Garth Ennis hates superheroes. Anyone familiar with his work in either the DC or Marvel Universes can tell that. Whether he's using Wolverine as Wile E Coyote in his Marvel Knights Punisher, or having Hitman's Tommy Monaghan toss his cookies all over Batman's boots, Ennis clearly thinks that superheroes are nothing more than adolescent power fantasies (which isn't to say he can't write them well. He won an Eisner for his excellent Hitman #34, one of the best Superman stories of the past 20 years). And his most recent opus, The Boys, takes this distaste to its logical, or at sometime twisted and illogical, ends.
There are really two ways to read Garth Ennis's work. You can read the surface, and get comics full of ultra violence, sex, and bizarre humor. But Ennis writes most of his long form work with subtext and theme. Preacher is really a love story, Hitman is about friendship, Punisher MAX is about the cost of violence; it's been a long time since I read his run on Hellblazer, and it was my first Ennis, so I didn't know what to look for then, but I might have to go back and see what he was talking about there. The Boys is about power, its use and abuse. And mostly the latter.
The Boys is about a team of black ops agents whose job it is to police "supes," the world's super powered population. While Ennis has crafted a world of his own here, the supes are mostly analogues for the superheroes that most comic readers know. The series mostly follows Hugh Campbell, or Wee Hughie, the Boys newest recruit, as he enters a world that he never knew existed, one of superpowered debauchery. Hughie is the character who we watch learn and change as the series progresses. Hughie, a quirky little native Scot who comes to New York to join the Boys, is a likable, often naive figure, and serves as the audience surrogate, as the rest of the Boys are not quite as easy to understand.
The leader of the Boys is Billy Butcher. A former member of the Royal Marines, Billy is a large, intimidating figure who has a deep and abiding hatred of all supes, and will do anything to put them in their place and to get his revenge. Mother's Milk is the calmest, most normal member of the Boys aside from Hughie, who serves as operational support and intel gatherer, although he can crush some heads when the time comes. The Frenchman is, well, the Frenchman, a wiry, off balance lunatic who has a soft spot for the underdog. Finally, the Female of the Species, is a seemingly mute Asian woman who small size belies her capability for extreme violence.
From my descriptions, I hope I made it clear that the Boys have no problem wreaking lots of physical havoc on their powered opponents. One of the most interesting things about Hughie's journey is watching how he deals with violence. Hughie is not a violent man by nature, and Butcher spends much of the series seemingly trying to toughen him up. Hughie is put in situations time and again that force him to have to work his way out of them not through discourse or by running away, but by having to simply clobber his opponent, something he is ill suited to do. The reader watches Hughie have to learn to choose how he is going to deal with this new world.
While we see various teams of supes, including Payback (The Avengers) and the G-Men (The X-Men), the principal supes are The Seven. The Seven are all analogues of the principal seven members of the JLA, and they serve as the main overt antagonists for the Boys. The Homelander is the Superman analogue, and has all of the Man of Steel's powers and absolutely none of his morals. Homelander is a smug, superior person who cares nothing for those he is supposed to protect. These are fairly common traits amongst the supers, and that is where Ennis sees the problem.
While Ennis is using superheroes as his vehicle to make his point, he is really talking about anyone with power. Ennis is talking about the way those in power will simply use their power for their own benefit, and not really care about those "below" them. All the members of the Seven (save one at least) are hedonistic at best, and take part on vile sexual acts and extreme violence for its own sake. Queen Maeve (Wonder Woman) keeps a parade of submissive men following in her wake, providing her with liquor whenever she wishes. Black Noir (Batman) sexually assaults Hughie for no reason other than he can. The inciting incident of Hughie's entry into the Boys is when A-Train (The Flash) accidentally kills Hughie's girlfriend while in combat with an enemy and doesn't even acknowledge the act. These are small examples of the kind of chaos the supes reek throughout the series, and each act is shown with them caring less.
The Homelander is a particularly frightening character, as the reader watches his slow descent into madness over the course of the series. Suffering blackouts, he finds after the fact that he has done things that he even views as horrible. And as these episodes grow worse, even in his normal waking hours he begins to consider showing that power is the only thing that matters, and that maybe the country would be better with him in charge. This of course puts him on a collision course with the Boys, and Billy Butcher in particular, who bleames the Homelander for the death of his wife. You see, the Homelander raped Butcher's wife, and left her pregnant with a baby that a normal human body just couldn't deal with. And the only thing that kept Butcher from going off the deep end for years was his wife. That's why Butcher joined the Boys, and this is what he's been looking for all along.
