wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Month: September, 2020


I wrote earlier that I felt I’d underestimated, or perhaps simply misread, Garth Ennis’s The Boys. I finished reading it a few days ago, and have thought about it often since then — in particular, wondered how much of its shock-value depravity and ‘forwarded’ (represented but maaaaybe(?) not endorsed) bigotries were consciously satiric in aim vs, y’know, just a stupid Good Time for the Lads. I’m not fully settled on that question, but maybe I needn’t be.

In other words: The Boys is deeper than I’d initially given it credit for, but not much, and less than I’d hoped. Like Preacher, it’s ultimately a sentimental tantrum — and while it’s interesting that Ennis explicitly depicts the vengeance-quest of his antihero (Billy Butcher) in those very terms, ‘interesting’ is a low bar to clear, and Ennis is old (and real) enough to know better. The book poses some exciting questions but doesn’t offer any deep answers.

Parts of The Boys are superb; parts are juvenile fun; parts are contemptible. A few days after finishing the book, I’m having a hard time picking them apart.

Homelander kills a family of four 3 e1595679733792

‘With great power comes the total fuckin’ certainty that you’re gonna turn into a cunt.’ (Butcher)

The book’s central irony is, of course, that The Boys are themselves heroes with superpowers, but it isn’t fundamentally about that — Ennis really does solicit our affection and identification by outfitting them in black leather and turning them loose to visit hideous death on Marvel/DC cape-lookalikes. I suspect he sees himself as an outsider (not solely due to nationality), and sees The Boys as embodying an outsider critique. But it isn’t quite that. The Hard Man Who Does What’s Necessary is a familiar avatar of popcult conservatism that became a tiresome comix staple in the 80s/90s — not for nothing does the cover of The Boys #48 pay homage to Frank Miller’s proto-reactionary Reagan-era masterpiece The Dark Knight Returns, an obvious touchstone for Ennis’s series and indeed career — and Ennis ‘problematizes’ that figure in Butcher without actually putting him aside. Butcher’s right in the end, after all: Superman (‘The Homelander’) really is plotting to take over the world, and brute force is necessary to put him and his team of superpowered deviants down. And Butcher’s desire for revenge, against his father and the world and Homelander’s embodiment of the worst of all, drives his ultimate plan.

(Hitler, apocryphally: ‘You mistake our purpose if you see what we do as merely political.’)

The Boys tells a political story, sorrrrrt of(?), but beyond first encounter its politics are simplistic. Where V for Vendetta, say, plays a virtuosic narrative trick in service of its radical politics — V’s terrorism begins as coverup for his personal vendetta, but his revenge is itself a necessary, carefully executed cover for the next stage of his antifascist insurrection; and what letterform does that narrative line make, hmm…? — The Boys lays out a detailed post-WWII ‘secret history’ (much the best thing about the book) in service of what’s ultimately a story about a bunch of angry men lashing out (plus a handful of women). Similarly, there’s an intriguing (anti)parallel between the recurring ‘betrayed veterans’ narrative trope in The X-Files, part of its broader story/critique of USA elites violating the public trust, and the somehow more personal yet less intimate recurrence of WWII/Vietnam-era betrayals of soldiers and veterans in The Boys. To my eyes, Ennis falls short of both Alan Moore and Chris Carter in his satire/critique partly because antigovernment cynicism (and ironic-distance 9/11 revisionism) is a fashion statement now anyway, but also because he obviously enjoys the piss-take aspects of the work in themselves — and Ennis’s resentment of escapism as psychology isn’t matched by any insight into escapism as ideology.

Which is why, when one of The Boys criticizes the supes for deviancy without imagination — people like fucking, so supes fuck a lot; people like violence, so supes are violent a lot; their imagination is basically adolescent — it feels like Ennis has exhausted his critique of funnybook psychology and sexuality. No one in the (present-time) story is remotely sophisticated, and no deeper alternative to the supes’ idiotic way of life is on offer for contrast.

You can build a whole shitty ideology around resenting sophistication, if you like.

