By Andrew A. Smith
Tribune Content Agency
You might have noticed that it’s hard to find heroes in Amazon Prime’s new series, The Boys, which dropped July 26. A look at the source material shows that this is by design.
The Boys began as a comic book series at WildStorm, an imprint of DC Comics, in 2006. After six issues, though, the anti-superhero slant – and no doubt the over-the-top sex and violence – gave DC cold feet, and it canceled the series. It was picked up by Dynamite Entertainment, where it ran until coming to a definitive conclusion in 2012.
The Boys is written by Garth Ennis and illustrated by Darick Robertson, the team that also gave us Transmetropolitan, starring cynical journalist Spider Jerusalem in a vile, deviant future. Ennis is also infamous for the sacrilegious Preacher, with artist Steve Dillon, which has been adapted to TV and is about to enter its fourth (and last) season on AMC.
Homelander (Antony Starr, right) is the sociopathic Superman analog in The Boys, who has closeted lesbian Wonder Woman analog Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott, center) under his thumb, along with the rest of The Seven, a thinly veiled Justice League.
The consistent run-through in about all of Ennis’ work, as actor Simon Pegg says in the introduction to the first hardback Boys collection, is “signature gleeful moral depravity.” He means that, of course, as a compliment.
Too harsh? Damon Lindelof, an executive producer on Lost, says in his introduction to the sixth hardback that “The Boys don’t play by the rules, and neither does Mr. Ennis.” That’s a nicer way to say that virtually every Ennis book is going to have bizarre sex, horrific ultra-violence and a cynical streak several miles wide.
Here’s another take: “I believe that Garth, as rough as a lot of his material is, as brutal as his stories can be, is a romantic at heart,” writes comics editor Scott Dunbier in the first Boys omnibus. “A romantic with a twisted side, sure, but still a romantic.”
You get the picture.
But the important part of Garth Ennis, when it comes to The Boys, is that he despises superheroes.
“The thing is, due to a quirk of distribution and growing up in Northern Ireland in the ’70s and ’80s, I never really saw American superhero comics,” Ennis said in an interview with Uproxx.com. “I think coming to them as pretty much an adult, I responded to them the way adults did in those days, which is, ‘This makes no sense. This is ridiculous. This is silly.’ That’s where the suspicion and disdain arose.”
All of which is on full display in The Boys. Ennis imagines a world where superheroes are so commonplace that they have become celebrities and corporate brands. Coupled with their physical prowess, they are virtually untouchable and never suffer consequences for their actions – even the government is afraid of them.
And as Lord Acton reminds us, absolute power corrupts absolutely. That isn’t just true in The Boys; Ennis and Robertson absolutely rub our noses in it. The “Supes” in these stories engage in degeneracy that would make Caligula jealous.
Enter The Boys. Their job is to police the Supes, and they do so with far more zeal than is necessary.
That’s because they’re led by Billy Butcher, who has a grudge against Supes. His wife was raped by Homelander, the Superman analog in this world, and his wife died when the baby punched its way out of the womb. So Billy isn’t a hero – he’s doing this for revenge.
The halting romance on The Boys between Annie “Starlight” January (Erin Moriarty, right) and Hughie (Jack Quaid) is genuinely sweet.
“I had a hard time wrapping my head around a character as brutal as Butcher without imagining another version of Nick Fury or Frank Castle,” writes Robertson in the bonus materials in The Boys Volume One: The Name of the Game. He didn’t get it right, he writes, “until Garth described Billy Butcher as having a ‘dark, cruel smile of malicious intent.’”
The rest of the team isn’t much better. Mother’s Milk is a cipher, mostly notable for insisting that everyone use coasters. But Frenchie and The Female are literally psychopaths, employing ultra-violence against the Supes, with blood, bone and guts lovingly rendered by Robertson.
And that is made possible because The Boys are empowered by the same thing the Supes are: Compound V. But because they don’t dress up in garish costumes – they favor black trenchcoats and combat boots – they take the Supes by surprise with their insane strength and ridiculous resistance to injury.
Only “wee” Hughie demonstrates some notes of grace. Drawn to resemble actor Simon Pegg – thereby explaining the introduction mentioned above – Hughie kills a Supe by accident, and the guilt never leaves him. His sweet romance with Starlight redeems some of the vileness seen on almost every other page.
And of the Supes, only Starlight isn’t absolutely revolting. But even she isn’t admirable, at least at first, performing sexual favors to get into The Seven (this world’s Justice League) and donning a revealing costume because Homelander tells her to.
