You probably won’t like The Boys. At least, you probably won’t if you’re a well-adjusted, thinking, feeling, human being. It’s violent, needlessly crass, and at times just unremittingly filthy. It’s also by Garth Ennis (with fantastically garish art by Darick Robertson), though, so The Boys is also compelling, funny, thrilling, and deeply sympathetic to its characters as terrible things happen to them and around them. The premise is that superheroes are not as well-adjusted and do not have the moral compass that superheroes in mainstream comics usually have. In other words, they’re like regular people, with strengths, weaknesses, and difficulty dealing with celebrity (their exploits and personalities are cleaned up in comics written about them to publicize them). As a result, most of the “supes” have trouble dealing with their public and private personas, and many engage in drinking, drug use, and aberrant sexual activity.
That’s where The Boys come in. Since the “supes” have so many problems, the C.I.A. creates an off-the-record team to keep them in line. Composed of five members who hail from around the globe, the somewhat-inaccurately-named Boys spend each issue kicking ass and taking the names of parodic analogues of well-known superheroes and teams. The Justice League is the most-lampooned in the form of “The Seven”, wherein the Homelander (Superman) is obsessed with profit, Queen Maeve (Wonder Woman) is a drunk, and Jack from Jupiter (the Martian Manhunter) is a depraved drug addict.
So far, this sounds awful, doesn’t it? But let me finish. Underneath all the violence, the vulgarity, the darkness, and the general offensiveness of The Boys, there are multiple levels of meaning and subtext. You see, the Superheroes are completely corporatized, and they’re governed by a massive multinational corporation called Vought-American, who is a defense contractor for the government, and has deep ties with the President. Essentially, The Boys takes a note from Watchmen and asks the question “who watches the watchmen?” The answer, unfortunately, is that, while Vought-American watches the supes, no one really watches Vought-American, and the team known as The Boys is trying to rectify that.
The Boys began publishing in 2006, while America was mired in the controversial conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ennis seems to be showing his disdain for American politics at the time by portraying this iteration of American government (who is really run by Vought-American) as a mess, with very little communication between departments and an incompetent Vice President who is thoroughly in the pocket of Vought-American. Sound familiar? Ennis is giving his take on the Bush administration, and clearly does not approve of their politics.
So that’s one level on which The Boys works, but there’s an entirely other level of satire interwoven with the political commentary. There’s the obvious parody of superheroes, but within that, there’s also a very meta- take on the comics industry itself. Ennis calls out comics for the “women in refrigerators” trope, wherein comics do terrible things to women. The character of Starlight, a naive young Christian superhero, joins The Seven and is sexually abused by the male members in the first story arc. In a later story arc, representatives from Vought-American (who own Victory Comics, the publisher of the comic books fictionalizing and cleaning up the exploits of the supes) tell Starlight her origin story is going to be ret-conned to include rape, so she will be darker and sexier, and her comic will thus sell more issues. “Nothing goes together like supes and rape, that’s what they say at Victory,” one of the men tells her. Starlight responds with the fact that she was almost raped by one of the members of the Seven previously, and that “it didn’t make me dark and it didn’t make me sexual! It made me want to scream until I died!”
Ennis also addresses other perceived problems in the comics industry, such as poor writing, ridiculous crossovers (via the “Herogasm” mini-series), and for trying too hard to put interesting spins on themes and stories which have worn thin from decades of use. To be fair, he does this while also using the same themes, story-lines, and tropes he’s criticizing (but he’s not afraid to call himself out for it). The difference is he’s using these familiar aspects of superhero mythos to offer a commentary on the medium itself, and, more than anything else, challenges the reader to think about what he or she reads. I can’t in good conscience recommend The Boys, but it’s smart, funny and compelling. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Picks for the Week:
Irredeemable Vol. 1, Mark Waid and Peter Krause: Mark Waid, known as the unofficial historian of the DC Universe, takes on the Superman mythos, exploring similar (but much less vulgar) territory as The Boys. Waid poses the question, “why does Superman do what he does?” Which is to say, what happened if an all-powerful being such as Superman can’t psychologically handle the pressure of being an icon and a hero? What would it take for the ultimate hero to become the ultimate villain? Waid is a giant of comics, and here he flexes his writing muscles and shows why.
Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, Guy Delisle: Delisle, a Canadian author who traveled with his wife to North Korea for two months, documents the strange, almost surreal time he and his wife spent there. Sparse and unsettling, Pyongyang is a work full of intellect and insight.