Long after the end of publication, Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s tale of depraved superheroes, corrupt government and venal corporations, The Boys, is back in the news. The success of the Amazon TV series has led to a commission for a second series, and US publisher Dynamite Entertainment recently announced a Dear Becky mini-series, tying into the original run, written by Ennis and drawn by Russell Braun. Luke Williams gives us a retrospective review of the original run…
The Boys is one of writer Garth Ennis’ most successful properties, originally, and briefly, published under DC’s Wildstorm imprint, but largely by Dynamite Entertainment, co-created with Darick Robertson, who also illustrated much of the original series, followed by Russell Braun.
The original series of The Boys ran for 72 issues, with three concurrent spin-off mini-series – Herogasm, Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker, and Highland Laddie – which is a lot of comics. Publisher Dynamite Entertainment released the series in six Omnibus collections of the previously-collected series last year.
In series, as with the recent TV drama, Simon Pegg look-a-like “Wee” Hughie is content with his lot. He has a loving girlfriend, Robin, and a steady job. The world he lives in is inhabited by hundreds of super-powered humans. “The Supes” have been around since World War Two and have led to subtle changes in history in the world, but they are also celebrities, influencers and inhabit the pages of the gossip rags. They endorse consumer products , and are sponsored by huge corporations.
Marketing inspiration and the public persona of The Supes is derived from their comics, masterminded, at least initially, by “The Legend”, an editor / writer at Victory Comics. But all The Supes are controlled by US defence conglomerate Vought American, who have a monopoly on enhanced humans, exploiting the defence potential and exerting huge influence over the US government. The highest profile of these Supes are “The Seven”, this world’s version of the Justice League of America, led by the Homelander, a white Aryan, blonde and slightly unhinged version of Superman, hailed as a national hero.
The Supes literally crash into Hughie’s life when A Train, the Seven’s Speedster kills Robin. Distraught, depressed and directionless, Hughie’s life spirals into the pit of despair, until William Butcher enters his life, the leader of The Boys, a CIA black ops team formed to bring the Supes into line.
Each member has an axe to grind with the Supes, the government or Vought American – or, in some cases, all three. Led by ex-Royal Marine Butcher The Boys is made up of two former soldiers, New York-born Mother’s Milk and the unsurprisingly French “Frenchie”… and the mysterious “Female”, a devastatingly powerful, savage, seemingly mute young woman.
To try and level the playing field between them and the laboratory-enhanced Supes controlled by Vought American, each of The Boys are enhanced by Compound V, the chemical created by German scientist Dr. Vogelbaum and the source of the all the Supes powers.
Following a recent operational disaster and disbandment, The Boys have reformed. A steady if uneasy truce is in place between them and The Seven. But for Billy Butcher, the rest of the superhuman population is fair game. Butcher is relentless and will stop at nothing in his pursuit of Supes – and to bring as many of them down as he can.
Complicating matters, love-struck Hughie unwittingly begins a romantic relationship with Starlight, the newest member of The Seven.
The Boys “investigate” an array of solo superheroes and teams, from X-Men analogues to very familiar looking teams like “Payback” and a particularly vicious diminutive Russian sex midget. Meanwhile, amid the depravity and violence, Hughie begins to piece together the history of the Supes, the origin of Butcher’s vendetta – and why The Boys broke up. All the while, tensions within the team ramp up, and Butcher becomes increasingly Machiavellian.
Ennis’s usual themes are all present and correct: male bonding, camaraderie, the military, the corruption that comes with power, alongside the familiar tropes of extreme violence, toilet and sexual humour. (Ennis has always made it clear he isn’t a fan of superheroes and took the opportunity to send up more than a few within the pages of the DC classic, Hitman.
There are obvious similarities between The Boys and Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill’s Marshal Law. The series has a similar sledgehammer approach in dealing with its subject matter, contains extreme violence and gratuitous depictions of sex that the prudish would have heart failure over. It’s common knowledge that the initial run of the series was paused when DC / Wildstorm stopped publishing the series, following objections from senior editorial and their “uneasiness” over the anti-superhero stance. Dynamite Entertainment picked up the series, and the creative team took advantage of the creative freedom and lack of corporate editorial interference that this brought.
The reins were off, and it shows.
As with Marshal Law, Ennis targets are similar, the approach is equally familiar. Both he and Pat Mills clearly have little time for superheroes, but while neither are subtle about it, Ennis easily out-crasses Mills. Indeed,The Boys is so savage in places that it goes beyond mere satire. Ennis is capable of using a scalpel to pick his subjects apart, but he’s equally happy using a hatchet and, clearly, when the target is superheroes, it’s a big one. There are few Supes in The Boys with any redeeming features, and as much as it’s a contradiction, as characters they become difficult to believe.