The one moment of unique emotional maturity in the book is Annie January’s spot-on criticism of Wee Hughie for hypocritically pretending to be bothered by her motivation for trading sexual favours for entry into The Seven (Ennis’s Justice League-alike), when really Hughie just can’t get over his stupid jealousy — it’s the sex itself and not the ethics that actually undoes him (though his ethical take is correct as well). Beyond that scene, the book has no interest in sex beyond shock value and sentimental love-story bollocks about ‘men without women.’ Its violence similarly has two modes: sentimental (between family and friends) and luridly entertaining (supes). That might sound like the basis for an ideological critique of lurid/sentimental superhero tales, but there’s nothing in the book to suggest self-consciousness about the split. I think it’s just a tendency.

That said, the book remains a vital piece of anti-superhero agitprop, and like Watchmen it highlights the complex ways saviour-longing plays out in American pop culture. I wouldn’t call it ‘diabolical’ but it’s good work.

Show note

The TV show (of which I’ve only seen clips) is a loose adaptation by necessity, by all accounts a good one. The comic is preoccupied with the war industry — a white-hot political issue when it debuted in 2008, as the Iraq ‘surge’ played out politically and on battlefields half a world away and the transparent military-industrial-financial cronyism of the Bush administration carried forward the Perpetual Emergency, but a distant concern in the Trump era, when domestic preoccupations drown out any sort of global consciousness among American ‘news’ media. (Even American plague is somehow exceptional…) Meanwhile, superhero stories, i.e. specific forms of demotic-mythic worshipful power fantasy, are ubiquitous in pop culture even as a decorative anti-authoritarianism comes packaged as a standard corporate-‘youth-culture’ accessory.1 The biggest movies of the past twenty years are fantasies of Chosen Ones and Benevolent Demigods and every other sort of veiled secular longing for cosmic empowerment — for an experience bigger than a smartphone screen, frankly — so superheroes presently occupy a very different popcult niche than they did when The Boys started, the same way Watchmen can’t help but play a bit strangely in a Marvel/Disney world.

Moreover, the cultural shift embodied by #metoo has created a much less hospitable environment for Ennis’s hard men, prolonged adolescents, and nonnormative-sexualities-as-punchlines. Ennis, like Apatow, was of a previous moment. It’s jarring to read that he originally intended Annie January’s degradation as a mean joke about comics, and only realized afterward that there was a story to tell about her own understanding of the event; in the comic (‘graphic novel’?) that plays out as a narrative long game, making Ennis look more thoughtful than he likely is, but today’s TV audience would never give it the time to develop — nor would representations of unpunished sexual harassment and assault (even by villains) be tolerated by today’s media-scolds. In other words, The Boys used to be partly about (the history of) comics but now it’s about movies and TV (which have, as far as morality police are concerned, no history); fitting it to pop media narratives du jour, not solely to say ‘pieties,’ means altering the text substantially.

Plus — and this is not a trivial thing — the ubiquitous Marvel movies and widely derided DC movies have rendered the Justice League a much less legible satiric focus for the TV show. The old ‘comics industry’ hierarchy doesn’t much matter anymore, and the TV/movie audience isn’t clued into it anyway.

Which is to say there are good and less-good reasons to make over The Boys in adaptation. I wish its creators luck.

  1. Scare quotes around ‘youth culture’ to remind re passive-aggressive corporate homogenization and control of ‘original/user content’ — postwar ‘youth culture’ has always been about requiring & inducing conformity as such, which works well for Them. 


I’m nearly finished with The Boys — the comic, you ruffian(s), not the TV show evidently loosely based on it — and am again in the position of thinking about Garth Ennis without knowing what I think. So that’s my epistemic status disclaimer: I have written this without knowing what I think.

Update: Having read the rest of ‘Highland Laddie’ and Mallory’s 50-page WWII secret-history infodump — along with the superbly drawn conversation between Hughie and Annie in San Francisco — I’m prepared to say I’ve underestimated The Boys.

