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.
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.
“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 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 the comics, Butcher virtually hounds Hughie to join The Boys, although he brings nothing to the table — it’s simply writer fiat because Ennis needs a reader POV character. On TV, though, Butcher (Karl Urban) uses Hughie (Jack Quaid) and casts him aside, which is more in character, and only allows him on the team when Hughie demonstrates some skills they are lacking.
— In the comics, Frenchie and The Female are described as “the muscle,” and while they are formidable thanks to Compound V, their battle skills are little more than the sort seen in pub brawls. That’s not only disappointingly ordinary, but somewhat implausible against people with laser eyes and super-speed. On TV, Frenchie (Tomer Capon) employs a variety of useful skill sets — communications, engineering, chemistry — while The Female (Karen Fukuhara) is the only super-powered member of the team.
— In the comics, Butcher is an official agent who repeatedly indulges in hate sex with his boss, Susan Raynor, the director of the CIA. These scenes, hard to stomach in the comics, are entirely absent on TV, where Raynor (Jennifer Esposito) is only deputy director and Butcher is only a contractor. A previous relationship is mentioned, and it’s possible that the hate sex will come into play in Season 2. But it isn’t evident yet.
— In the comics, The Boys deal with a lot of other super-teams besides The Seven, paralleling groups like the Teen Titans and the X-Men, and even take a jaunt into Russia that stunted the momentum of the series a bit. On TV, the focus remains firmly on The Seven, where the stakes are higher and the drama shaper.
— In the comics, Vought executive Stillwell is male, and is less important than the Madelyn Stillwell on TV, with whom Homelander has an unhealthy mother/girlfriend fixation. On TV, Stillwell is played brilliantly by Elisabeth Shue, who masks both her ambition and her terror with a confident, impenetrable smile.
— In the comics, wee Hughie is Scottish, and drawn to resemble Simon Pegg. (Which explains the aforementioned foreward). On TV, Quaid plays Hughie convincingly as a decent guy in over his head, who keeps sinking deeper into moral quagmire the more he tries to get out. That not only adds to the character, but eliminates a lot of baffling Scottish slang.
— In the comics, Starlight plays a lesser role — in fact, there are no major female characters in the comics, unless you count The Female, who doesn’t speak. The TV show addresses this by expanding Starlight’s role, where we see personal growth as a result of her loss of innocence, paralleling Hughie’s journey. Actress Erin Moriarty takes full advantage of this meaty role, glowing in more ways than one.
— 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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©2019 Andrew A. Smith
Visit his website at comicsroundtable.com.)
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