However, while Ennis and his artist collaborators take turns at kicking thinly-disguised versions of the bedrock staples of Marvel and DC Comics publication history, The Boys differs from Marshal Law, in that Ennis and his co-creators are far more successful in depicting the toxic effect of celebrity and corruption.
One of Ennis’s strengths is depicting interpersonal relationships, and The Boys is no exception. The trials and tribulations of Hughie and Annie January’s (Starlight) relationship; Mother’s Milk, the stoic backbone of the team; and the often touching relationship between Frenchie and the Female.
Butcher is also one of Ennis’s strongest characters, thoroughly likeable on the surface, but with a manipulative, vindictive, ruthless streak a mile wide.
That said, the series’ bloody violence, sexual explicitness and crude, crass fourth form humour can detract from a compelling plot. It often seemed as though Ennis and company were on a mission to see how far they could push the limit, “to out Preacher, Preacher”, if you like. Ennis is better than that. In The Pro, his one shot with Amanda Connor, that kind of depravity works well. In The Boys, I feel it jars with the more serious elements. Sometimes less is more.
The Boys has a succession of great artists, aside from the two main contributors. These include pencillers Keith Burns, Carlos Ezquerra, John Higgins, John McCrea and Peter Snjeberg, and inkers Rodney Ramos, Hector Ezquerra, and Richard P Clark. Co-creator Robertson is the mainstay artist for much of the series, delivering highly detailed and veering from realism to the cartoonish between panels. (His continuity can, occasionally, be a little shaky, but he is well suited to the combination of violence and dark humour).
Robertson left the regular series with #43, returning for the final issue and the very dark Butcher origin mini. His replacement for the balance of the main series is Russell Braun, an underrated and under-appreciated artist who has similar qualities to Robertson. The transfer isn’t jarring, even if they have differing styles. Braun’s beautiful feathery lines delineate characters that are less grotesque than Robertson’s, but maintains the series’ tone.
For all the obscenity and slaughter, the core of the strip is the conflict between the dark mission of Butcher and Hughie’s whiny optimism and faith in humanity. I don’t feel The Boys is Ennis’ best work by any means, but dig through the filth and the body parts and you’ll find a compelling story with some major (and logical) shocks.
Without spoilers, it’s fair to say that the climax is a killer…
READ THE BOYS
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• The Boys Omnibus Edition Volume One
Contains: The Boys Volume 1: The Name of the Game and The Boys Volume 2: Get Some
This is going to hurt! In a world where costumed heroes soar through the sky and masked vigilantes prowl the night, someone’s got to make sure the “Supes” don’t get out of line. And someone will!
Billy Butcher, Wee Hughie, Mother’s Milk, The Frenchman, and The Female are The Boys: A CIA-backed team of very dangerous people, each one dedicated to the struggle against the most dangerous force on Earth – superpower!
Some superheroes have to be watched. Some have to be controlled. And some of them – sometimes – need to be taken out of the picture.
That’s when you call in The Boys!
• The Boys Omnibus Edition Volume Two
Contains, The Boys Volume 3: Good for the Soul and The Boys Volume 4: We Wanna Go Now
In The Boys, Volume 3: Good for the Soul, everyone has something to get off their chest: Frenchie and the Female are up to something nasty with the Mafia, Mother’s Milk goes to see his mom, Annie January wants a word with God himself, and Butcher enjoys yet another ghastly tryst with CIA Director Rayner.
The Legend, meanwhile, offers to tell Hughie everything he wants to know about The Boys – all Hughie has to do is take a walk with the dead.
In the fourth Dynamite collection, all is not well with mysterious millionaire John Godolkin’s band of misfits. Silver Kincaid, one of the original G-Men, has just committed suicide in the most public and grotesque way imaginable.
That’s not good news for Vought-American’s number one franchise, with G-Force, G-Coast, G-Style, G-Wiz, the G-Brits and the G-Nomads all depending on their slice of the G-pie. There’s far too much at stake for anyone to go poking around the G-Mansion now. Who knows what dirty secrets might be waiting down there in the dark?
• The Boys Omnibus Edition Volume Three
Includes both Volumes Five and Six
An evil so profound it threatens all mankind! The mightiest heroes on the planet uniting to defend us all! A secret crisis of such utter finality that a countdown to civil or infinite war seems unavoidable! But have you ever wondered what really happens during Crossovers? The Seven, Payback, Teenage Kix, Fantastico, and every other superhero on Earth team up for an annual event like no other – and where the superheroes go, can a certain “five complications and a dog” be far behind?