The Boys is interesting in a sense; it gives me a similar feeling to 100 Bullets, of a deepening mystery/’mythology’ laid out with some care by a writer who knows what he’s doing, who’s trying to accomplish something specific and unusual. Its post-9/11 political cynicism is a much-needed breath of foul air, and Ennis’s unmasked contempt for cape’n’cowl escapism — as well as for the mainstream comics industry — is a pleasure, even if he’s proven himself willing to cash in from time to time. Well, good luck to him.

The Boys is also catastrophically uninteresting in its not-actually-shocking ‘Mature’ content, which amounts to a lot of buggery-as-punchline inanity and a tiresome squeamish attitude toward, well, everything that isn’t The Boys (scary anti-establishment heterosexual bastards). Ennis’s vision of depravity is dully conventional dudestuff; he does poorly with ‘sophisticated’ material. In this regard it’s on a straight line from Ennis’s beloved-by-college-lads Preacher, a good angry story that in retrospect seems not worth revisiting: Ennis’s love stories are sentimental, his violence cartoonish — signifying ‘extremity’ without actually achieving it — and the casualness of his characters’ bigotry is uncomfortably lived-in at times.

I loved Preacher (in college, natch) and his Hellblazer, but the man has a type, namely ‘putting your wish-fulfillment in black leather so everyone can pretend it’s hip satire.’ You can outgrow it.

And yet.

The ‘Highland Laddie’ miniseries, situated about 2/3 of the way through the book, goes someplace unexpectedly quiet and sweet — its first issue reads like a distilled version of just the sad bits of Edgar Wright’s The World’s End — and reminds me what Ennis can do with a character he feels a familiar fondness for. Without ‘supes’ to hold at arm’s length, he gets to indulge in a heroic ‘origin tale’ that feels like story instead of backstory. I’m not convinced he can write women; indeed, when I’m annoyed I wonder if he knows any. But now I wonder how far into this quieter mode he can go. He’s apparently doing (or done) a sequel miniseries, focusing on Billy Butcher’s wife Becky; sarcastic and dismissive as I’m being here, I really want to read it, particularly since it’s more than a decade since The Boys kicked off and Ennis might have gotten clear of his his Edgy British Comics Writer role.

And of course I haven’t been able to put the book down.

Well. I’m not sure what I think about me, either.

‘Something fell.’

An excerpt from a manuscript in progress, a ‘syllabus’ sometimes entitled ‘On the use and abuse of weirdness for life.’ This entry deals with Cerebus, a 6,000-page graphic novel that truly deserves the label ‘problematic.’ I love and loathe it, am intrigued and bored by it. I’m writing here in the context of a cook’s tour of ‘eliptonic’ texts (Ken Hite’s term), or rather texts which can be read eliptonically — through and against one another, as parts of a mad marvelous musical megatext stretching from Manly Palmer Hall, the Song of Songs, and Robert Graves to Pink Floyd, Teresa of Avila, and Nethack.

It’s a first draft, which is MORE THAN YOU DESERVE, YOU AWFUL BEAST(S). –wa.

Lastday alone

Comics fans must contend with the unpleasant fact that the greatest single work in their beloved medium is a decades-long piece of increasingly venomous reactionary misogynist agitprop which also contains one of the medium’s subtlest depictions of a woman artist held back by misogynist reaction. You don’t have to think writer/cartoonist Dave Sim is ‘evil’ to believe (as I do) that Cerebus is filled with poison; you don’t have to sign off on issue #186 to find it clever, or to notice that Sim is (was?) the best letterer, and one of the best writers/cartoonists/designers, in the century-long history of comics.

(And all of that is only tangentially related to his companion Gerhard being, in Sim’s own words, ‘the best pure pen-and-ink artist in the comic-book field […] it was unfortunate that he got pigeon-holed as a mere inker and that Dave Sim’s “pariahdom” extended to someone who never voiced an opinion about anything one way or the other.’)

It’s complicated. Well, everything is complicated; what did we expect?

Sim might be insane; like Andrew Rilstone (Sim’s most generous interpreter and most useful commentator) I’m comfortable saying that he was out of his mind for some time around the end of Cerebus. I don’t know anymore and am no longer curious but am sympathetic. I hope he finds happiness and peace; I hope he connects with other human beings.

