Ennis & Robertson’s ‘The Boys’ Blows The Bloody Doors Off
So, what’s the deal with Darick Roberston & Garth Ennis’s The Boys? Is it a gross-out superhero parody, the book that “out-Preachers Preacher?” Is it a more straightforward narrative, an examination of how power corrupts? Is it a rocking action movie where hard men fight men with hard skin? Is it a story about manipulation and naïveté? Let’s go with “all of the above.” There are two issues left in Ennis and Robertson’s long-running series, and the last arc, “The Bloody Doors Off” is aptly named. Now’s a good time to look at what worked and what didn’t in The Boys.
The Boys has a lot of things going on, but the series revolves around one main idea: all superheroes are bastards. They fake crises so that they can have debauched sex parties on remote islands. They rape and murder and steal and they get away with it, because the public at large believes that superheroes are like the ones we read about in comic books. The Boys — Billy Butcher, Mother’s Milk, The Frenchman, The Female of the Species, and Wee Hughie — are a CIA-sponsored black ops team that puts the douchecapes back in their place, preferably via violence or blackmail. Wee Hughie’s our POV character, the one who discovers the world of The Boys after a cape accidentally kills his girlfriend and gets away scot-free. The rest of the Boys? Well, they’re very, very good at killing superheroes, the vast majority of which are thinly veiled homages to actual Marvel and DC characters.
Darick Robertson was the original artist on The Boys, and will be drawing the final issue. Carlos Ezquerra, Peter Snejberg, John McCrea, John Higgins, and a couple others have pitched in here and there, but Russ Braun has drawn almost all of the issues since issue #44. Colorist Tony Aviña and letterer Simon Bowland have been present from the beginning, lending the book a unified look despite the small handful of artists who’ve worked on the series.
Even though it’s about superheroes, The Boys bears very little resemblance to the mainstream cape comics it throws jabs at. Robertson and Braun, the two primary artists for the series, are working in styles more suited to street level action or plainclothes drama than superhero comics.
As a result, the superheroes appear to be just a little off. They look like schmucks wearing costumes instead of golden gods that have been poured into spandex. The Boys feel more grounded, more real, simply by virtue of their limited color scheme — they wear black, as all hard men must — and reasonable proportions. “Realistic” isn’t quite the right word for the style. “Grounded,” maybe. Braun, especially, is great at believable facial expressions, while Robertson excels at ugly violence.
Their grounded take works, nine times out of ten, because our focus isn’t on the superheroes. They’re a blight on the culture, not something to be looked up to, and the artists draw them accordingly. They’re just shlubby and weird-looking enough for us to buy them as villains, instead of automatically defaulting to viewing the superheroes as our heroes. You can look at the superheroes of The Boys and understand the thrust of the series. The capes are venal, sleazy-looking characters, and look it. Even Jim Lee, possibly the most definitive superhero artist of the modern era, gritted up his style when he pitched in a variant cover.
Garth Ennis is one of the best writers in comics, and The Boys is full of highs. Whether you like realistic dialogue or clever one-liners, Ennis has you covered. He also excels at dirty jokes, mean-spirited jabs, and juvenile humor. He can layer in a shocking amount of depth between the curses and blue humor, too. Series that you think were built entirely around a filthy idea end up being meditations on brotherhood or morality. Ennis is tricky. He’s hard to pin down.
The problem: Ennis wavers from filthy to poignant, and as a result, The Boys does, too. This isn’t for the best. I’m a fan of Ennis, from Hellblazer to Punisher MAX. I think he’s a pretty observant and talented writer. But even still, I found a lot of the writing in The Boys to be tiresome.
A significant portion of The Boys is given over to extensively humiliating superheroes. These sequences are, almost every single time, the lesser part of the arc they take place in. Pointing at a Teen Titans sex party or X-Men deviance and going “Haw haw haw” only gets you so far. There’s only one joke there, and it wears thin after a very short while.
The best parts of any given arc, however, are the conversations. This is where Ennis really puts the boot in. Characters talk about life, violence, homophobia, business, war, horror, and more, and it’s all just about perfect. You get a real sense of the cast as living, breathing characters.
The trouble is that the balance between the great stuff and the less-great stuff is far out of wack. Herogasm, a miniseries drawn by Keith Burns and John McCrea about what the superheroes do when they’re “saving the world,” is wall-to-wall debauchery with just a little of the good stuff. Butcher, Baker, Candlestickmaker, a Darick Robertson-drawn miniseries that details the origin of Billy Butcher, is much better off. It’s mostly scenes of a man spending time with his family and wife, while struggling with the savage inside him. When the superheroic horror finally hits, it’s shocking and awful, instead of tired. The savage is given an excuse, finally, and Butcher more than lives up to his name. The horror doesn’t work without the time we spend with Butcher’s family, because then we understand exactly what he’s giving up.
The thing about The Boys is that it is mostly good. The superhero parody sections are wildly hit or miss, and generally more miss than hit, but the non-superhero content soars. You can’t have one without the other, either. The cape-based debauchery provides context and motivation for the interpersonal content. Without it, you’d just have a comic of conversations and very little action.
So, in a very literal way, you have to take the bad with the good in The Boys. “We Gotta Go Now” is an arc based around dirty versions of the various teams of X-Men that’s a definite low point, in terms of superhero action. It’s full of circle jerks, explosive violence, racist jerks, and bodily fluids a-plenty. “The X-Men are completely corrupt and deviant!” says the A-story. But the side story, featuring Mother’s Milk investigating the suicide of a superheroine, sings. He has a conversation with a Mister Wilhelm, just four or five pages long, that’s heartbreaking. There’s no heightened action, no big drama, just a man sitting in a dark room telling another man about his lost daughter and dead brother.
On the very next page, there’s a scene of drunken St Patrick’s Day revelers vomiting, passing out, and stumbling down the street. Later in the issue is a monologue about how wonderful it is that America’s a melting pot that ends with a close-up of a plastic green bowler hat filled with vomit.
Give and take.
In the next arc, “The Self-Preservation Society,” there’s a bit of pointed commentary on how female superheroes are designed and created. It’s great, as is the surprising take on 9/11 a bit later on, and the origin stories of The Boys. When the capes take a backseat to the drama, and appear in bursts, rather than constantly, The Boys is top notch. When that ratio tilts too far toward the superheroes, it’s less good, but still well worth reading.
The series is over in November, having reached the natural end of the story. Subplots that were seeded very early on have come to fruition, questions both asked and unasked are being answered, and we’re barreling toward a bloody conclusion.
Right now, the book is better than it has ever been. The last two arcs, “Over the Hill With the Swords of a Thousand Men” and “The Bloody Doors Off,” have been tremendous. Ennis, Braun, Bowland, and Aviña are clicking on every possible cylinder at this point, and the end of The Boys looks like it’s going to be right up there with the end of Ennis’s time with Hellblazer and Hitman, in terms of sticking the landing.
Should you read The Boys? Yes. I could put a lot of caveats in there to qualify my opinion, but when The Boys is good, it’s better than most cape comics, and the ending is building up to something that might well knock my socks off. If this sounds like your thing, go for it.