But as the fun and games begin, it seems our heroes have set their sights on bigger game than usual.
You can only maim and murder so many superheroes before someone decides to do something about it, and in The Boys’ case that means Payback – a superteam of unimaginable power, second only to the mighty Seven.
Pulping teenage supes is one thing, but how will our heroes fare against Soldier Boy, Mind-Droid, Swatto, the Crimson Countess, and the Nazi juggernaut known as Stormfront?
Blood flies and bones shatter, as Butcher and company meet fire with fire…
• The Boys Omnibus Edition Volume Four
Includes both Volumes Seven and Eight, which included “Highland Hughie”
So where are the real superheroes? The warriors for truth and justice, the defenders of the American way, the heroes who fight to make things right and ask for nothing in return? Hughie finds out when he meets the teenage adventurers known as Superduper… but unknown to the little Scotsman, Butcher has finally learned his secret.
A dire scheme is set in motion, and at the vast superhero evangelist festival of BELIEVE, Hughie’s relationship with Annie January – aka Starlight of the Seven – reaches its terrible conclusion.
Plus – a special story featuring everyone’s favourite pint-sized Scotsman, Hughie. Mind reeling from cataclysmic events in New York, Wee Hughie heads home to Auchterladle – the semi-idyllic Scottish seaside town where he grew up. All Hughie wants is some time to himself, to return to the bosom of family and friends, and get his head together after two years of unimaginable chaos. But our hero’s luck has always been more cloud than silver lining, and the familiar surroundings he craves are not all they might be.
Old pals are warped beyond recognition, strangers in town are up to no good, and a figure from Hughie’s recent past has come back to resolve some unfinished business.
You can go home again – but whether or not you should is another matter entirely….
• The Boys Omnibus Edition Volume Five
Includes Volume Nine: The Big Ride (collecting #48-59 of The Boys) and Volume Ten (collecting #1 – 6 of the mini-series Butcher, Baker, Candlestickmaker)
All the pieces are falling into place, for the Boys as well as their most mortal enemies. The long-dreaded superhuman conflict is on its way. But first there are secrets still to be uncovered: like the story of the team’s first encounter with supergroup The Seven, and the shockwaves from that disastrous meeting that still reverberate today.
Hughie, meanwhile, discovers his comrades’ hidden history, as their original leader Colonel Greg Mallory takes him through sixty years of the filthiest black operations imaginable. And finally, with good and bad guys teetering on the brink, a shadowy force sets events in motion that will push even Butcher over the edge.
He could have been a very different man. Billy Butcher, leader of The Boys, once had a chance at another life entirely – when the love of a good woman pulled him aside from his dreadful path of violence and despair. Butcher, Baker, Candlestickmaker is the story of Billy and Becky, told by the man himself: from the backstreets of London’s East End to the carnage of the Falklands War, from the heights of love to the depths of tragedy.
And when he’s done, he’ll be ready … to finish things once and for all.
It’s been a long time coming. When the Homelander finally sets an army of superheroes against the forces of the United States military, Billy Butcher and The Boys must finish the job they were recruited for: to take every superhero out of the picture.
While the battle rages on the White House lawn, Frenchie and the Female are unleashed, Mother’s Milk uncovers a terrible secret at Vought-American, and Wee Hughie discovers the senses-shattering truth behind Butcher’s ultimate plan of vengeance.
Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson proudly present the final, bloodiest chapter of The Boys, collected in a gorgeous hardcover package, complete with a slipcover.
Twelve years after the events of The Boys, Hughie finds himself back home in Scotland where he intends to finally marry Annie in the company of friends and family. But the sudden appearance of a peculiar document sends our hero into a tailspin and threatens to bring the events of his nightmarish past crashing down on him in the worst possible way.
There was one story about The Boys that Hughie never knew. Now, whether he likes it or not, he’s going to…
• Watch The Boys Season One on Amazon Prime (Subscription Required)
Starring Karl Urban, Jack Quaid, Antony Starr
An irreverent take on what happens when superheroes, who are as popular as celebrities, as influential as politicians and as revered as Gods, abuse their superpowers rather than use them for good. It’s the powerless against the super powerful as The Boys embark on a heroic quest to expose the truth about “The Seven”, and their formidable Vought backing…
Dear Reader, a review is an opinion – other opinions are available, including yours
Brought up on a diet of Commando, British Boys Annuals and Asterix, Lucas Williams’s day job limits his reading time. Luckily for everyone else this also restricts his writing time.