The art remains: funny, intelligent, moving, exciting, believable, unbelievable. And on every page, one virtuosic display after another.

Cerebus holds eliptonic interest for its pomo-picaresque seriality, its vast and intimate cosmic/domestic storyworld, its magical-realist texture, its dizzying incorporation of extended pastiche — Cerebus and Jaka encounter F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway figures en route to Cerebus’s childhood home; Cerebus hangs with Woody Allen and the Three Stooges, then receives a frankly insane Book of Genesis pastiche in a dream… Cerebus is an epic in the old sense, a catalogue of forms and genres, a memory palace: haunted by a creeping madness that complicates and problematizes the story in an intriguing (and then exhausting and at times boring) way. The scale of the narrative — 300 issues, 6,000 pages, self-published over 26 years at enormous personal and professional cost — has its own appeal, but Sim puts that storyspace to increasingly ambitious and bizarre use. The climax of the entire series might be the runup to issue #200, with Cerebus meeting his creator (Dave Sim) in the outer reaches of the solar system, whirling through spacetime and memory to confront the fullness/emptiness of his own life; this is the moment when the boyish protagonist enters adulthood, after which we have 100 issues of ever-weirder inquiry into middle- and old-age maleness, collective and solitary. Cerebus’s outward/inward journey in the climactic movement is a literal vision-quest, undertaken only after he’s been prime minister and pope — and it’s followed by nearly a decade’s worth of story about living with such visions. The reflexivity is impressive, but the emotional reflection is even moreso, and crucially both are down to ‘crazy/evil Dave’ pursuing creative possibility at the expense of convention. Cerebus is madness, but it is wholly free; Foucault might point out the isomorphic link between the two, Campbell might note the drive to explore a world beyond any convention, even those which stabilize and sustain…

The comic’s plot is linear enough, but the story folds in on itself multiple times, with not one but several major revelations about the nature of the universe rewriting everything that’s come before. It’s RAW’s ‘guerrilla ontology’ (q.v.) of a sort, which makes sense — Sim was born in 1956, Cerebus in 1977, and the presence of ‘President Weisshaupt’ (drawn to look like George Washington, and killed off in the ironically/Significantly numbered issue #76) (Sim and Gerhard are Canadian) explicitly links Cerebus to Illuminatus, published just a couple of years before Cerebus #1. But the center of the work’s appeal is its purely personal strangeness, unbeholden to anything but a private narrative logic made palatable, communicable, by Sim’s own populist storytelling spirit — his uncondescending love of funnybooks and superheroes. At its heart, Cerebus is a loving but unsparing fictional biography of…a guy. And the private logic of the story’s telling mirrors the private logic of a whole life: the compromises, missteps, visionary encounters, mundane recidivisms, opportunities taken and missed, loves cherished and lost, misperceived and misunderstood moments, memories obsessively circled or painfully suppressed, and years and years and years of accumulated time (one second per second), which combine somehow to make a single ‘solitary’ being. It doesn’t make sense; life doesn’t make sense. It’s just life.

That Sim’s work isn’t recognized as a landmark of avant-garde countercultural storytelling is entirely down to Sim’s personal views and reputation, but the comic can be read today in an eliptonic context, as ‘fringe’ literature of coruscating beauty whose content can, in the end, be taken or left as needed. It’s a great weird thing, in other words. One of the greatest.

‘Something fell—‘

Rick and Morty.

Harder brainwork than any other American television show: the density of Arrested Development and The Simpsons, the complexity of The Wire, the (self-)lacerating moral eye and sheer narrative intricacy of The Singing Detective. Where Community proposed hopefully that Dan Harmon could be a whole person, R&M starts from ‘Sorry, no’ and surrounds its omnipotent alcoholic Harmon-surrogate with victims and casualties; in a sense it’s about Harmon failing the Community community. Justin Roiland’s virtuosic lead performances and subtle work by a game ensemble lighten what’d otherwise be an unendurable darkness. Right now, the best thing running.