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.
‘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.
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.
- 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. ↩