The exception to the Seven's callous attitude is Annie January, the heroine Starlight. Annie is the newest recruit, chosen after the death of one of the other members. Annie is sweet and innocent, a woman of faith, truly wants to help people. Unfortunately for her, the rest of the Seven do not. She is immediately shown how terrible the others are, and begins to suffer a crisis of faith that leads her to become jaded. But before she can begin to change into someone as bad as her teammates, she meets someone; a sweet young Scot named Hughie. You know from the minute they meet that this is going to end poorly, but you can't help root for them. The final fate of Hughie and Annie is one of the questions that will be answered at the end of the series.
Behind the scenes, Ennis does deal with a threat far greater than rogue supes, and one that is far more tangible to the real world: the military industrial complex. Supes are not a naturally occurring phenomenon, you see, and the entity responsible for creating them is a corporation, Vought-American. Vought is a monolithic corporation that share the same amoral stance as many of the supes. The members of Vought, represented often by James Stillwell, who spends most of the series simply called 'The Man from Vought", have various plans to further insert themselves into the governing structure of the US by having the Vice President in their pocket and preparing to replace conventional armaments with their own superpowered soldiers. Throughout the series, the history of Vought and the supes is pieced out gradually, giving a world portrait that is disconcerting. It's a world where the people in power just don't care.
While Vought and the Seven are the "bad guys" of the series, it doesn't put the Boys above reproach. The same kind of abuses of power the supes and Vought use, Butcher is more than willing to use for his own agendas. Butcher has no problem with blackmailing government officials for his funding, for degrading people he feels are beneath him. I feel like Ennis gave us a character in Butcher who we want to sympathize with, and often do. Butcher seems to really care about the Boys, and loves his dog, Terror. One of the three spin off mini-series to The Boys was Butcher, Bake, Candlestickmaker, which detailed Butcher's life, and you see he loves his family, and his wife Becky was someone he cared about more than life itself. But that doesn't stop him from being highly, frighteningly, violent. He stands in stark contrast to many of the supes, who have no morality. Billy Butcher knows what he's doing is wrong many times, but for Butcher the ends justify the means, which might make him all the more frightening.
For all of the darkness of the series, and there is a lot of it, Ennis is known for his sense of humor, and there are some issues of the series that are absolutely hilarious. A personal favorite is issue #37. Hughie is trying to learn the histories of the Boys, and when he asks the Frenchman about his origins, Hughie and the reader are treated to a bizarre story involving baguette jousting and deadly stale croissants. The story is probably completely fictious, a delusion of the somewhat off balance Frenchie, but who cares? There need to be spots of light in even the darkest tales.
The art for The Boys is a good compliment to Ennis's scripts; it is rarely cartoony, keeping the horrors that Ennis is writing about grounded in a frightening reality. Co-creator Darick Robertson drew most of the series, as well as one of the spin-offs, and his art is a blood drenched horror when it needs to be, but he draws the very human scenes just as well, giving us a Hughie who is so completely lovable you can't help but want him to make it out of this. Russ Braun stepped in for the last few arcs, and while not aping Robertson's style, he fit his work to keep the feel of the series right on with the standard Robertson set. Regular Ennis collaborator John McCrea stepped in for a couple of issues here and there and the two other spinoffs, Herogasm and Highland Laddie, both of which fit his more exaggerated style.
I know that I write often about all ages comics on here, but just in case I haven't made it clear, The Boys is not one of them. As a matter of fact, I can safely say it is not for everyone. The violence and sex is graphic, and the sheer level of profanity would make David Mamet blink. And the treatment of clearly veiled analogues of superheroic icons as monstrous perverts and psychopaths will put some readers off. The thing that keeps The Boys from sinking to the level of what it is lampooning, or becoming something without any redemption, is that it is never heartless or needlessly cruel. There are good people as well as bad people, and some of the worst people have moments of clarity, although not many. Ennis is writing satire, satirizing a genre and making a point about society and human nature as a whole.
The final ongoing issue of The Boys will be released this Wednesday, serving as an epilogue to the main narrative, and tying up loose ends, giving a nice coda to Hughie's story. The entire series will soon be available in twelve trade paperbacks, which include the spin-offs, and are all in print and available at your local comic shop.