The boys

The boys / Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson. Originally published 2006-2012

Garth Ennis is perhaps one of the more interesting figures of the modern comics scene. Best known for his work for Marvel in the 90s and the Preacher series for Vertigo, his work is notorious for its transgressive content. Outspoken in his dislike for superheroes, The boys is Ennis’s farewell to the genre. Like Watchmen, The boys imagines what would “really” happen if superheroes were real. Unlike Watchmen, the superheroes in The boys are super-powered, thinly veiled caricatures of well-known DC and Marvel heroes. The boys features graphic, intense violence and depictions of virtually every paraphilia imagineable, but also a touching love story and in-depth examinations of masculinity, family, and friendship.

Brief plot description

(No end-game spoilers, but some early plot points will be revealed)

The boys follows Wee Hughie, a timid Scottish conspiracy theorist who becomes one of “The Boys”, a black-ops group charged with controlling and containing superheroes. The superheroes in the world of The boys are everyday people sponsored by the massive Vought-American corporation and granted superpowers through a drug called “compound V”. These heroes are largely vain, selfish, and unconcerned with anything but themselves. Super-hero battles generally result in massive civilian casualties as the super-powered combatants fight without any consideration for those around them. Billy Butcher, the teams leader, recruits Hughie for the team after Hughie’s girlfriend is accidentally killed during a superhero battle.

So how is it?

It’s great, but.

Ennis is a master satirist, and no aspect of comic-book culture, from the massive summer cross-over events to comic book fans and collectors. While the superhero comics industry is Ennis’s primary focus, mainstream American culture receives a healthy dose of satire as well. The boys is irreverent and unrelentingly intense.

Garth Ennis’s earlier epic, Preacher, was in many ways a celebration of “traditional” masculinity. Preacher’s protagonist Jesse Custer is a manly man who doesn’t talk about his feelings and punches his way out of most of his problems. Wee Hughie is the polar opposite, being timid, weak, and insecure.  Both Hughie and Custer play the “everyman” role, but from opposite ends of the spectrum. Hughies attempts to “man up” are a major theme in the series, and Ennis does an excellent job of presenting a character who, in the words of his creator “remain[s] resolutely who he is, no matter how hard he yearns to be someone different“.

The boys is constructed as a series of tragedies. Individual story arcs rarely have unequivocally happy endings. All of the major characters and the vast majority of minor characters have experienced some sort of major trauma, be it growing up in an abusive household, the brutal death of a loved one, or an endless stream of sexual harassment. Hughie is deeply flawed; his coming to terms with those flaws is the emotional core of his story.

The boys, like Preacher, ends up being a story about relationships, and the constructive and/or destructive ways that people cope with suffering. It’s this heart at the core of the series that makes it great. The boys is filled with juvenile gross-out humor, gruesome violence, child abuse, drug abuse, sex in all of its forms (consensual and otherwise) and would probably have had niche success for that alone. It’s the heart, the sense that Ennis really cares about people, that elevates the series from gross-out satire to high art. It’s a wonder to behold that manages to be simultaneously highbrow and lowbrow. Ennis is a modern Rabelais, and The boys is his Gargantua and Pantagruel.

Strengths:

Excellent characterization

Filled with high quality satire

Robertson’s art is top notch

Tells an incredibly moving story between gross-out sequences

Weaknesses:

Intense sex, violence, and abuse will turn off the vast majority of potential readers

Not even a little bit subtle.

Very preachy: Ennis has a number of pet issues and the lack of subtlety really makes it seem like the reader is being hammered over the head with it.

Recommendation:

The boys is incredibly difficult to recommend. It’s a great series, but very few readers will be able to look past the content. This is not a title to recommend to anyone you don’t already know well, as it goes well beyond South Park in its offensiveness. Many public libraries may want to avoid controversy and avoid carrying this title at all. Worldcat has only has 155 holdings for the first volume of the series, although there are several copies represented in my local public library system. When I was at the comic book shop buying the 4th volume of the series, the clerk, a self-described fan of Ennis, told me that he gave up on the series with the 4th volume because he found it too disturbing. I will say that I found the incident he said was so disturbing incredibly tame, comparatively speaking. Still, everybody has their own buttons, and Ennis tries to push as many as possible.

People I have recommended this to:

Male, early 20s: Was already an Ennis fan, loved this series as well.

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