rampantly abusing power gave birth to Billy Butcher: The foul-mouthed, CIA-backed ex-Royal Marine on a single, strange mission – keeping superheroes in check.
As the grandfather of the genre, Stan Lee would have done with his work, The Boys is based in the mecca of materialism, New York. America is, of course, the ideal playground to bring together corporate greed, political bumbling, and celebrity culture. Here’s where it gets interesting.
We’re in a world where superheroes are the property of Vought America Consolidated – a corporation that discovers and markets superheroes to protect the people. Except, they don’t really. Superheroes aren’t really “born”, as the public are led to believe. They’re made in a laboratory as remnants of a Nazi era eugenics project.
Vought, a war-profiteering arms manufacturer owns the mysterious technology (Compound V) that, unknown to naive parents enrolling in medical experiments, creates the “Supes”. All in the name of making the world a better, safer place, while secretly winding its way around the government and committing unspeakable acts of violence for hire.
Let’s step back. A billion-dollar corporation using mysterious technology to create celebrities that sell you merchandise even as the world splinters into a cauldron of chaotic violence. Sound familiar? Take your pick of the Fortune 500.
Wait, there’s more. 9/11 has happened, but it’s the Brooklyn Bridge that is destroyed. In its wake, is a sinister secret harboured by The Seven – a group of elite superheroes led by the diabolical Superman analogue Homelander and a band of others, each with their spotless public reputation and deplorable personal quirks. Volume 1 (The Name of the Game) sets up what is to become an epic battle of wits and violence over a dozen instalments. Uncharacteristically, the balance is tipped when “Wee” Hughie, an ordinary Scottish bloke, is left holding his girlfriend’s hands as the rest of her is pulverised because of a superhero scuffle. Recruited by Billy Butcher as part of The Boys, he forms part of the most bizarre five-person fighting crew you will ever meet, who include a burly African American ex-soldier (MM), a romantic Frenchman (Frenchie), and a petite Japanese woman who never speaks (The Female). Did we mention a bulldog called terror who fornicates on command?
What follows is the most scalding critique of the superhero marketing machine and society we’re likely to cross paths with. With psychologically intense characters, incredibly nuanced dialogue, and the most profane, shocking visual art, we’re led into a world resembling our own.
Compound V is merely a stand-in for the unfair advantages the elite enjoy, which we’ve deliberately made ourselves oblivious to. The lottery of birth, inherited wealth, coaching, steroids, surgical enhancements, even commercial success. We live in a world where we’ve convinced ourselves that celebrities haven’t relied on any of these to earn our hero-worship.
This naïveté fuels our adoration, and even evokes in us a sense of denial of the fact that their status is plain dumb luck, or that they may have committed vile acts to get where they are. Never mind their flaws, we’re so blinded in our adulation that we’ll make their excuses for them.
A 50-year-old whose musculature seem 30? Must be his hard work.
Runs over people in a car? Oh they’re just maligning a do-gooder who’s always being humane.
At the helm of a business empire after barely graduating from an ivy league college? Genius must be hereditary.
In the universe of The Boys, superheroes are merely proxies for hypocritical famous people who thrive on the fandom of ordinary citizens but look upon them with contempt. The sub-plots traverse various character arcs without losing track of each member of the ensemble. Its technical brilliance, though, lies in engineering several twists without ever distorting character fidelity.
The dialogue is Introspective yet irreverent. The artistry teeters on the brink of gratuitous lewdness and wanton violence before careening into more serious territory. Reminiscent of Stan Lee’s “adult” take on tormented superheroes battling their own demons, it etches memorable dilemmas and personality battles.
Ennis, true to rebellious leanings, isn’t one to bow deeply to demigods like Lee. In his world, corporate excess results in the world teeming with groups of superheroes, each becoming more of a threat to their political masters than the problems they were created to solve. Absurdly, the shenanigans and incompetence of Vought’s Superheroes are fabricated into glossy stories of valiant success by, you guessed it, its Comics division. All the while, the paying public buys the stories, wears the merchandise, watches the movies, and fawns over the wolves in superhero costumes, ironically and unknowingly funding their heroes’ outrageous debauchery and decadent lifestyles.
The Boys thrusts us into a time where corporations and celebrity icons collude with politicians to get us to define our allegiances. Racism colours public discourse, and mindless violence is perpetuated by a vicious strain of patriotism in a dystopian “democracy” that is every bit modern day America – or a timely metaphor for any democracy in decline, where even covert bands of well-meaning vigilantes can become exactly like the people they despise, reminding readers that fighting fire with fire perpetuates a ceaseless cycle of violence and turns society to ashes.
The comic book genre’s rise to cultural prominence arose from its ability to create characters that would reflect the social phenomena of the time. Superman, the immigrant who had to hide his identity. Black Panther, the talisman of a civil rights movement by African Americans. Spiderman, the geeky teen coming of age. The Boys is having none of that subtle insinuation. Nothing like a skull-crunching whack to wake humanity up from its candy-flossed, Hollywood polished slumber of submission to demagogues and false gods.
The Boys makes for a curiously enlightening experience. Its bizzare happenings and crazed characters lurch forward at an enjoyable velocity, but it’s also clear that Ennis is never going to let us off that easily.
The introspective self-examination of his key characters is his weapon of choice to expose our fatal flaw, reminding us of the treacherous path worshipping the cult of personality can lead to. Marvel’s oft repeated chant “with great power comes great responsibility” has us mesmerised by modern day “god-like” political strongmen and their celebrity puppets. We’ve forgotten to ask “what happens to us if they’re irresponsible”.
Or, as Billy Butcher reminds us bluntly in Volume 9: “With great power comes the total f@#*in certainty that you’re going to turn into a @#&%.” It serves as a timeless reminder of who the real casualties are when power is abused in pursuit of a “higher cause”.
When real life saviours – army personnel and frontline medical workers – lay their lives on the line for us we’re asked to wonder: What price must they pay to be our heroes? But when we swap them with the self-serving celebrities we choose to follow blindly as if they are gods, the question changes. We need to ask ourselves: What price are we paying when they become our heroes?