She is mighty sympathetic, though. And to tell you the truth, the first time I started reading The Boys I put the book back on the shelf when I hit the point of Starlight’s sexual humiliation. (Believe it or not, it’s even worse in the comics than on TV.) I eventually picked the book up again due to heaps of critical praise, but I had to steel myself to get through a number of scenes.
So if you think The Boys occasionally gets vile on TV, just remember that the source material is even worse. (Or better, depending on your tastes.)
The Boys ran 72 issues and one six-issue miniseries, which can be found in collections like The Boys Volume One: The Name of the Game.
The TV show is different in a number of other ways as well, which is to be expected when you translate a story from one medium to another. To tell you the truth, I rather like the changes:
In fact the acting on TV is superb overall, which elevates the material. Urban plays Butcher with the smile Robertson describes, barely disguising his rage. In Antony Starr’s hands, Homelander is terrifying. Capon’s Frenchie steals every scene he’s in. And Chace Crawford’s The Deep (an Aquaman analog) and Jessie Usher’s A-Train (The Flash) show surprising depth for characters who could be one-note jokes.
The Boys has already been renewed for a second season. If you’ve seen the Season 1 finale, you know the story has departed sharply from the comics. Which means nobody really knows where this show is going next.
The comics Hughie would say that’s well tidy braw. On TV, though, he’d just say it’s swell.
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I read The Boys when it was at Wildstorm, and followed it over to Dynamite for a little, but somewhere along the way I lost track of it. Did it have a publishing lapse at Dynamite? Cause all I know I saw it again and it was somewhere in the 20s. I never did pick it back up. Maybe I'll get the trades.
Maybe because I cut the cord nearly 5 years ago, and haven't kept up with ANY of the comic book series on TV I really liked this series. I love Karl Urban's Butcher really looks like the character from the comic.
I think pretty much everyone in the Seven bring depth to the character's, well except Black Noir.
I was also impressed with the special effects. They didn't go cheap (see SyFy).
I'm really glad it got renewed for a second season, and I dig the story so far.
Binge watched this series over the last couple of weekends with friends (after we'd finished watching the final episode of NOS4A2). I hadn't heard of the graphic novel series before and at first we were confused about why it was called "The Boys" while the team of "heroes" was called V7 or the Seven. After watching the first 3 episodes last Friday, I did some internet research and figured out that "The Boys" actually referred to Butcher, Hughie, and the others fighting against The Seven. Anyhow, excellent series -- Antony Starr does a great job as Homelander, with his cheery, all so humble public persona ("you're the real heroes!") contrasted with his sheer brutality, inhumanity and ruthlessness, but also a touch of pathos -- "terrifying" indeed, Captain! Reading your comparisons of the tv show and the comics leaves me wondering if the tv writers also took some inspiration from Allan Moore's Miracle Man, or, more particularly, Moore's version of Johnny Bates, or did Ennis himself take Moore's ball and just run with it even further?
The season finale was quite a mindbender. Rather anxious to see how that plays out in the 2nd season.
I had always intended to read the comics, so I read the first Omnibus before watching the series. I completely agree that the series improves on the comic: it's not as outrageous, but the characterization is much deeper. Homelander is absolutely horrifying in the series: he quickly reveals himself as a super-powered sociopath. The fact that only one of The Boys has superpowers makes their struggle more relatable. Although I have to say that I kept expecting Hughie to inject himself with Compound V when he was confronting A-Train. It won't surprise me if they power up in the second season. Sorry that Elizabeth Shue's character is out of the picture, because she was a major player in everything that happened with The Seven.
Agreed. Shue was mesmerizing. I suspected she was terrified, but she played it as supreme confidence. That fake smile was her armor, her sword, her shield. And just as she got everything she wanted, it was all taken away -- in the manner she probably feared/expected it would happen. It was a terrific performance.
In the comics, that character was kinda bland, and continues at least as far as I've read, which is the sixth HC. That includes the Herogasm miniseries, and takes me about halfway, through issue #38 (of 72).
The comics, as you say, were a lot more shallow in the characterization department, which seemed more or less a choice for the story Ennis wanted to tell. A lot of shocking stuff seemed to happen just for the sake of being shocking. (Tek-Knight's, ah, affliction just struck me as juvenile.) Ennis wanted to shock us, wanted to engage our inner 10-year-old, the one that yells "Cool!" when something gross happens. He probably didn't want to weigh down his giddy, over-the-top satire with Deep Thoughts and Heavy Characterization.
Which is OK -- that's a valid storytelling choice. Ennis wanted to poke holes in superhero concepts for people thoroughly familiar with them, folks like us. But TV requires a broader audience, and the showrunners made a different storytelling choice, one that engages my adult brain instead of my inner 10-year-old.
I enjoy both, and now I have both!.